Management Development ForumVol. 1- No 1(98)
Employment Interviews
Darcelle D. White
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EMPLOYMENT INTERVIEWS – Methods for Assessing Vital Workplace Skills

Darcelle D. White

In today’s workplace, critical skills of all new hires include the ability to reason, solve problems, make decisions, and understand the value of the customer to the success of the organization. This article introduces the approach of scenario-based interview questions, which may help to insure that the worker brought into the workplace has these critical skills.


You’ve just completed the hiring process. Sixty days have been spent training your new staff member. You are finally ready to release the individual to be a productive member of your staff. You remember what great skills this individual discussed with you during the interview. Suddenly, the new hire needs to make a decision. Day #1, this new employee makes no decision and you are concerned. Day #2, this applicant offends a customer who made a mistake that required your new hire to do some extra work. Finally, on day #3, the new hire makes a decision. You learn of that decision, walk into your office, close the door and say, “I wish I had known he/she thought like that before I hired them.” If you have ever found yourself in any of these situations or making such a statement after expending all of this effort and time, then perhaps you need to reexamine what you are asking applicants during employment interviews.

In today’s workplace, critical skills of all new hires include the ability to reason, solve problems, make decisions, and understand the value of the customer to the success of the organization. Examine the interview questions currently used by your organization and see if they will elicit information that would tell you whether an applicant has these critical skills.

If your questions do not seek this type of information, this article will identify for you sources of information for such questions and methods of using this information to help to insure that the worker brought into your workplace has these critical skills. The cost of lawsuits that arise out of termination of employees is great, so any method that will help us to better assess applicants can be of great value to the organization. In addition, the cost of turnover can be reduced when potential employees understand some of the processes required in connection with the skills they have to offer. They can gain that understanding through your interview questions. If they cannot work within those processes, it is better for you and the applicant to know that in advance.

Many organizations are still asking questions that any applicant can buy the answers to in bookstores all over town. Answers to questions about strengths, weaknesses, etc. of the applicant are sold at relatively low prices. We must go beyond these types of questions and ask questions that will tell us what we really need to know – can this applicant think, reason, make a decision, solve a problem? Most importantly, can this applicant work with our customers and help us to maintain a competitive advantage?

Scenario-Based Interviewing

The methodology discussed is a practice developed as the result of modification of the theory that espouses using assessment centers during the hiring process. William C. Byham introduced this theory in the Harvard Business Review, July-August, 1970. Byham’s theory played a major role in stimulating interest in assessment centers. These centers simulate situations that an individual would be faced with if selected for a position. The approach is used in promotion and selection settings. In an actual assessment center, job candidates participate in a variety of exercises designed to simulate the job for which they are being considered. It is a much more comprehensive approach, involving at times multiple assessors and lengthy assessment processes. The methodology discussed here has its roots in the assessment center theory. This approach is a variation on that theory that will work when the more elaborate requirements of a full assessment center are not available.

Let’s begin with how this modified approach to the assessment center can work. After years of interviewing applicants and playing what I now call the number game, I began to ask questions that required the applicant to demonstrate during the interview the ability to think quickly, make a decision, and serve customers. The number game may be familiar to you. That’s the interview where you ask some of the following types of questions:

How many words per minute can you type?
How large was the budget you administered?
How many people reported to you?
How many sales over $50,000 have you made?
How many times have you taught an accounting class?

That information is nice to know, even important to know, and can usually be gleaned from the resume. However, when it becomes the focus of the interview, you can end up with an employee who has the right number of years of experience, the right technical skills, and all the other basic credentials required of the job--and nothing more. That is not enough in today’s workplace. As the workplace changes and organizations evolve into team-based settings and staffs become empowered, we need more than an employee who has done all the right things. We need to know what kind of thinking accompanied that individual’s performance of all these tasks. We need to know how that applicant interacted with customers in the process of performing those tasks.

The next time you are preparing for an employment interview, prepare a list of 5 scenarios that you will ask the applicant. The source of information for these scenarios is readily available within your organization. It is contained in customer complaint files. It is the subject of discussion at management meetings within your organization.

You can present these scenarios to applicants in one of two ways:


Present each scenario at the top of a separate sheet of paper. Place these sheets of paper on a clipboard and give them to the applicant once they arrive for the interview.

On top of the first scenario will be an instruction sheet with some very brief instructions. Recommended language is as follows: Please provide a brief explanation of how you would respond to the following scenarios. Please print your response. Notify the receptionist when you are finished. You will be allowed 20 minutes to provide this information (4 minutes per scenario). Your responses will not be reviewed to determine what you know about our organization’s processes. Rather, we are interested in how you would approach the situation. The scenarios presented are likely to be encountered within our organization.


Instead of having the applicant face the scenarios alone in your reception area, ask the scenarios during your face-to-face interview. Give the same explanation to the applicant, except you can eliminate the information about the time limits.

This gives the interviewer the opportunity to assess the applicant’s reaction to the scenario and an opportunity to assess oral communication skills. Method #1 gives the opportunity to assess written communication skills.

I have used both methods and found them equally effective. Neither one elicited better data. However, both definitely provided insights into the thinking processes of the applicant that some of the more traditional questions would never elicit. Since the applicants were told that these were scenarios that were likely to be encountered within the organization, they also allowed the applicant to make an informed decision about whether they wanted to work in a setting where such situations might arise.

