How to Master Asking Behavioral Interview Questions

July 27, 2015

When it comes to discerning top talent, many professionals who conduct interviews for a living know that behavioral interview questions are superior to other types of questions.

But, even if you’re armed with terrific behavioral interview questions, you may not always elicit the responses from the candidates that can help you determine if they have the skills you need.

“The fact is many people don’t know how to answer a behavioral interview question,” says Vicki Hoevemeyer, who has made a living out of understanding behavioral interview questions and wrote the book, High Impact Interview Questions: 701 Interview Questions to help hire the right person for every job.

“In many cases, interviewers need to push people to give them specific examples, because candidates will often just give a kind of generic response,” says Hoevemeyer. She offers these tips for getting better information.

1. Use the S.T.A.R. system.

In the heat of the moment, it’s very easy for an interviewer to become distracted while asking questions. And before you know it, you may have moved on to the next question before getting the answer you are looking for. In order to keep yourself on track, Hoevemeyer advocates using the S.T.A.R. system.

Write down the letters S.T.A.R. as you ask each question, she says. The acronym STAR stands for Situation, Task, Action and Results. So for example, say you ask a candidate a question like, Tell me about a time you had a personality conflict with a boss or co-worker?” As the candidate answers the question, make sure they are addressing each aspect of STAR, and cross off the letter as they do.

Did they tell you what the situation was when they had the conflict? Did they tell you what task they were responsible for at that time? Did they tell you what action they took? And, did they tell you the result of their action?

“If you follow STAR when asking any behavioral interview question you are likely to get better results,” she says.

2. Don’t accept a situational response to a behavioral question.

Be careful not to accept general situational answers when asking a specific behavioral question. Let’s say you’re asking a candidate, “Give me a recent example of a situation you faced where the pressure was on” and the candidate responds by telling you that they thrive in a stressful atmosphere, and go on to detail all the reasons they are successful without giving you a specific time and place example.

In this case, “they’re answering a specific question by telling you situational information, rather than giving you a specific example of their behavior,” explains Hoevemeyer.

“Your comeback here should be, ‘That’s great. Tell me a specific time that you employed that behavior,’ says Hoevemeyer. “That pushes them from that situational answer into reality. It’s harder to make up a response when you get someone to be very specific.”

3. Don’t let people off the hook.

Another error people make is letting people off the hook, says Hoevemeyer. You ask them a behavioral interview question and they say, “Well, you know, I really can’t think of anything.” And you go, “Oh, okay. Next question.”

Each behavioral interview question should be structured around a skill or value that you’re looking to hire for. If that value is something that’s critical for success in the job, there needs to be either an acceptable answer or they need to be ruled out for the position.

For example, if you’ve asked about a time when a candidate’s shown empathy for another employee at work - and that’s a core value - but the candidate can’t give an example of when they showed empathy, you need to think twice about hiring that person.

4. Give candidates ample time to come up with an example.

On the other hand, the inability to answer a question quickly should never work against a candidate, cautions Hoevemeyer.

“Say you ask a candidate to tell you about a time where they promoted diversity in the workplace. Well, that person may need a little while to think of a really good example,” she says. Often an interviewer will think, “Oh, they paused. They couldn’t answer that question right away. They must be making something up.” The reality is though, that often the best answer comes through after taking a moment for reflection.

5. When they really can’t come up with an answer, ask the question in reverse.

When people really can’t come up with a good example, try asking them the reverse of the question. For example ask them to, “Tell me about a time then where you didn’t show empathy, but in hindsight wished you had.” And if they still can’t come up with something, you really have to question whether they have that value or grasp its importance.

6. Don’t just assess answers - listen to the quality of the examples given.

“Let’s say you’re interviewing a customer service candidate and you ask them to tell you about the most difficult customer they’ve ever had to deal with, and how they handled it.” You don’t just want to listen to how they handled the situation, but also to what they define as a difficult situation, she says. “If extreme difficulty to them is a customer who whined a little bit, and the job requires a lot of patience, you might not have a good fit.”

7. Hone in on a specific piece of missing information when asking follow up questions.

For follow up questions, Hoevemeyer likes to key in on a specific piece of missing information where she wants to dig a little deeper into some component of their answer.

“Say you’re asking a question around leading a team that was successful in accomplishing something in a shorter timeframe then had been expected,” she says. “You could follow up with, ‘Tell me a little bit about the composition of your team. Who did you select and why did you select those people?’” That question opens up a new window into how someone identifies talent.

Or, when someone gives a lukewarm answer to a question, she may immediately follow up with, “Tell me about another situation, where you lead a team?” This way she can get a better feel from another situation on whether the person is a good fit on that competency or not.

Remember, the main thing you’re after in behavioral interview questions is getting a good grasp on a candidate’s recent behavior. By diligently having candidates provide specific examples of their behavior, you’re pushing them towards giving you a more accurate picture. “People’s stories tend to fall apart,” she says, “when you make them clarify specifics that aren’t true.”

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