Recruiters Nominate Their Favorite Behavioral Interview Questions

March 2, 2015

When you have your first in person meeting with a candidate, you want to gather as much authentic information about them as possible in a short period of time. The challenge, however, is that most interview questions fall short in helping you accomplish that goal.

Questions like ‘tell me about your biggest weakness,’ often receive an onslaught of staged (and totally boring) responses. What you need are questions that open a window into the candidate’s passions, character, and problem-solving abilities.

That’s where behavioral interview questions can help.

During behavioral interviews, candidates are asked questions about actions they’ve taken in past roles. Unlike ‘case interview’ questions (i.e. how many tennis balls does it take to fill up on airplane?), behavioral interview questions focus on real business challenges. Here are 5 great examples from recruiters who, collectively, have spent thousands of hours interviewing candidates.

1. Can you share an experience where a project dramatically shifted directions at the last minute? What did you do?

Tip nominated by: Ryan Pollock, Partner at Talution Group.

Unforeseen situations are common at almost every organization. That’s why it’s important for recruiters and hiring managers to identify team members who can stay calm, positive, and respond with agility. When asking this question, be specific to the candidate’s role and industry.

“In my case, at a recruiting firm, I ask what potential hires would do if a phone interview was canceled five minutes before it was going to happen,” says Pollock. "From there, I think to myself - is this person going about this situation in an ethical way? Are they taking short cuts or coming up with thorough steps? What is their logic like? Are they following steps that solve this problem and lead to a good result? Are their actions reflecting well not only on themselves but their manager, team and ultimately the clients and candidates we serve?”

Rather than focusing on what the candidate accomplished, look for signs that point to a problem solving attitude, continuous positivity, and willingness to learn.

2. Tell me about a time when you had a heavy workload. How were you able to handle the work?

Tip nominated by: Tiffany Gibson, Founder at Get the Job App.

This question sheds insight onto an applicant’s time management skills, flexibility, agility, and work ethic. Recruiters and hiring managers should look for two things in the candidate’s answer:

“The way that a person manages a heavy workload can be a reflection on how they view an organization’s big picture,” says Gibson. “First, look for stories that illuminate a candidate’s ability to manage stress. More importantly, assess the candidate’s delegation skills.”

Recruiters and hiring managers should look for signs of emotional maturity — that the candidate feels comfortable redistributing and re-evaluating workloads. Encourage candidates to be open about their emotions and frustrations and you’ll get more authentic representations of their character.

3. Tell me about a time that you missed a deadline. What happened?

Tip nominated by: Meghan Conaty, Senior Talent Manager at Fareportal.

It’s inevitable that in fast-paced environments, even top performers will miss deadlines. What matters most in these situations is how the employee communicates the delay to project stakeholders.

“This question highlights the steps a potential employee might take to keep their balance in a setting where managing and communicating a continuously evolving set of priorities is crucial,” says Conaty.

Look for team members who can tactfully avoid the ‘blame game’ and embrace situations at face value.

“The right person will demonstrate that they aren’t easily overwhelmed or sidetracked ,” says Conaty.

4. Tell me about a time when you were communicating with someone and they did not understand you. What were you discussing? What did you do What were the results?

Tip nominated by: Bob Kermanshahi, Head of Strategy for Siemens Real Estate.

When it comes to communication, the ability to explain something is only one side of the equation. Equally important to the process of giving directions — or even having a conversation — is the ability to listen.

“The best answer I have heard to this question was from a great hire. In her answer, she explained the situation and then said ‘I apologized to the person,’” says Kermanshahi.

“She went on to explain that the responsibility to be understood in communications is that of the communicator, and that if she was not being understood, she was at fault and needed to adjust her approach. It showed that this candidate takes ownership and responsibility, which were key traits I was hiring for in the particular role.”

This question will show you how a potential candidate interacts with other team members. Look for signs of humility, empathy, and understanding.

5. Can you walk me through the specific steps that you took to solve a business challenge?

Tip nominated by: Kevin Krumm, Managing Partner at Objective Paradigm.

Answers to behavioral interview questions can help you get to know your candidates better — but they also might be misleading.

“A candidate may have the ability to speak about situations at a high-level, but may have no experience executing those steps,” says Krumm. “Knowing what to do and having experience carrying that out are two different things.”

In addition to asking for high-level stories, recruiters and hiring managers should request specific details through follow-up questions. Get a strong sense of what the candidate did specifically and how they did it.

Final thoughts

When it comes to behavioral interview questions, there will rarely be the ‘right’ answer. Instead, recruiters and hiring managers should seek out answers that convey authenticity, transparency, humility, and confidence. Keep an eye out for candidates who bring new value to your existing team with the understanding that past behavior is a predictor for future success.

*Image by Kristina Alexanderson

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