Behavior-based interviewing consists of asking questions which enable the interviewer to know how you have actually reacted or behaved in certain types of situations. Research has confirmed that employers can more accurately determine those who will succeed on the job by identifying actual past behavior. Behavior-based interviewing is based on the concept that future behavior is best predicted by past behavior in similar circumstances. It also based on the belief that future success is best predicted by past success. In Get Hired, Paul Green, who has popularized behavior-based interviewing, states, “Once we become adults, we tend to resist change. We develop habits, both good and bad, that are hard to break without concentrated effort. We also lose some awareness of these habits, so that when asked to describe how we behaved in a past situation, we tend to give a reasonably accurate picture of what we did. We may not even be aware that certain of these actions do not reflect well on us.”

This tendency to reveal one's usual behavior, even when the behavior is inappropriate, is demonstrated by the following example. In an interview, the applicant was asked to give an example of dealing with an angry customer. The example went something like this: “This guy was really getting nasty, so I told him in no uncertain terms that we did not need customers like him. I encouraged him not to return until he had decided to be more civilized. You know, you really don’t want customers like him.” While retail staff and others who deal with customers have often wanted to say things like that, they know that such a response is unacceptable to their employer. Here was a person who was unaware of the inappropriateness of the response and so was not shy about describing the experience. He was not hired.

About 150,000 managers are being converted to this style of interviewing each year, and entire companies, Hewlett-Packard and AT&T among them, train all of their managers in the techniques.

While standard interviews consist of questions like, “Tell me about your last job,” or “Why did you leave your last job?” behavior-based questions include:

Tell me about a time when you worked under an extremely tight deadline.

Tell me about a situation where you were particularly proud of the creativity you demonstrated.

Describe a situation where you had to deal with a difficult customer or coworker.

What makes behavior-based interviews unique is that each question must be answered with a specific example.

The behavior-based interview is one of the toughest types of interviews you will face, but if you are prepared, it can be the most enjoyable and challenging. Behavior-based interviews are usually conducted by people who have received extensive training in interviewing techniques. Every question is asked with a specific purpose and has been selected with great care. Managers prepare for the interviewing process by first analyzing the job and its requirements. During the analysis stage, the manager determines which technical skills and personal qualities are most needed to do the job.

Think of the behavior-based interview as a structured conversation with flexibility built in. Although virtually everyone will receive the same questions, the order can be changed, and the interviewer may ask for more details regarding an answer. After the interview, the interviewer goes over his notes and rates the person’s skill level based on the notes. This uniform process allows organizations to defend themselves more easily against charges of discrimination, and the uniformity of the interviews actually does decrease discrimination. Candidates are judged on a consistent scale regardless of their gender, age, or other characteristics. A behavior-based interviewer is trained to listen carefully to all responses, to take notes throughout the interview, and to make no judgment about the person until after the interview and until the answers have been rated. While eliminating all possibility of forming early impressions is impossible, the trained behavior-based interviewer can minimize this tendency.

Untrained interviewers, on the other hand, often make snap decisions about a person in the first two minutes, making it nearly impossible to change their opinion during the rest of the interview. So, being interviewed by a behavior-based interviewer has advantages. If you were nervous at the beginning of the interview and didn’t handle a couple of questions well, with a trained behavior-based interviewer, you still have a chance to recover. You will not be judged by the quality of your handshake or whether your smile and first few words matched the expectation of the interviewer.

Avoid Sketchy Responses

The person who does best in behavior-based interviews is the one who has taken the time to recall dozens of past experiences, and is prepared to share them in a vivid yet concise manner. Practitioners of behavior-based interviewing report to me that most interviewees provide responses which are simply too general and sketchy. For example, a typical response to a question like, “Tell me about a time when you responded well to a high-stress situation,” would be:

Well, as you know, I work for Alaska Airlines, and we are constantly under pressure to meet the needs of customers who have lost their luggage or missed a connecting flight. You just can’t survive here if you can’t handle stress well. I think I do my best work under stress.

