How to Handle Difficult Interview Questions #9

Behavioral Based Interview Questions

Many employers now turn to behavioral interview techniques with the hope of improving retention and success rates.  The premise behind behavioral interviewing is that the most accurate predictor of future performance is past performance in similar situations.  Behavioral interviewing, in fact, is said to be 55% predictive of future on-the-job behavior, while traditional interviewing is only 10% predictive.
Traditional interview questions ask you general questions such as “Tell me about yourself”, What would you do if…”, or “What are your strengths?”   You can usually get away with telling the interviewer what he or she wants to hear, even if you are fudging a bit on the truth. Even if you are asked situational questions that start out “How would you handle XYZ situation?” you have minimal accountability. How does the interviewer know, after all, if you would really react in a given situation the way you say you would?
In a behavioral interview, however, it’s much more difficult to give responses that are untrue to your character. When you start to tell a behavioral story, the behavioral interviewer typically will pick it apart to try to get at the specific behaviors. The interviewer will probe further for more depth or detail such as “What were you thinking at that point?” or “Tell me more about your meeting with that person,” or “Lead me through your decision process.” If you’ve told a story that’s anything but totally honest, your response will not hold up through the barrage of probing questions.
The interviewer identifies job-related experiences, behaviors, knowledge, skills and abilities that the company has decided are desirable in a particular position. For example, some of the characteristics that employers might look for include:
  • Critical thinking
  • Being a self-starter
  • Willingness to learn
  • Willingness to travel
  • Self-confidence
  • Teamwork
  • Professionalism
The employer then structures very pointed questions to elicit detailed responses aimed at determining if the candidate possesses the desired characteristics. Questions (often not even framed as a question) typically start out: “Tell about a time…” or “Describe a situation…” Many employers use a rating system to evaluate selected criteria during the interview.
As a candidate, you should be equipped to answer the questions thoroughly. Obviously, you can prepare better for this type of interview if you know which skills that the employer has predetermined to be necessary for the job you seek. Researching the company and talking to people who work there will enable you to zero in on the kinds of behaviors the company wants. In the interview, your response needs to be specific and detailed. Candidates who tell the interviewer about specific situations that relate to each question will be far more effective and successful than those who respond in general terms.
Ideally, you should briefly describe the situation, what specific action you took to influence the situation, and the positive result or outcome. Frame it in a three-step process, usually called a P-A-R, or S-T-A-R statement:
  1. What is the situation (or task, problem) you faced,
  2. what specific action did you take in response to the situation,
  3. describe in detail what was the result/outcome.
It’s also helpful to think of your responses as stories. Become a great storyteller in your interviews, but be careful not to ramble.
It’s difficult to prepare for a behavior-based interview because of the huge number and variety of possible behavioral questions you might be asked. The best way to prepare is to arm yourself with an arsenal of example stories that can be adapted to many behavioral questions. Despite the many possible behavioral questions, you can get some idea of what to expect by looking at behavioral questions.
Remember that many behavioral questions try to get at how you responded to negative situations; you’ll need to have examples of negative experiences ready, but try to choose negative experiences that you made the best of, or better yet, those that had positive outcomes.

Here’s a good way to prepare for behavior-based interviews:

  • Identify six to eight examples from your experience where you demonstrated top behaviors and skills that employers typically seek. Think in terms of examples that will exploit your top selling points.
  • Half of your examples should be totally positive, such as accomplishments or meeting goals.
  • The other half should be situations that started out negatively but either ended positively or you made the best of the outcome.
  • Vary your examples; don’t take them all from just one area of your life.
  • Use more recent examples. If you’re a college student, examples from high school may be too long ago. Some companies, in fact, specify that candidates give examples of behaviors demonstrated within the last year.
  • Try to describe examples in story form using PAR/STAR.

This is the ninth installment in a series devoted to answering the difficult interview questions.

Below are links to the first eight:

Rick ChristensenRick Christensen: Director, Career Transition Practice

Rick has been a career consultant for over 20 years, serving a very broad-based and diverse clientele. His specialties include effective group facilitation, one-on-one coaching and consultation at all levels including senior executives.

Rick’s passion is coaching individuals through career transitions, developing career management strategies and in identifying and sharpening competencies to open doors to new opportunities. His efforts have assisted thousands of individuals achieve their full potential.


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