A guide to asking behavioral questions during interviews

If you were asked, “what is the biggest mystery in the world”, you may come up with names of places or phenomena. If someone told you that the human mind is the biggest mystery, you probably would not refute it. The closest anyone can gauge the mind is through behavior. 

For recruiters, understanding human behavior is very significant in determining the organizational fit of a potential candidate. As it is, cultural fit is very tricky to evaluate as compared to technical and functional skills. 

Personal attributes do not fit the ‘Boolean scale’ – as in, you can never evaluate a person’s temperament in ‘is’ or ‘is not’ (is impatient or is not), because behavior is situation-specific and person-specific. 

For instance, a person can be nervous during an interview and extremely confident otherwise. A person can come across as extremely cooperative with their authority and yet can be stubborn in their peer interactions.

So, how can you evaluate if a candidate is a good fit for your organization?

Many organizations use standardized personality tests (with in-built lie detectors) to evaluate a candidate’s disposition. Some commonly used assessments are the Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), 16 Personality Factors (16 PF), and the Big Five Personality Test. Apart from these tests is a simple technique called behavioral interviewing. 

What is behavioral interviewing used for?

In a survey by LinkedIn, it was found out that 86% of respondents found behavioral interviewing techniques beneficial and said they were somewhat or very effective.

The technique of behavioral interviewing is used to:

  • Reveal how the candidate thinks, feels, and responds to situations
  • Determine if a candidate is a cultural fit
  • Evaluate leadership skills like critical thinking, problem-solving, and creativity (or originality)
  • Understand which role is best for the candidate
  • Make the interview conversational and customized (to elicit unrehearsed answers)
  • Elicit fewer vague answers

Remember that you may not get responses that will prove the candidate to be right or wrong. You could use a rating scale to check how close your candidate is to the desired attribute. For example, assertiveness can be rated from 1 (lowest) to 5 (highest). This may not apply to all attributes. 

However, you will get a lot of insights into the candidate’s personality. If you join the dots (put together the responses), you will be able to create a profile or a persona of the candidate. This, along with other parameters, will help you make your hiring decision. 

What are behavioral interview questions?

A behavioral interview (also called Behavioral Event Interview – BEI) is a technique used to question candidates about their past experiences, perceptions, and opinions about certain situations. It is based on the premise that past behavior or performance is the predictor of future actions or success. 

Another style of questioning is situational interviews. Behavioral interviews have questions based on real-life past events to understand how the person dealt with tricky events, challenges, and their own emotions. 

Situational interviews, on the other hand, have hypothetical questions. They will give you insights into a person’s opinions, beliefs, preferences, and also skills. Situational questions can be asked in a personal interview or you could also create an online Situational Judgment Test with in-built scoring to get insights.

How do you conduct behavioral interviews?

Ingrained qualities, values, and habits are built over time and almost become second nature. Like Agatha Christie’s fictitious detective, Hercule Poirot quotes, “either through a lie or through truth, people are always bound to give themselves away.”

Here are some key points to conduct a BEI:

  1. Make a list of attributes to be evaluated in BEI and also some expected or desired responses (be mindful of your own biases)
  2. Make the candidate feel comfortable so that their responses are not affected by nervousness
  3. Use their resume as a reference to start probing. Alternatively, you can also use results from any psychometric tests conducted.
  4. Use open-ended questions viz. Describe a time…or Can you tell me about…
  5. Listen actively to look for keywords that will help you frame follow-up questions
  6. Ask the candidate to give specific examples in their responses
  7. Note keywords in the candidate’s responses for profiling
  8. Panel interviews may work better for BEI since interviewers can avoid biases and calibrate their understanding of the candidate

To sum it up, the more information the candidate reveals, the more data points you will get for analysis of habits and even prejudices.

10 behavioral questions you can ask candidates

As you know, questions asked by the interviewer are to gauge fairly intangible yet extremely significant attributes in a candidate. Let us look at some common attributes:

Integrity

Integrity is an irreplaceable quality for good work ethics. Having clear and strong values makes you reliable and a good team player as well as improves company culture and brand reputation.  

Integrity breaches can cost the organization a lot of financial losses, loss of customers, and damage to the company’s reputation. 

Integrity is tested in various situations while being pressured by someone to do something inappropriate, making mistakes, and taking a stand for what is right. 

Sample questions and answers    

#1 Describe a time when you were asked to do something that you knew was not according to the policy (or process).

‘It was the month-end and every team was supposed to send productivity data. There were still 50 cases pending to be closed. The team mentor asked me to include the 50 cases in the report as closed, as they would be closed for sure but possibly will take time. By then, the deadline to submit the report would have passed. I refused to do this and my mentor said that I may have to face the consequences for refusal. I stuck to my point and refused to submit the report with incorrect data.’ 

#2 You spotted a mistake made by your colleague; reporting it will cost them their job. What will you do?

‘There are some compliance protocols that we had to follow for data integrity. My colleague left their computer unlocked, which is a major compliance breach. I knew that this had to be reported. But I decided to do so while requesting my manager to give my colleague another chance since there was no record of any misconduct or non-compliance from my colleague. Fortunately, my manager complied and my colleague was given a strict warning.’    

Motivation

Motivating oneself is not as simple as it looks, especially in the face of adversity. It is also fairly contagious. If you are surrounded by people who are not as motivated as you, you may also lose the drive and enthusiasm to do your best. Being focused and relying on a mature support system will be able to keep you motivated.

#3 You are a part of a team that is demotivated and do not enjoy working in the company. However, you like working on the project given to you. How do you keep yourself motivated?