The response of the behavior-based interviewer to such an answer would be to push for specifics by saying something like, “I appreciate your overview, but what I’d like is for you to give me a specific example when you were under a lot of stress and you really rose to the occasion.” The behavior-based interviewer is like a bulldog who won’t give up until the question has been properly answered. Those who are prepared to share specific examples really shine in these situations.

Predict and Prepare for the Interview Questions

In any interview it is wise to try to predict the questions, as well as the skills and qualities that are desired. Determine what you can from the job description. After listing the expected questions, list the stories or examples you might want to use to answer them.

The behavior-based interviewer will be judging you on two factors: (1) does the example effectively demonstrate the use of the desired skill or quality, and (2) does the example demonstrate a high level use of the skill or quality? Make sure each answer adequately demonstrates the skill or quality you are addressing. For example, let’s say the interviewer asks about the interviewee’s ability to work well under stress. The interviewee responds with an example, but it seems to the interviewer that the stress level was not very high, and besides, the person did not handle well what little stress there was. The interviewee receives virtually no points for the answer. This is why it is so important to think ahead, pick your best experiences to share, and make sure that the example will show you handling that skill at a high level.

Be Prepared For Positive And Negative Questions

The behavior-based interviewer will typically have a list of 8–12 personal qualities and 5–10 technical skills which are deemed crucial to success on the job. Questions will have been selected to reveal that you have or don’t have the required skills, knowledge, or experience. Because many of the questions will be difficult to answer, the interviewer will often encourage you to take as much time as you need to think of an example.

Another unique aspect of behavior-based interviewing is that you will be asked to describe situations in which you were not successful. In traditional interviews you might be asked one such question, but in a behavior-based interview, a positive question will often be followed by a negative question. For example, a line of questioning may begin, “Tell me about a time when you faced a difficult interpersonal conflict with a boss or coworker and you were able to improve the situation.” That question may be followed with, “No one is able to overcome all interpersonal conflicts. Describe a situation where no matter what you did, you just weren’t able to resolve the conflict.”

In the language of behavior-based interviewing, this is a request for “disconfirming” or “contrary” evidence. The behavior-based interviewer wants to see all sides of you. If the behavior-based interviewer is feeling very positive about you, that person will intentionally ask you a question that will cause you to reveal a less positive side of you. You can see that this second question is particularly difficult. First, it may be difficult to even think of such an example. Second, you may have reservations about sharing the example that comes to mind because it may show you in a bad light. Remember, everyone will be asked the same or similar negative questions; no one will be allowed to dodge such questions. In this case the interviewer is using the question to determine whether you deal with conflict in a mature way, or whether you allow your emotions and insecurities to get in the way.

Be Prepared To Describe Each Job In Detail

Another type of behavior-based interviewing places great emphasis on having you give extensive information about each job you’ve held. When using this style, the interviewer will ask for particular information about each position. The information requested typically includes: job title, duties, major challenges you faced and how you handled them, most and least enjoyable aspects of the job, your greatest accomplishments, and your significant mistakes or disappointments. You will also be asked to describe each of your supervisors, including their strengths and weaknesses. Finally, you will be asked your reason for leaving. Then you will be asked focused questions about your learning ability, analysis skills, judgment, innovativeness, oral communications skills, management style, and many more. Not surprisingly, this type of interview can last as long as two to three hours, especially when interviewing for a management position.

Behavior-Based Interview Questions

Behavior-based interview questions are among the most unpredictable. There are literally hundreds of questions which can be asked. Although the actual wording will differ, in essence they will begin with, “Tell me about a time when . . .” While most of the questions will allow you to speak of positive experiences, you will also receive numerous questions that will require you to discuss negative or less positive experiences. You are not being singled out. This is simply part of the process. Virtually everyone will be asked the same questions, including the difficult ones.

