The fairly straight-forward employment interview in which candidates are asked direct questions about their skills and relevant experiences has been superseded by two increasingly popular types of interviews: behavioral interviews and performance testing interviews, otherwise known as role playing. The goal of each is to uncover information about how candidates work particularly how they approach and solve work-related problems. Traditionally interviews focused on science-based questions providing information on the depth of the candidate’s technical knowledge and how they solve technical problems. Now, with the industry workplace often dominated by teams, multi-disciplinary teams, interpersonal compatibility, teamwork and leadership skills have become more important. The way to explore a candidate’s skills in these areas is through behavioral questions and performance testing.
The behavioral interview has become increasingly common in the last decade. In this type of interview, employers ask candidates how they would handle – or have handled in the past – specific situations likely to occur in the workplace. These situations may involve interpersonal conflicts, getting things done with limited resources, managing multiple priorities, managing difficult employees/supervisors, conducting a difficult conversation, etc. The premise behind behavioral interviews, and why they are so useful, is the best way to predict a candidate’s future job performance by determining past performance in similar situations. Thus behavioral questions focus on experiences, knowledge, skills, abilities and behaviors that are job related and usually occur in the workplace. The answers to these questions provide information on candidates’ emotional maturity, ability to be congenial and cooperative coworkers, and compatibility with workplace culture.
Generally the more experience candidates have, the more they are asked to focus on situations occurring in the industrial workplace as opposed to the academic environment. Experienced candidates may be asked questions relating to their experience in working on teams and situations occurring outside the laboratory such as working with patent attorneys, sales representatives, and plant personnel.
The situations candidates are asked to describe are often complex. Avoid the temptation to exaggerate your own role or achievements. Chances are more than one interviewer will ask you some of the same behavioral questions. If your comments made to two different questioners aren’t consistent, the employer may doubt your credibility and you may not receive a job offer. So always prepare for his type of interview by coming up with some examples ahead of time. Always tell the truth; it’s easier to remember, especially in the often stressful atmosphere of an employment interview.
Role-playing interviews could be viewed as an evolution of behavioral interviews. An increasing number of job candidates, including chemists are being required to participate in role-playing as part of on-site employment interviews. In these, candidates are asked to role play having the job for which they are interviewing and their performance evaluated. Sometimes these are fairly lengthy and are conducted the day after the “traditional” on-site employment interview.
I first became aware of role-playing interviews when an M.S. chemist reporting to me was looking for a sales position. He was invited to an on-site interview by an agricultural chemicals firm. Before leaving for the interview, he was sent materials describing the performance of a hypothetical agricultural chemical and told to develop a sales presentation for it. As part of his employment interview, he sat with a company employee role playing a prospective customer. The M.S. chemist delivered the sales presentation and responded to the “customer’s” questions and comments.
Performance Testing or Role-playing interviews are becoming more common. For example, suppose five people are at the company location interviewing for positions in R&D, as a plant engineer, a sales representative and a government regulations specialist. On the second day of their on-site visit they are introduced to each other and told they are a multi-disciplinary team. They are told work together to generate a plan to develop, manufacture and market a new chemical product. Trained observers watch the proceedings and evaluate the contribution and behavior of each applicant noting their creativity, how well they work with others, how they handle disagreements on the team, and their leadership skills.
For example, the culmination of this type of experience is what Shell Corp. calls the Gourami Shell Experience. Participants are job candidates in the final year of their education. This is a 5-day exercise in which you work on a team to develop a 5-year business plan for Shell’s operations in the fictional country of Gourami. Shell representatives will observe each team member’s performance and skills development while providing feedback to help the candidates further improve their skills. At the end of the exercise, candidates may receive job offers.
Regardless of which type of interview you experience, it is best to be prepared with relevant examples, be yourself, and most importantly ensure your responses are relevant to the organization and position you are applying.
John Borchardt is a chemist and freelance writer who has been an ACS career consultant for 15 years. He is the author of the ACS/Oxford University Press Book “Career Management for Scientists and Engineers.” He has had more than 1200 articles published in a variety of magazines, newspapers and encyclopedias. As an industrial chemist, he holds 30 U.S. and more than 125 international patents and is the author of more than 130 peer-reviewed papers.