Using the Critical Incident Technique to Identify Great Employees

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Using the Critical Incident Technique to Identify Great Employees


What is the difference between a great employee and a bad employee?

This is not the set-up of some bad joke and is a bit rhetorical. There will never be one right answer to this question and it can be entirely situational. This does not mean that it is not a valuable question to ask.
So let us begin by asking some more pointed questions to figure it out:

  • What are the behaviors that someone has to do on the job to be considered successful?
  • What are the behaviors that someone has to avoid on the job or else they will fail?

These two questions are the foundation of all training programs and performance appraisal systems-what are the behaviors that you want to promote and the behaviors you want to discourage? The Critical Incident technique can help investigate the answers to these questions.

What is the Critical Incident (CI) technique?

The CI technique was originally developed to gather information to determine training needs and develop performance appraisal forms (Flanagan, 1954). The process was designed to generate a list of examples of especially good and poor job incumbents performance (incidents). Similar behaviors are then grouped into dimensions that help create a story of what is occurring on the job, how it unfolds, and what the consequences of the actions are.
These CIs and their dimensions help to provide a great deal of qualitative information to the job analysis process by identifying observable behaviors that may lead to overall success or failure in the position (Gatewood, Feild, & Barrick, 2011).

What is a CI?

According to Bownas and Bernardin (1988), the four characteristics of a CI are:

    1. It is specific (focuses on a single behavior)
    2. The behavior is observable and either has been or could be exhibited on the job
    3. It briefly describes the context that the behavior was performed in
    4. The consequences of the behavior are clear.

These four characteristics provide Cis with the specificity, context, and consequence to make them actionable in performance assessment and selection. For example:

An individual was caught with an unauthorized weapon past the security checkpoint. The armed individual was able to get the weapon past the officer’s post by the building’s front door because the officer on duty did not check every individual’s belongings. The officer did not see the bag the armed individual brought in because they were sitting at the security desk when the individual walked in.

How do you rate and classify CIs into job dimensions?

After the CIs have been written, they are then analyzed by both Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) and analysts to identify the behaviors that are most relevant in differentiating job success or failure. CIs are then grouped by a common theme and the themes are given a label signifying important information about the grouping. These groupings indicate a dimension of the job that is important (Gatewood et al., 2011).
In the Example Critical Incident presented above, the situation described an officer failing to check the bags of the people who were entering the building. This example alone does not paint a picture of what the larger issue is.
In this instance, this may be one employee’s mistake. However, if the SMEs were able to identify several other incidents of other employees at the same workstation not engaging in core job tasks, this may indicate there is some issue with how the workstation is set up or staffed. Alternatively, if the example CI was placed in a grouping of other incidents involving similar tasks not being properly performed in various other locations throughout the facility, that could mean there is a problem with people not being properly trained on how to work the security checkpoint. Both groupings identify what needs to be done to prevent the situation in the future but another example CI could let you know how they stop it from occurring more often than you know.

Is the CI technique right for you?

If you are thinking about developing or redesigning some trainings; thinking about getting serious with the further refinement of your selection or performance management systems; or adding another piece of quality information to your job analysis, then the answer is yes. The CI technique is designed to identify behaviors that act as exemplary performance indicators and to help add contextual information to the work being performed.

So what is the difference between a great employee and a bad employee? It depends; but using the Critical Incident technique can help you figure it out.


Bownas, D. A., & Bernardin, H. J. (1988). Critical incident technique. The job analysis handbook for business, industry, and government, 2, 1120-1137.

Flanagan, J. C. (1954). The Critical Incident Technique. Psychological Bulletin (51) 327-358.

Gatewood, R. D., Feild, H. S., & Barrick, M. R. (2011). Human resource selection. Mason, OH: South-Western, Cengage Learning.

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