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Interviewing - Biographical Interview

How can you use this technique to find your next top employee?

By James Del Monte, CERS, CPC, JDA Professional Services, Inc.

With the demand for technology as hot as it is, chances are you will be looking to add additional IT staff at some point in the near future.  Perhaps you have already begun your hunt, you’ve informed employees of current openings, you’ve posted jobs on your company’s website and local job boards, and maybe you’ve even submitted a search request to your JDA recruiter.  So now what?  In today’s corporate environment, it is likely that your first interview with each candidate will be what is most often referred to as a biographical interview.  

The Purpose of a Biographical Interview
In contrast to the behavioral interview which probes into a candidate’s achievements, the biographical interview serves to explore a candidate’s chronological history, confirm specifics, and identify patterns.  A biographical interview typically consists of your reading through a candidate’s resume and/or application form and asking questions about the different areas of their career history including educational background, previous work experience, professional memberships, training courses taken, and technical skills used.  

With today’s technology, you have the ability to verify everything from a candidate’s work and educational history to their criminal background, and it is important that you take advantage of that opportunity.  In a recent JDA research project, it was revealed that 3 percent of the candidates we interviewed misrepresented their educational history while 2 percent lied about their criminal background, out of the 7 percent that actually had a criminal history.  In comparison to the national average, these numbers are surprisingly low.  According to the Society for Human Resource Mangers, a staggering 53 percent of people lie on their resume in some way, shape or form.(1)   Furthermore, according to a recent study conducted by Jude Werra, president of an executive search firm, 23 percent of resumes from the study contained falsified educational history.(2)   Thus proving that while it may seem rude or intrusive to question a candidate’s honesty, it is always better to be safe than sorry.

Preparing for a Biographical Interview
Prior to a biographical interview, you should prepare a list of questions which cover specifics about a candidate’s educational experiences and certifications, career progression, personal interests, and motivations.  It is important that you not be afraid to ask the difficult questions about unfinished educational programs, possible employment issues, and criminal history.  You do not want to automatically assume that someone is a bad choice for the job just because of one mishap on their resume or in their past.  You should at least give each candidate the chance to provide reasonable explanations.  

Biographical Interview Questions
Below is a list of time-tested questions which we highly recommend you consider when preparing to conduct a biographical interview.  Also included are the reasons or ways in which each of these questions will help you make the best decision possible in choosing your next top employee.

