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Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Wharton Admissions to use Behavior-based Interviewing aka Late 90's Human Resource Innovation

During my latest perusal of my Wharton alumni news, I noticed the following excited announcement:
"This year Wharton MBA Admissions will be taking an innovative new approach to our admissions interview by implementing a behavior-based interview."
It also included offers to train interested alumni on this technique. Behavior-based interview was a late 90's interview technique based on the theory that past behavior is a good predictor of future behavior. However, the whole premise that the past is an indicator of the future is what destroys a financial firm every 10 years.

Additionally, this provides another example of how social psychology studies tend to provide statistically significant proof of blindingly obvious human behavior. This behavior prediction model is on par with the study that stereotypes truly do impact our perception of others. Thus, the stereotype of the Fed Ex MBA is still appropriate. The reason that we have stereotypes is because they are usually true.

However, I digress. One applicant described their experience with Wharton's behavior-based interview and included specific questions. Generally, a behavior-based question asks about what you did in the past in response to difficult situations and what the results were. For example:

"Tell me about a time where a coworker told you that monkeys would fly out of their butt before they agreed with your idea. How did you respond, what did you do to get them to support your idea, what were the results, and did a monkey actually fly out of an orifice?"

I think that a behavior-based interview mainly measures how well someone answers interview questions. I have seen many an interviewee somewhat rightfully respond that they truly can't think of a time when coworkers told them that that their idea was on par with animals flying out of people's orifices. However, they would be happy to answer questions that were more directly related to the job that they were applying for, such as what is their experience developing a marketing plan.

Therefore, why did Wharton switch their admissions interviewing? This could create more conspiracy theories than Chemtrails. My ideas are:

1. They wanted to do it before Harvard or Stanford in order to not look like they just follow whatever those schools do. While intended to be a joke, this is actually probably a likely factor in the decision.

2. Their current interview technique was not yielding enough relevant new information.
This is probably the main answer. Wharton, and most school's current interviews, are conversational with the idea of gleaning personality behind the paper application and selling the school to the applicant. There's only so much you can learn from an interview that is more of a victory lap for the applicant and the 30 minutes interview has limited effectiveness with convincing an applicant to turn down Stanford for Wharton.

This is the same reason that schools tend to change essay questions. The "describe an ethical dilemma" essay did not root out future rogue traders or peddlers of now toxic assets but just produced standard responses. Thus, schools dropped that essay.

Harvard actually has a rigorous interview technique where they review the application and ask follow-up questions on the essays. For example, one of my friends described in an essay how they wanted to invest in businesses with a similar business model as our local organic grocery store chain that promotes living wages and sustainability. When the Harvard interviewer grilled him on the grocery stores' wage and benefit structure and ROI on sustainability, he almost caved and responded with, "I just like the grocery store and wanted to make it seem like I think about business models while trying to figure out if I should buy local carrots or organic ones that were shipped from developing nations." As a result, Harvard gets a lot of differentiating information from applicants during the interview.

3. Wharton is trying to figure out which applicants interview well which will help Wharton's job placement statistics and ranking in magazines. Since behavior-based interviews mainly measure how well someone interviews, Wharton can screen out candidates that are not as good at corporate interviews. Thus, they will create a class that is better at getting jobs.

This is more of a conspiracy theory since MBA programs spend a significant amount of time training its students on how to interview well. Students tend to be smart enough to figure out how to answer these behavior questions and prepare enough stories in advance. I am pretty sure there's a social psychology study somewhere that proves this.

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