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Do’s and Don’t’s of Behavior-Based Interview Questions

February 8, 2016

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MANY companies have taken to relying on behavioral interview questions as their primary method of candidate evaluation. Their goal is to get away from the flat question-and-answer format that plagues interviewers who aren’t sure how to delve more deeply into candidates’ responses. The purpose of the behavior-based question is to talk more freely, hear customized, conversational responses to what really happened in the past, and then project future performance from prior experiences.

While all these reasons are noble at first glance, the mistake that employers are making nowadays lies in using behavioral interview questions as lead-in queries rather than follow-up discussion grabbers. Here are what these artificial and somewhat uncomfortable interviews sound like:

Hi Mike, very nice to meet you. Did you find us okay and did you have any problems finding a parking spot? [No] Great—I’m glad to hear that. We’re going to begin the interview by asking you a number of questions that we’d like you to reflect on and then give us your feedback. Would that be okay? [Sure] Okay then, here we go . . .”

  • Give me an example of a time when you were especially effective in redesigning a complex process and making it easier for stakeholders to understand.
  • Tell me about a time when you had to work with a cross-functional team where the individuals came from different values, cultures, and backgrounds than you. How did you approach working with them?
  • Describe a time when you failed to gain someone’s trust or establish a respectful relationship. How did you attempt to reinvent the relationship after the initial lack of success?

And the list goes on and on . . . While there’s nothing inherently wrong with these questions, when asked as lead-ins, behavior-based queries tend to exhaust candidates and tell you very little about their career needs, concerns, or goals during their job search process. In reality, behavioral questions were designed as follow-up questions, and here’s what a typical behavior-based question sounds like when used more appropriately:

You: “Mike, what would you say you like least about your current position?”

Candidate: “Personally, I’d say I hate it when I have to fire or lay someone off. Those are always the toughest things for any manager to do.”

You: “I totally agree. Tell me about the last time you were involved in a situation where someone needed to be terminated for cause. What were the circumstances, and what were some of the considerations you went through along with your HR department?”

As you can see, the behavior-based question gets off the formal question-and-answer pattern and allows both the interviewer and applicant to get down into the weeds and explain a more personal accounting of the events that led up to the experience in question (in this case, termination). That’s the ultimate goal of behavioral interview questions—to shine light on responses that are simply begging for more information and to provide you, the interviewer, with a glimpse into how candidates think and present their ideas. Likewise:

You: “What would your boss say makes you stand out among your peers or, better yet, what would your most respected critic say about one area where you could improve and strengthen your performance?”

Candidate: “Well, in my line of work handling community relations, having a deep local network of contacts in the community is critical to success, and I’ve got to admit that I have lots of long-standing relationships that I can draw from. As far as an area for development, though, I’d have to say that I sometimes shy away from conflict. I know that nobody likes conflict, but I’ve been told I can be a bit too risk averse under certain circumstances.”

You: “Fair enough. I like the fact that you’ve got that level of self-awareness and that you feel comfortable sharing it with me. Let me ask you this, though . . . Tell me about a time when you knew you were skirting around something and probably should have addressed it more openly. Was there a lesson learned, and did it somehow come back to bite you?”

And there you have it: a logical follow-up query that helps candidates make themselves vulnerable (i.e., by sharing their self-critical insights with you openly in an attempt to impress upon you the fact that those “weaknesses,” while real, are arguably able to be strengthened by joining your organization or gaining appropriate support from leadership).

How many behavioral interview questions should you ask during a typical interview? That depends on how many responses scream out for more information, especially in terms of real life application and experience. As a rule, though, two to three behavioral follow-up questions should be all you need to make the interview more personal and transparent.

What shouldn’t you do? You shouldn’t ask behavioral questions as leading queries that drive the majority of the interview. Riddling candidates with “Give me an example of a time when” types of questions—when not linked directly to a particular response in an interviewing query— provides very little insight into the individual’s personal style, decision-making process, or potential fit with your organization. More significantly, it precludes candidates from letting their hair down and making themselves human and vulnerable during the interview process.

Get to know the real person by asking about career interests and desires, concerns about leaving their current company or changing jobs, and motivational drivers in terms of accepting another opportunity. Interviews front-loaded with nothing but behavioral interview questions leave little time to get to know one another more personally or establish trust at this early stage in the relationship. If used exclusively to structure an interview, lead-in behavioral questions can actually preclude relationship building and open communication. Simply put, if you feel after an hour-long interview using lead-in behavioral questions that you don’t know the candidate any better than when you first started, you’ll likely want to consider looking for an alternative interviewing strategy that meets both your and the candidates’ needs more efficiently and effectively.

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About The Author

Paul Falcone is a human resources executive in Los Angeles and has held senior-level positions with Nickelodeon, Paramount Pictures, and Time Warner. He is the author of a number of AMACOM and SHRM bestselling books, and four of his books made SHRM's prestigious "Great 8" bestseller listings over the last few years: 96 Great Interview Questions to Ask Before You Hire, 101 Sample Write-Ups for Documenting Employee Performance Problems, 101 Tough Conversations to Have with Employees, and 2600 Phrases for Effective Performance Reviews. His additional books on performance management include 2600 Phrases for Setting Effective Performance Goals and The Performance Appraisal Tool Kit. His newest AMACOM book, 75 Ways for Managers to Hire, Develop, and Keep Great Employees, will be released in the spring of 2016. You can follow Paul on Twitter at @PaulFalconeHR and find Paul's website and blog at www.PaulFalconeHR.com.

One Comment »

  1. avatar

    Well presented. We can only hope more employers will read and apply. (No pun intended.)

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