  • When did you graduate?   The absence of a graduation date on candidate resumes could indicate that the candidate simply attended college courses rather than actually earned a degree.
  • What was your overall GPA?   With more recent graduates, this may be your only indication of their work quality.
  • Tell me why you chose to attend this particular college or university.   This question may give you a good idea of what is important to candidates.  Did they choose the school based on social, educational, athletic, or other circumstances?  You may also ask if the school they attended was their first choice and, if not, what were the reasons for not attending their first choice.  
  • Why did you choose this particular major?   This question may tell you something about candidates’ interests and their commitment to the trade.  For example, if a candidate has dreamed of being in the industry since childhood, you can probably assume his or her level of commitment would be very high.  
  • Tell me more about this training you received or this course you attended.   It is important to know whether or not candidates truly comprehended the training they received and if they understood the importance of the training to their career and/or personal development.
  • Are all of your certifications current?   If the answer is yes, you may ask to see copies of the candidates’ certificates or request their certification numbers.
  • Who paid for your training?   This question may indicate whether or not candidates have invested in themselves.
  • What are your exact employment dates?   This question is especially important if a candidate uses time frames such as 2006-2007 which could equate to a range in tenures from one month to nearly two years.
  • What did “blank” company do?   It is important to know that candidates understand the overall purpose of the companies for which they have worked.
  • How did you help the company achieve its goals?   It is also important to know that candidates understand how their job impacted the company’s overall purposes.
  • What promotions or title changes did you earn while with “blank” company?  Candidates who work at the same company for multiple years without a promotion are a different type of employee than those who are constantly being promoted.  One type may work better for your position.
  • What was your reason for leaving each position?   This question may show patterns in behavior which indicate a candidate’s best work style.  For example, if a candidate left each of his previous jobs in pursuit of a better opportunity, he may be really strong in challenging, project-based situations but bores easily with long-term maintenance work.  
  • Why did you stay at “blank” company for such a short period?   Several short tenures could indicate a real issue.
  • What made you stay with “blank” company for such a long period of time?   This question may give you a good indication of what motivates a candidate.
  • What did you do during the gaps in your career timeline?   Several gaps in employment could indicate a real issue even with contractors.
  • What part of town do you live in?   This question will give you a good idea of a candidate’s commute time to your office.  Keep in mind that a typical commute is 30 to 45 minutes.
  • How was traffic getting to our office?   One of the main reasons people give for leaving a job is a long or difficult commute.
  • What activities do you participate in outside of work? It is important to get a good understanding of a candidate’s personal commitments and possible limitations.
  • What professional trade groups are you a member of, and what is your level of participation?   This question may indicate a candidate’s level of commitment to the industry.
  • Is there anything that would keep you from working long hours? This question is especially important if it is common in your company culture to work nights and weekends.
  • Have you ever been convicted, pled guilty, pled nolo contendere (no contest), or agreed to deferred adjudication to any misdemeanor or felony?   This is often a very difficult subject for people to address, but it is extremely important.  Be careful how you word questions regarding criminal history as there are legalities involved.  If a candidate does have a criminal background, you should ask for an explanation.  Many companies have strict hiring policies regarding criminal activities, but in some cases it may simply be a judgment call on your part.
  • What are your long-term career goals?   It is important for both parties that a candidate’s and your company’s goals be in close alignment.
As an IT manager, it is important that you be familiar with the biographical interview style and cognizant of its best practices as it typically serves as an entry point into the sometimes strenuous hiring process of most positions today.  Knowing that the purpose of this interview is to explore each candidate’s career history and ensure that it satisfies your company needs, it is important that you not only ask the right questions but that you verify the information is, in fact, true.  Equally as important is that you give each candidate the opportunity to explain any discrepancies from their past so as to not overlook the best candidate based on one prior mishap.  Chances are if you choose to follow these suggestions and implement the biographical interview into your future hiring strategies, it could be the key to finding your next top employee.

(1) "Overachievement Without Achievement", by Klaus Kneale, Yahoo Finance, Friday, June 20, 2008.
(2) "Resume Lies Leave a Paper Tale, by Ira S. Wolfe, Business 2 Business, December, 2005.

JDA Professionals Services, Inc. is a leading provider of IT staffing in Houston.  In business since 1981 and with thousands of candidate interviews, we have experienced, tested, and perfected the art of interviewing.  We know there are many different styles, and we believe it is important that you familiarize yourself with the right information about each of them.  To learn more about other effective styles of interviewing or to discuss your IT hiring needs, please contact JDA today at 713-548-5400.  

About the Author

James Del Monte, CERS, CPC
From modest beginnings in 1981, James Del Monte founded JDA Professional Services, Inc. which today is one of Houston’s leading IT staffing firms according to the Texas Association of Personnel Consultants (TAPC).  Over his career, James has helped hundreds of companies build great IT departments by finding key individuals and providing excellent strategies for employee retention.  In addition, he has helped thousands of professionals find great IT careers through direct placements and by providing valued advice and guidance. In November 2007, James joined an elite group of professionals becoming a Certified Employee Retention Specialists (CERS).  

James is a board member of both the TAPC and the National Association of Computer Consulting Businesses (NACCB).  He is a former president of the Houston chapter of the Association of Information Technology Professionals (AITP) and a founding member of the Open Door Education Foundation which provides scholarships to IT students.  In 2006, he was awarded the TAPC community service award for his commitment to the community and charitable contributions.

As part of his commitment to the advancement of IT training in Houston, James is a regular speaker at various colleges/universities, trade groups, and job ministries, and he is often quoted as a subject matter expert for the IT staffing industry.  Additionally, James serves on the advisory board for technology departments at the University of Houston Downtown, Westwood College, and ITT Technical Institute.

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