The advantage of the face to face was the ability to ask follow-up questions to the applicant’s response immediately. With the written response method, it was sometimes necessary to recite the scenario to engage in a discussion about it depending on when during the face-to-face interview the scenarios were discussed. This can be rather time consuming and rather frustrating for the applicant.

The use of these scenarios will add some time to the interview process. However, it is time the interviewers will be glad they spent, especially if they have ever had an employee who did not demonstrate these workplace skills. It’s one thing to ask an applicant to rate their decision-making skills on a scale of 1 to 10 or to rate other skills such as problem solving or reasoning. It’s quite another to ask questions that require the applicant to make a decision, reason, and solve problems. You’ll be amazed at what you’ll learn through a very brief scenario.

When listening to or reviewing responses from the applicant, resist the urge to compare them to how a regular employee might respond. Remember that this applicant is not familiar with your organization’s processes. You are merely assessing the critical workplace skills you have identified and not how well the applicant knows your organization.

Scenario-Based Interviewing In Action

For example, when using this interviewing method when hiring attorneys, I stopped playing the numbers game and asking how many divorces or real estate closings or trials the applicant had handled. Rather, I asked questions like what would you do if one of your clients told you that they forgot to tell you information about a real estate matter. Once they told you and you reviewed the new information, you realized it necessitated a complete reworking of documents 2 hours before the closing on a day that you had appointments scheduled up until the time of the closing. The deal must close on this particular day or it will cost the client money. No additional fee can be charged the client.

This type of question worked well because I knew that I could teach the applicant how to handle the closing, even if they had never handled one, or I could teach the applicant to utilize library resources that would provide this information. I could even teach the applicant how to handle closings using techniques unique within our office. How many closings the applicant could handle or the steps to handling them was much less important to me than how the applicant would respond to pressure, a client who was causing an inconvenience, conflicts in schedule, or redoing work because of a client error where the work would generate no extra money.

All of that could be determined from the above scenario. This should demonstrate to you just how simple the scenario could be yet how powerful it can be as a source of information about the applicant. Best of all, the applicant cannot buy the ability to think and reason at the local bookstore, and the applicant certainly cannot buy responses to your scenarios.

Do these types of questions open the door for too much discretion for the interviewer that could later be used in lawsuits from individuals not hired? If the organization decides on using scenarios, then to insure consistency a decision needs to be made about the types of issues the applicant will be expected to address in response to each scenario. Those then become a guideline for the interviewer. All applicants for a particular position should receive the same scenarios. This means that when the oral method is used, the interviewer should have the actual scenario written down for reference and to insure consistency. Be certain to allow all applicants for one position to be interviewed with Method #1 or Method #2.

Scenario Creation

Let’s now examine how you can obtain this information. As a first step, take a look at customer complaints to your organization within the last quarter. Look for those that arose because one of your employees exercised poor judgment. Try to use one that is typical of the type of situation that could occur within your organization and that the applicant might actually face. You can change names or simply eliminate names to avoid any confidentiality issue. These customer complaints will be a primary source of data for your scenarios.

Secondly, the next time you attend a management meeting and fellow managers are discussing issues that have arisen within their departments, make some notes. Listen for those situations they encountered that reflected the absence of some of the key workplace skills we have identified in this article. Jot them down and then turn them into a brief scenario. These scenarios may reflect customer service issues or they may reflect an employee’s exercise of poor judgment concerning some administrative detail within the organization. It’s better to ask those questions and learn about the applicant’s judgment during the interview than to learn about it after the applicant has been hired.

Finally, the next time one of your employees exits your office and you sit there and wonder how you managed to hire an individual who was absolutely incapable of making a decision, jot down the situation that you thought called for a decision. Change the names, type it up and put it on the clipboard for your next group of applicants. Decide on the key issues you will want the applicant to address and look for those as you listen to or read the applicant’s response.


Through use of scenario-based interview questions, the number of good hiring decisions you make will increase. You will know much more about the applicant than you could ever learn in the numbers game or from their recitation of the good answers that were purchased at the local bookstore. You will know how quickly the applicant can make a good decision and how sensitive that applicant is to customer service. As organizations face more and more competition, these skills are becoming more and more critical.

There is so much now that a software package can do. Organizations cannot afford to bring on staff members, spend time training them, and then learn that they are incapable of solving problems and making decisions. We certainly do not need to learn at that point that they cannot exercise good judgment when facing issues of customer service. The scenarios you write and the responses you receive will take you to a new dimension of insight about the applicant. The quality of your workforce will grow as a result.

Suggested Readings

Byham, W.C. (1970). Assessment centers for spotting future managers, Harvard Business Review.

Dickerson, E. (1989). The Hiring Decision: Assessing Fit Into the Workplace. In F.M. Stone (Ed.), The AMA Handbook of Supervisory Management, New York: American Management Association.

Dreher, G.F. and Kendall, D.W. (1995). Organizational Staffing. In G.R. Ferris, S.D. Rosen, and D.T. Barnum (Eds.), Handbook of Human Resource Management, Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers.

-------------- and Sackett, P.R. (1983). Perspectives on Employee Staffing and Selection: Readings and Commentary, Illinois: Irwin.

Darcelle D. White is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Business and Technology Education within the College of Technology at Eastern Michigan University and is coordinator of the Administrative Management Program. She has been a practicing attorney in Michigan since 1978 and worked in law office management for a number of years interviewing and hiring attorneys and other law office personnel. She received her Juris Doctorate Degree from University of Detroit School of Law and a Bachelor of Arts Degree from Wayne State University.

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SUNY Empire State College