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Prepare behavioral questions for the best interviews

By Paul Edwards  bio

Stop us if you’ve heard this job interview cliche before:

In the middle of interviewing a candidate, the hiring manager asks, “What is your greatest weakness?”

Without missing a beat, the candidate smiles slightly, folds their hands on their knees, and responds “My greatest weakness is that I work too hard.”

Ugh! If you’ve ever been in a position to hire in the past—or have ever been interviewed for a job, yourself—it’s enough to make your stomach turn.

Implicitly, our professional minds understand that this is a bad interview question. Terrible, really. But what, specifically, makes it a bad interview question?

Not only does it put the candidate in the awkward position of having to either lie or speak to a personal shortcoming during an already nervous situation, it also fails to provide any insight as to how the candidate will actually perform in the position they’re applying for.

Behavioral interview questions, on the other hand, help business owners and managers get the information they need to make an informed hiring decision, which is why behavioral interview questions are the best questions to ask candidates during a job interview.

What is a behavioral interview?

A behavioral interview is a job interview that poses questions centered around a candidate’s previous employment experience in order to gauge how that candidate might handle specific situations and/or use their skills as an employee of your business. This practice is based on the principle that past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior.

The framework of an effective behavioral interview question essentially boils down to the phrase “Tell me about a time when you…”. Other variations of this phrasing include:

  • Can you give me an example of…
  • Explain what it was like to…
  • Describe a situation in which you…

Instead of asking the candidate to talk about their skills or how they might behave in a theoretical situation (as is often the approach during a traditional interview), behavioral interview questions ask your candidates to describe the skills and behavior they demonstrated in an actual work situation in the past.

When your candidate’s responses are geared toward explaining how they handled a situation in the past, or how they used skills and training in their past positions, those responses will offer a glimpse at how that candidate is likely to handle a similar situation in the future. Questions built on a behavioral interview framework require candidates to provide specific, thoughtful responses and cannot be easily dodged or answered with a simple “yes” or “no.”

Why traditional interviews just aren’t that effective

In a traditional interview, hiring managers often take a free-form, conversational approach to the interview process by asking candidates a series of straightforward, open-ended, and/or hypothetical questions. One of the common results of this approach is that, during a traditional interview, you, the interviewer, do most of the talking.

Some common traditional interview questions include:

  • How would you handle [insert hypothetical situation]?
  • What 5 words best describe you?
  • Describe what “customer service” means to you.
  • Do you consider yourself a “people person”?
  • What is your greatest weakness?
  • Tell me what you liked about your last job

Approaching an interview in this way may help you quickly determine the “likability” of the candidate in front of you. It may even help you develop some understanding of how well an applicant will mesh with your existing team on a cultural level.

But, keep in mind that, during the interview, the person you are interviewing is trying to make you like them. Likability is not a qualification. It’s an attribute. Don’t fall prey to the halo effect.

The halo effect

The halo effect is a common pitfall of the traditional interview format.

As described by Britannica, it is:

“…an error in reasoning in which an impression formed from a single trait or characteristic is allowed to influence multiple judgments or ratings of unrelated factors.” 

In plain language, this means that, because a candidate is likeable and is able to present themselves well during an interview, you get a feeling that they will be good at what they do for work.

If you take the time to identify skills and cultural needs for an available position, and develop some killer behavioral interview questions, however, the halo effect will take a back seat to a much more effective process.

Keep your interview process (and especially your questions) consistent

When your interview process is inconsistent, it creates variation between your interviews with individual candidates and you get inconsistent outcomes.

Being consistent throughout the hiring process is important to help you protect your business legally. But, even more important than that, when you are done interviewing and are choosing between candidates, consistency makes it much easier to identify the strong and weak points between your candidates.

Prepare your questions

You can protect yourself from potential discrimination claims by preparing for your interview. Write your behavioral interview questions before your first in-person interview. We are not saying that you have to use the same exact questions in the same exact order with each person you interview to ensure consistency in the process.

We are advocating that virtually the same questions and skills tests, where it makes sense, are asked of, and administered to, each candidate in such a way that you end up with the same information about each person who interviews.

Wait until the interview is over to complete this evaluation process. Taking some basic notes during the interview is fine, even encouraged. But you’ll want to keep note taking to a minimum during the actual interview or else risk distracting your candidate or making them more nervous than they already are.

How to write effective behavioral interview questions

To write effective behavioral interview questions, start by making a list of the traits you would most like to see in your new hire, both in terms of personality and technical ability.

Once you have a solid grasp on the traits you’re looking for, frame your interview questions to inquire about how your applicants exhibited those characteristics in a work setting previously. If they have little or no previous work experience to draw from, reframe the question to apply to any similar situation, even if it wasn’t work related.

This provides interviewers with a great deal of information related to the characteristic they are attempting to evaluate with a particular question. It also makes it very difficult for candidates to evade questions, respond vaguely, or simply say what they think the interviewer wants to hear.

Imagine, for instance, that your office places a high premium on your employees’ ability to adapt to change. The resulting behavioral interview question from the above breakdown might look something like this:

Tell me about a time when you had to adapt to a change in your work environment or processes. What specifically did you do to facilitate and adapt to that change, and what was the final result?

Go deeper with follow-up questions

If you feel like a candidate’s answers leave something to be desired at any point in the interview, if you sense a tonal shift in a candidate’s response to a particular question, or you would like to get more detail from them about something specific, ask probing questions to get them to expand on their answers.

You do not need to write your probing questions before the interview. They should come to you organically based on your candidates’ responses.

Acknowledge the candidate’s response, then prompt them to go into more detail without leading them to an answer they might think you want to hear. Examples of potentially helpful probing questions include:

  • You said “(repeat portion of candidate’s response).” Can you explain what you meant by that?
  • I’m not quite sure I understand what you meant by “(repeat portion of candidate’s response)”. Can you give me some examples?
  • Tell me a little bit more about (situation or response).
  • I understood your response to mean (your interpretation). Is this correct?

If you like the answer you received but you still would like more information from a candidate, great probing questions can include, “How did you know to do that?” or “Where did you learn that technique?”

Probing questions like these can help you get to the root of a candidate’s answer to a specific behavioral interview question without straying into traditional (read: “unhelpful”) interview territory.

Run your questions by someone you trust

As a final point, it’s a good idea to run your interview questions by someone you trust in order to make sure they are easy to understand and are likely to work as intended.

Try posing questions about particular traits or characteristics to individuals on your team (or elsewhere) who you think exhibit those characteristics. If they are able to answer your questions in a satisfactory way, you’re probably on the right track.









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