‘What keeps me going is the focus on my goal. Whenever I feel demotivated, I remind myself of the goal I have set for myself and what I have to achieve. I do get overwhelmed at times but in these situations, I reach out to my friends and some trusted peers, who help me get back on track.’   

Time management

Regardless of what role you are in, time management is a must-have skill. Being able to handle many tasks at a time, and complete them with the desired quality is a mark of productivity. Using the concepts of urgent and important from the time management technique will help you get work done. 

#4 How do you manage to finish most tasks given to you? How do you prioritize tasks?

‘There have been times when I was working on 3-4 major projects at a time. Although most of my work is organized, sometimes ad hoc tasks cause trouble in finishing the existing work and also starting a new project. In these times, I look at the impact of the work and its urgency. If the project has high returns or damage, I keep it as a priority.’  

Teamwork

This is also an attribute that is essential for a professional. Every employee has to collaborate with someone else to get work done. However, people can have different perspectives and opinions and these differences can lead to disagreements. Being able to look beyond oneself to achieve a bigger goal is the premise of teamwork. 

#5 Can you share an example of a time when you motivated or inspired a co-worker?

‘My colleague had to apply for an internal promotion. But he was feeling nervous and not so confident about it. I knew he had the potential for the role. We prepared for the interview by doing mock sessions. I also helped him make a list of his strengths and achievements. All these activities increased his confidence and he applied for the role.’ 

#6 Describe a time when you had to collaborate with people with radically different views. How did you handle it?

‘I have had several projects where I had to work with members who had extremely different work styles than mine. It was challenging at first because there would be a lot of disagreements and arguments. But then a couple of us decided to mediate the conversation. We would stick to the desired outcome and ask questions that brought us back on track. Most times, what worked for us is also that we heard everyone’s point of view before making a point or asking a question.’ 

Leadership

Leadership is not necessarily related to designation. It is about taking ownership of a situation and getting people together to achieve a goal. It needs you to influence others to work together. 

#7 Have you ever taken charge of a situation and led a team? Can you describe it?

‘Our manager suddenly took ill and had to be out-of-office for over a month. In this period, there was a lack of clarity on how to go about work. A temporary manager was assigned to our team but she was also caught up with her work. Many team members started slacking in their work and the team performance was low. In an informal conversation, I spoke to my team about our work and how this period can affect our team’s reputation. Most team members agreed to my point of view and decided to cooperate to create a plan to get back on track. With the help of my team, I was able to get our team performance scores back up.’   

Resilience

Resilience is the ability to recover quickly from difficult situations, adapt to change, and keep going in challenging situations. It may also include taking ownership of your mistakes and taking the necessary steps to fix an error. 

#8 Tell me about a time you failed. How did you deal with the situation?

‘I was given a task to finish and I couldn’t complete it on time. I asked for an extension of 3 days yet couldn’t complete the task. I couldn’t anticipate the complexity of the task. I was reprimanded for my delay. I apologized and finished the project in a week. Later on, I spoke to my mentor about how I could have handled the project and its timeline in a better way.’      

#9 How do you react to sudden changes at work? And how do you manage to stay calm under pressure?

‘My company had taken up an agile project. There were many iterations to the initial project objective. It was very difficult when the customer kept changing the parameters frequently. I suggested that we have a meeting with the customer every week to understand their need and then incorporate those changes. By working one step at a time, we had better control of the work and were able to give the client what they asked for. When the work became manageable, we were able to manage the pressure as well.’      

Conflict management

Conflict management is necessary when you work with other people – whether it be with clients or with internal stakeholders. It includes resolving disagreements and making decisions that are for the benefit of all involved parties.

#10 How did you resolve a conflict at work? What did you do to handle it?

‘There was a time when our team was asked to come up with ways to improve productivity. My colleague was quite enthusiastic about it and would use any method to make sure new hires would buck up. Although he intended to motivate them, the method didn’t work. When I tried to point it out to my colleague, he got upset with me. I heard him out completely and told him that I understand his intent to motivate new employees. I also asked him to experiment with a new method and if it didn’t work, he can always use the current one. He tried the new method and it worked well. I think what worked was listening to him and offering him a different perspective instead of contradicting him.’   

Wrap up

There are many other attributes that your organization may consider important. You must first list those attributes and then make a list of BEI questions. You could either create a rating scale to make the responses tangible or make a note of data points to create a profile. 

While conducting a behavioral interview, you must be mindful to be objective and receptive to the responses of the candidate. This will help you get an accurate reading of the candidate’s disposition.

Remember that all these techniques help get a glimpse into the candidate’s personality and not decode the mystery of their mind in its entirety. 

FAQs on Behavioral Interviewing

What is the premise of behavioral interviewing?

The basic premise of behavioral interviewing is that past behavior is an excellent predictor of future behavior. This may not be completely true all the time and for everyone since a person can understand and change their behavior over time.    

What is a good response length for behavioral interview questions?

A BEI response can be as long as it takes to give enough specific examples for the question asked. Typically, it takes around 3-4 minutes to answer a BEI question.

What method can you suggest to a candidate to answer a BEI question?

A candidate can use the STAR method to answer a BEI question in detail. This method is useful when you want the candidate to mention specific examples and outcomes.
STAR is an acronym for Situation, Task, Action, and Result.
You can ask the candidate to cite a situation in the context of the question, in detail. Next is the description of the candidate’s responsibility (task) in that situation. What action or steps were taken to address the challenging task at hand must be explained by the candidate. The explanation can be concluded by sharing the achieved result of the action to resolve an issue.  

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