You’re finally ready to meet your nursing candidates face-to-face. This step is arguably the most critical component in the hiring process – it’s one of your last chances to gather information to make the right decision. As such, you’ll need to be prepared to probe candidates not only for their clinical skills, but also their behavioral competencies.

“The nursing role is one of the most strategically important roles in healthcare organizations,” says Fredrick Morgeson, Ph.D., HealthcareSource Scientific Advisor and Eli Broad Professor of Management in the Broad College of Business at Michigan State University. “Making sure that you not only assess the right competencies but also assess them effectively can help you understand a lot more about applicants before you hire them.”

Doing your diligence to conduct a thorough interview is essential. After all, nurses are on the frontlines of patient and resident care, and patients, residents, and family members will likely base their perception of your organization on their experiences with the clinicians they encounter the most.

“They are the primary link between patients and the organization, so when you ask patients or family members how they feel about their healthcare experience, that opinion is typically based on their day-to-day interactions with the nursing staff,” says Morgeson. “In other words, the patient’s perception will be based on their experience with their nurses, not others at higher organizational levels.”

When interviewing nurses, your interview team should know exactly what behavioral competencies are most important to your organization. In doing so, interviewers will be prepared to glean important insights into how each candidate cares for patients, so your organization can continue to provide high-quality care.

Behavioral Skills to Look for in Nurse Candidates

“When it comes to nursing, it is not just about the tasks and technologies,” says Bonnie Barnes, Cofounder and Chief Executive Officer, The DAISY Foundation. “As a family member or patient, we expect that you’re going to be competent in the clinical aspects of care. What we don’t expect is how you deliver that care, and when you deliver it with grace and empathy, we never forget you.”

Barnes knows this from personal experience, when she interacted daily with the nurses who cared for her son Patrick Barnes, who passed away from the auto-immune disease ITP (Idiopathic Thrombocytopenic Purpura). Barnes remembers how compassionate and comforting the nurses who cared for her son were throughout the experience, and this inspired her to cofound DAISY, a nonprofit organization designed to thank and award excellent nurses.

With this in mind, what types of behavioral competencies should you look for to ensure nurses provide a positive, comforting experience to patients, residents, and family?

  • Compassion: “When you’re a patient or a family member in the hospital, it’s a very scary time, and it’s a very alien environment for the family,” says Barnes. “You have no control, and you’re unfamiliar with so much that’s going on. A nurse who can help you feel comfortable in that environment by relating to you as a person in a compassionate way helps to take away that fear of the unfamiliar.” During interviews, you need to assess how well a candidate will be able to provide a comforting experience for your patients, residents, and their family members.
  • Communication: “The more the nurses engaged us and kept us informed with what was going on with our son’s condition, the more we felt like we were part of the team. It made the environment feel less alien,” recalls Barnes of her own experience. Make sure you assess nurses’ communication skills so that the people you hire to be the face of your organization will make strong, positive impressions on patients, residents, and family members.
  • Empathy: It’s also important to ensure your nurse candidates exude empathy and believe in providing those they care for with a real, human connection. “There’s no hug like a nurse’s hug,” says Barnes. “They magically know when to give them, how to give them, and they are right there with that physical contact. It made a huge difference for us.” Ask potential nurse hires about times they’ve provided this deep level of support in the past. Understanding this part of a candidate’s nature can help you assess how well fit they are to meet your standards of care.

How to Get the Information You Need

How can you make sure you’re adequately probing candidates for these types of skills? According to Morgeson, you need to develop and deploy a structured interview process, so you can understand the depth and confidence in which candidates answer your questions. Additionally, leveraging scientifically-backed behavioral assessments in the screening and interview process can help you deepen your understanding of candidates’ likelihood to provide excellent care.

Here are a few ways you can ensure you get the information you need to make the best possible decision:

  • Ask situational questions: It’s hard to judge how well a nurse will perform under pressure. But when you ask situational questions, you can understand how they might act in a high-stress environment. Some examples of questions and follow-ups you might use to probe candidates might be:
    • Tell me about a time when you had to deliver difficult news to a family of the patient? How did you deliver the news while remaining compassionate?
    • What if you had said that and the family had reacted very negatively? What would you do in that situation?
    • Give me a better sense of why you chose to use this strategy? What did you learn from this interaction that you applied in the future?
  • Be an active listener: It’s critical that you’re a present listener in the interview, so you can pick up on areas where you might need more information to make a clear assessment. “As you hear things that don’t make sense or might worry you, try to probe more in those areas,” suggests Morgeson. “Actively listening, actively participating, and following the interview guidelines are things that can really help you learn about the candidates.”
  • Use structured interview guides: Create structured interview questions around your organization’s values and competencies. If compassion is the most important competency for your organization, you must structure your questions around this behavior. In doing so, you’ll be able to remove bias and subjectivity from the interview process and glean the insights you need to make the right decision.
  • Create a rating system to assess answers: Throughout the interview you’ll have multiple questions, each being tied to a competency. After you ask the question, you should rate the quality of the candidate’s answer based on the depth of knowledge and confidence in this area. “Having a scale to use can help you judge how good the answer is and whether you need to continue to probe the candidate further in a particular competency area,” says Morgeson.

The interview stage of the nurse hiring process can make or break the success of your hiring process. By following this advice, you can feel more prepared and confident in choosing your hires.


To learn more about how to improve your hiring processes download our eBook, “A New Way to Look at Recruiting: Think Bigger and Broader.”


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Diana Bishop

About Diana Bishop

Diana Bishop is the Content Marketing Manager at HealthcareSource. In her role, she develops and optimizes content for healthcare talent management professionals. She has been writing and developing marketing strategies for the B2B tech space for much of her career. Before getting into content, she attended Keene State College in New Hampshire where she studied English literature and creative writing. Besides writing, Diana loves art and graphic design and tries to make time for these hobbies in her free time.