Behavioral Interviewing Technique

The behavioral interviewing technique is not new.  In fact, it has been used for nearly twenty years.  The primary reason many companies switched to this approach was the behavioral technique is able to predict future success to a greater degree than traditional job interviews.

There have been several claims that behavioral interviewing is up to five times more predictive of future performance than traditional techniques, but it's virtually impossible to find a published study backing up this claim.  Many companies have switched to this technique for one simple reason:  It is a more intuitive way to conduct a job interview.

Behaviors versus Results

One way to think about workplace success is along two dimensions:  results and behaviors.  Results are the quality and quantity of work produced.  Behaviors describe how someone achieved their results.  Ideally, companies want to hire a candidate that scores high in both dimensions.  They want someone that has the skills to do the job, but will use good behaviors when accomplishing tasks.  Here's an example why:

Let's say someone has a new manager that pushes her direct reports hard everyday.  Her demands on the workgroup pay off in the short term because they produce a high volume of "results."  Over the long haul, this manager's aggressive attitude begins to wear on her direct reports, and the work environment deteriorates to the point where everyone wants out of the group.

The manager in the above example had great results, but the bad behaviors caught up with her in the long haul.  This example is meant to demonstrate the growing importance of behaviors in the workplace.  For many job openings, how someone conducts themselves may be more important than their results.

Traditional and Situational Interviewing

Traditional interviews often don't cover enough ground; especially when there is very little data to use when evaluating a job candidate.  Conducting an interview with questions such as "Tell me a little bit about what you've done in the past" leaves things wide open for the candidate.

This approach also makes the selection process less objective, since each candidate can answer this type of question in a completely different manner.  Situational interviews are more effective because they ask the candidate to describe how they might handle a certain situation.  Unfortunately, this approach allows job candidates to speak in the hypothetical world.  They talk about what they might do in a given situation, not what they did in the past.

Behavioral interviews are believed to be more effective because they ask the candidate to describe how they reacted under certain conditions.  That means the technique allows the interviewer to hear not just what the candidate accomplished, but also how they went about reaching a goal.

Because behavioral questions ask about past experiences, it is easier to distinguish what a candidate "has done" instead of what they "might do" at work.  This is a huge benefit over other techniques.

Conducting a Behavioral Interview

One of the most important aspects of conducting a behavioral interview is the instructions given to the candidate.  Whenever this type of interview is conducted, two points should be emphasized with the job candidate:

  • The experiences the candidate can call upon in telling the "story"
  • How the candidate should structure his or her answer or story

Candidate Instructions

This first point brings up another benefit of behavioral interviews:  The candidate is not required to have a lot of direct work experience.  Candidates should be instructed to use the best story they can think of when answering a question.  The experience can come from the workplace, or it can come from everyday life.

The second point to emphasize is how to structure a story.  Candidates should be using the STAR, or SAR, approach when responding to behavioral questions.

It's important to be deliberate and precise when giving instructions.  If the candidate stumbles, and can't figure out how to answer the questions, that tells you something about the candidate's potential, or lack of potential.

STAR Approach to Answering Behavioral Questions

When answering a behavioral interview question, candidates are expected to tell a story using the S-T-A-R, or S-A-R method.  By having all the job candidates using the same framework for their responses, it is much easier to "grade" them afterwards.

STAR Statements

STAR is merely an acronym that helps the candidate remember the three parts of the story that are important for the interviewer to hear:

  • Situation / Task:  the candidate needs to describe the exact situation they were in, or the Task they needed to accomplish.  The situation must have occurred in the past, and can come from the workplace, a volunteer experience, or even in a family setting.
  • Action:  this is a description of the action that the candidate took, not what they might have done.  If they worked in a team environment, it is important to describe their role in the team.  Basically, the interviewer wants to understand what the candidate did, not the team.
  • Result:  finally, the candidate needs to describe what happened.  How does the story end?  Did they accomplish their goal?  If not, then what did they learn from the experience?

Another benefit of this approach is the entire process makes it difficult for the job candidate to exaggerate or create hypothetical situations.  As an interviewer, always be prepared to politely ask the candidate to elaborate if they appear to be saying something misleading or stretching the truth.

Behavioral Interview Questions

Another nice feature of this technique is the questions can be the same from company to company.  Below is a list of eight examples of the most common behavioral interview questions a job candidate might encounter:

  • Tell me about a time where you were faced with a nearly impossible deadline and it looked like you might be going to miss the deadline.
  • Describe for me a time when you were working in a team setting and not everyone on the team agreed with the overall direction the team was taking.
  • Tell me about the toughest analytical problem you've ever been asked to solve.
  • Describe a time when you had to sell a concept to someone that you thought might not agree with your approach.
  • Tell me about a time where you had to bend the rules to get the results you needed (be careful with your response to this one).
  • Give me an example of an assignment in which you really had to go beyond the call of duty.
  • Tell me about a time where you simply had too much on your plate and you needed to prioritize your work.
  • Describe for me a time when things didn't go as expected.

This website contains additional examples in our Behavioral Interview Question Database.  In general, job candidates can expect questions to cover topics such as conflicts with others, stress, skills, persuasion, and decision-making.

Preparing for an Interview

Now that we've explained the types of behavioral questions that might be asked during an interview, it's possible to prepare by thinking about past experiences.  Specifically, identify about seven examples where you've demonstrated the actions, skills, and results that an employer might be seeking.

Everyone should have a mix of stories to tell; some should be totally positive, while others might have some negative "bumps" but ended positively.  If at all possible, the stories should be a recent experience.  This gives the interview team a better idea how someone will perform in the near-term.

Finally, as is the case with any kind of interview, make sure you listen to each question carefully.  If you've done your homework, and prepared for the interview using the tips provided earlier, then you will be surprised at how just a handful of stories can answer nearly any question encountered during a behavioral interview.


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