Q&A: Everything You Need to Know About Behavioral Interview Questions

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Behavioral interview questions. What are they, how do you ask them, how do you answer them, and how do you assess them? Whether you’re a hiring manager or a job seeker, and whether you’re new or old to the job search game, there is much to be learned from today’s expert Q&A with Leslye Schumacher.

ZipRecruiter Expert Q&A: Behavioral Interview Questions

What are behavioral interview questions and how do they differ from more-traditional interview questions?

Behavioral based interview questions are developed around specific skills (what someone has learned) or behaviors (what comes naturally to someone) that the employer is looking for in filling a particular position. The questions will be open ended and typically involve asking for examples that illustrate the specific skills or behaviors the employer is seeking.

Traditional interview questions are ones where the candidate can give a rehearsed or prepared answer and that don’t necessarily relate to specific skills or behaviors needed for the job. For example:

“Where do you see yourself in 5 years?” – The answer MAY give you some insight into the career path the person desires but it doesn’t give you any meaningful information about whether or not the person CAN do the job.

“Why did you leave your last job?” –  Rarely, are you going to get a candid answer to this question.

“What are your strengths/weaknesses?” – This question borders on cliché. Any reasonably smart person will list strengths that align with what you have listed in your job ad and weaknesses that aren’t!

Why do behavioral interview questions tend to be a better predictor of future job performance?

These types of questions are considered more effective in understanding what the potential employee brings to the job because you are not just asking questions about hypothetical situations (as in, “How would you handle ________?”) but rather how the person actually behaved in a specific situation that is relative to the skills and behaviors needed for the position.

Can we have an example of a common behavioral interview question, followed by what a hiring manger can expect to learn from the job seeker’s response?

Behavioral interview questions can be crafted around any competency that an employer deems critical for success in the position. A good answer should give an example of a specific instance or situation that illustrates when this behavior or skill was demonstrated. Sometimes this is referred to as a “STAR” answer.

Task: What was the situation, problem, or task the candidate had?
Action: What actions did the candidate take? What decisions were made?
Result: What were the results of the candidate’s actions?

On the other hand, if the answer is vague that is usually an indication that the person is not strong in that area.

For example, if an employer is looking for someone who grasps concepts and adapts quickly:

Question to Ask: “Tell me about a time when you had to learn something complex in a short period of time.”

Good answer: “In January our company switched to a new CRM software system and I studied the program over a weekend so that I could have all the information I needed immediately rather than gradually transitioning to the better program.”

Vague answer: “Oh, I do that all the time in my work. I’m always learning new things quickly whenever we have any product changes.”

(Related: Leslye shares 4 more behavioral interview questions & what responses to them mean »)

Because behavioral interview questions are open ended, responses can vary greatly from candidate to candidate. Bearing this in mind, what advice do you have for hiring managers in terms of how to evaluate responses?

Most interviewers talk too much. The interviewer should be listening and let the candidate do the talking. Tell the candidate that you will be taking notes and make sure you are writing what the candidate said not just “good answer” or “ok” because you won’t remember the specifics later. Then, after the interview go back through your notes and evaluate the answers based on:

  • Did the candidate answer the question with a specific and credible example? (i.e., a “STAR” answer)
  • Did the answer relate well to the question asked?

Let’s shift to the job seeker side for a moment. How can candidates best prepare for and respond to this type of question?

  • Be prepared to give specific examples and stories from your work experience based on what you think the core competencies are of the position. A good indication of the skills and behaviors the employer is looking for are in the job ad itself under Responsibilities and Desired or Required Skills.
  • When you give examples they should usually be professional and not personal, and relatively recent.
  • Don’t ramble.  The more you go on and on, the more likely you are to get off track.
  • Use the “STAR” technique when giving an example to make sure you are hitting the key points.

What else would you like to share on this topic?

Behavioral interview questions will definitely help a hiring manager get better information about a candidate. But I also believe it is important to use structured predictive behavioral assessments (not to be confused with behavioral styles or personality tests) as well, that are specific to the job and industry of the employer. Validated, professional assessments give a hiring manager in-depth and reliable information about the candidate’s innate behaviors and motivations.

I suggest using the “30 30 30 10” formula in evaluating final candidates:

  • 30% based on reference checks and background information
  • 30% information learned from the interviews
  • 30% based on assessment results
  • 10% gut or intuition

Want more? Read part two of this post to see four more examples of behavioral interview questions and what the responses to them mean. Go »

About Today’s Expert:

Leslye Schumacher is a Talent Analyst and Management Consultant with TalentQ Consulting. She works with companies and sales organizations to help them find, hire, coach and retain talented employees. She blogs about these topics at TalentBitsAndBytes, and you can learn more at www.TalentQConsulting.com

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