The following questions are a sampling of behavior-based questions. Not all behavior-based questions begin with “Tell me about a time when . . . ,” but I’m using that phrase as a convenient way to introduce to you the types of questions you can expect.

Tell me about a time when you:

achieved a great deal in a short amount of time.

were disappointed in your performance.

made a major sacrifice to achieve a work goal.

were unwilling or unable to make the necessary sacrifice to achieve a goal.

worked effectively under a great deal of pressure.

didn’t handle a stressful situation very well.

really got angry over a situation at work.

felt under a great deal of pressure from an internal or external customer.

were really bothered by the actions of a coworker.

were especially creative in solving a problem.

were not as creative as usual.

organized or planned an event that was very successful.

planned and coordinated a project that was very successful.

were unable to complete a project on schedule despite your best efforts.

really had to remain flexible.

had to deal with a personality conflict with a boss or coworker.

were unable to sell your idea to a key person.

felt really good about a decision you made and the process you went through.

were very effective in your problem-solving ability.

used facts and reason to persuade someone to accept your recommendation.

utilized your leadership ability to gain support for what initially had strong opposition.

were able to build team spirit during a time of low morale.

were able to gain commitment from others to really work as a team.

used your political savvy to push through a program you believed in.

were particularly perceptive regarding a person’s or group’s feelings and needs.

were able to predict someone’s behavior or response based on your assessment of him or her.

were particularly supportive and reassuring to a person who needed a friend.

built rapport quickly with someone under difficult conditions.

wrote a report which was well received by others.

were particularly effective at prioritizing tasks and completing a project on schedule.

identified potential problems and resolved the situation before the problems became serious.

were highly motivated and your example inspired others.

found it necessary to tactfully but forcefully say things others did not want to hear.

were particularly effective in a talk you gave or in a seminar you taught.

had to make an important decision quickly even though you did not have all the information you wanted.

had to make a decision you knew would be unpopular.

were in a situation when events and circumstances changed rapidly.

These are difficult questions. If asked such questions, take some time to come up with an example. To succeed:

1) Stay calm

2) Recall several potential examples

3) Choose one that feels right

4) Consider the ramifications of sharing it

5) Recall a few key points

6) Begin your story and share it with vividness and enthusiasm.

Your interviewer is likely to give you a minute or more before beginning to answer the question because he or she knows it is a difficult question that requires a thoughtful answer.

Preparation Is The Key, So Recall Dozens Of Experiences

As in any interview, preparation is the key to selling yourself effectively in a behavior-based interview. That preparation consists of recalling 30–40 accomplishments and expanding on 8–15 of your top accomplishments. (See chapter 7 for more on accomplishments.) In addition, jot down notes to help you recall dozens of other experiences. Usually a phrase of five to ten words is sufficient. So in addition to a list of 30–40 accomplishments, you should list an additional 40–50 “experiences.” These experiences will simply be things that happened to you that somehow stand out in your memory. Some will meet the definition of an accomplishment (something you did well, enjoyed doing, or got satisfaction from), but others will not. Some may even be negative experiences. This is important because behavior-based interviewers often ask for negative things about you. In behavior-based interviews, you must quickly recall several experiences, select the most appropriate one, and then describe it effectively.

In behavior-based interviews, you will always be given adequate time to think of an example. So once an example comes to mind, take five to ten seconds to quickly walk yourself through the experience to determine what the ramifications of using it will be. Those extra seconds could save you from sharing an inappropriate story.

Preparing for behavior-based interviews can take several hours, as you can see. The behavior-based interviewer wants you to be well prepared and wants to hear the very best example you have for each question. The better your responses, the better the interviewer can predict your success on the job. Since most people are not prepared to tell vivid stories which demonstrate specific strengths, you can set yourself apart by your preparation. Practitioners of behavior-based interviewing indicate that the typical interviewee requires five or six questions before they truly grasp what the interviewer wants. Your preparation will enable you to shine with the very first question.

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