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Why behavioral interviews can help your hiring process

Behavioral interviews are typically used by HR leaders and hiring managers to understand job candidates in greater situational detail.

A traditional interview might ask: “What makes you the right person for this job?” But a behavioral interviewer is more interested in how you performed in the past under specific conditions. They care about how you handle tight deadlines, bosses who micromanage, or tough judgement calls, to name a few. 

Your organization can improve hiring decisions by implementing behavioral interviews in your next round of screening.

In this post, here’s what we’ll cover:

  • What is a behavioral interview?
  • Behavioral interview preparation for interviewers
  • Behavioral interview techniques
  • Behavioral interview questions
  • Behavioral interview tips

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What is a behavioral interview?

A behavioral interview examines a job applicant’s past experiences to predict how they might perform in the future. It covers how a candidate handled challenging situations similar to what they might experience if your company hired them.

This line of questions gets at the core of a behavioral interview: future behavior is typically modeled on past behavior. And if a job candidate was previously terminated due to poor relationships with management or uneven performance, the same might occur at your company.

Similarly, even if a candidate performed well in previous roles, if they can’t provide hard evidence or examples as to how they excelled in tough situations, they might not have ever been forced to solve problems on their feet. Or they were never asked to do more than average.

In these cases, a behavioral interview can distinguish between applicants who are genuinely good fits for a role and those who might not be able to back up their resume.

Behavioral interview preparation for interviewers

A recruiter or hiring manager may screen candidates in a number of ways, and submit applicants to several rounds and types of interviews.

A behavioral interview can be the same length of time, take place in the same setting, and generally follow the same structure as any other interview format. The key difference, however, is that interviewers must prepare several follow-up questions that pertain to specific work situations. We’ll cover these below.

Additionally, it might be useful for interviewers to reverse-engineer the STAR Method, a technique that strategic candidates use to fully answer complex questions, especially open-ended questions.

STAR refers to:

  • A Situation.
  • The Task involved.
  • The Action an interviewee took.
  • Results from those actions.

So, when you ask a question about past performance, candidates might have prepared a great response using the STAR technique. But candidates often rehearse these, and the answers may not exemplify the type of critical thinking you were hoping for.

By understanding the STAR script, you can optimize the interview process to produce informative answers to questions about competencies, past behavior, and situational work experience.

Behavioral interview techniques

Behavioral interviews break into four categories of questions, pertaining to:

  • Navigating difficult situations.
  • Communicating effectively.
  • Working efficiently on a team.
  • Managing time and expectations.

So as an HR or hiring manager, you might script two or three questions for each of these categories and a general follow-up question to push candidates to elaborate further.

For instance, you might ask for an example of a time a candidate was behind on work but was able to still meet a deadline. 

Based on their response, you might drill down further and ask for their exact feeling in that moment, or the tangible outcome of their effort. 

The more detail you can tease out, the better. This type of questioning will prompt candidates to elaborate on otherwise-templated responses. Hard figures like hours saved or profit driven can paint a more telling picture.

Additional interview techniques might include:

  • Relating all questions back to customer service, if the role is client-facing.
  • Hypothetical scenarios that prompt the interviewee to resolve a conflict in real time.
  • Reviewing body language and other nonverbal behaviors.
  • Assessing tone, to see if candidates are defensive or sensitive to feedback.

Behavioral interview questions

Now, for specific behavioral interview questions, there are plenty to choose from.

We’ll start with two of our favorites from Glassdoor and Greenhouse:

  1. What was an energy-depleting period of time at your current or previous job? How did you respond to it?
  2. What was a time you helped a direct report grow professionally?

And here are some other good conversation-starters:

  1. When you were new to a company, how did you gain the trust and credibility of colleagues and management?
  2. When you work with people whose temperaments and personalities differ from yours, how do you bridge that gap?
  3. Describe a time when you should’ve escalated a problem to your boss but chose to handle it yourself. 
  4. What was a time when a project failed or a deadline was missed because of a colleague. How did you handle the situation successfully?
  5. Describe a time when you thought you had communicated something clearly but it was misinterpreted by the recipient or your team. What was the takeaway?

Behavioral interview tips

Here are a few additional tips to keep in mind as an interviewer:

  • When asking such detailed questions, don’t try to jot down all the responses in equivalent detail. The overall goal of a behavioral interview is to grasp the historic behavior of the candidate, not take copious notes for later review. You should walk away from the interview very confident (or not) in the candidate based on how they were able to withstand the barrage of questions under pressure and still provide meaningful answers. Not to mention, if you’re noting every word they say, that could detract from your ability to be an active listener.
  • Schedule interview-debrief meetings with other reviewers to ensure all parties are on the same page. You might get more out of a quick meeting over phone or video than by sharing written notes after the fact.
  • Use a scoring sheet or grading scale to quantify the value of candidate responses. This can be a simple 1-5 rating system.

If an interviewee isn’t answering questions as thoroughly as you’d like, try a follow-up question then move on. In some cases, an applicant might genuinely be stumped or just have a hard time remembering details. But don’t slow down the pace of the interview lingering on areas that aren’t adding value to the meeting or to your ability to make a hiring decision afterward.

Ready to make a change in your hiring process? Now you know where to start.


Mike is a senior strategic consultant at PI. When he's not helping clients build great teams, you can find him on the ice coaching youth hockey.

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