September 4, 2008

The art of the recruiting interview: the S-A-O-L rule

Filed under: HR — Nicola Rowe @ 6:39 am

Want to know how potential employees will perform in a new job? Apply the SAO L formula: Situation – Action – Outcome – Learnings to mine their past behaviour and predict how well they will perform with your company.


The first step is to think of a situation you expect the new employee to encounter at your company and match it with a situation in your applicant’s past. Choose one where it’s crucial that your new hire will excel. For example, you might be filling a position involving dealing with dissatisfied customers. That’s your starting situation. Now, look for a similar situation in your interviewee’s past. Using concrete questions, probe to see whether your interviewee has dealt with angry customers in the past. Ask, “Can you describe a situation where…” or “Tell me about a time when you….”. Note that it’s important not to ask hypothetical questions. Never ask “How would you react if…” That doesn’t tell you anything about what the applicant has done in the past: it only tells you how creative his or her imagination is.


Once you’ve lined up a situation to explore, you’ll need to understand what your applicant did. Press the applicant to be as concrete as possible, using phrases like “Tell me specifically what you did”, or “What exactly did you do”. Question the applicant politely but closely until you understand exactly what steps he or she took in the past. What exactly did the applicant do to handle irate customers? You want to finish this step with concrete examples of what happened.


Next, you want to know how effective the applicant was, so you need to make sure you understand what the outcome was. If your applicant tells you that he or she dealt with angry customers by explaining that the fine print on the warranty meant that the company couldn’t provide product support, you’ll want to know whether that was effective. Was the applicant able to meet the challenge? Applicants who were unsuccessful in meeting common challenges in the past are unlikely to be successful in future.


Finally, you want to understand what the applicant learned from his or her experience. For example, your applicant might say, “Initially, I carefully explained the conditions of our warranty to customers and made clear why we couldn’t support products beyond twelve months. But then I realised that satisfied customers often more than made up for the cost of that support in extra business and referrals, so I started to waive that time limit if they were only one or two months past the expiry date.” Establishing what the employee has learned tells you two things. First, it tells you that the employee was able to adapt and meet the challenge successfully. Secondly, it tells you that the applicant is able to take on and respond to feedback – a characteristic which will make him or her a successful employee in your own workplace.


In sum, the rule to remember is this: Past behaviour predicts future behaviour. To know how applicants will perform at your firm, first define a situation that they are likely to encounter, then probe for a similar situation in their past. Next, find out what they did when that situation occurred. Thirdly, discover how effective they were – once you know what they did, ask what happened next. Finally, ask them what they learned from the situation. 


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