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Behavioral Interviewing & Sample Questions

An employment interview is an occasion in which both the candidate and the employer start to form impressions of each other. It is also a time where formalities are important and where regulations affect the employer’s speech. Besides conforming to legal limitations, asking the right interview questions will:

  • Confirm the candidate’s education, training, and experience listed in the resume.
  • Provide information about the candidate’s past performance and accomplishments
  • Indicate the candidate’s compatibility with the culture of your organization (for example, work pace, work style)
  • Offer insights into the reasons behind the candidate’s desire to change jobs
  • Responses to key questions should be probed further and confirmed through later reference checks.

Questions not to ask

You must avoid asking discriminatory questions which might tend to violate federal, state and local laws. There are a few questions which must be avoided – these include (but are not limited to):

  • What year did you graduate from high school or post-secondary school?
  • Where were you born?
  • Where did you learn a foreign language?
  • Are you married?
  • What are your child care arrangements?
  • What are your religious practices?
  • How many days did you miss because of illness last year?
  • Do you have any disabilities?
  • Have you ever been arrested?
  • Are you planning to have children anytime soon?
  • Are you responsible for parental care?
  • Do you have senior parents or another family member that depends on you?
  • Are you a union member?
  • What church do you attend?
  • Do you have an opinion about gay marriage?


Types of Questions You Can Ask

Behavioral questions

Behavioral interviewing has become the interview style of choice for many employers. All employers should understand how to use this interviewing technique as it provides interesting insights to evaluate candidates. The theory underlying behavioral interviewing is that the most accurate predictor of future performance is past performance in similar situations. Behavioral interviewing is said to be 55 percent predictive of future on-the-job behavior, while traditional interviewing is only 10 percent predictive.

Behavioral-based interviewing may provide a more objective set of facts to make employment decisions than other interviewing methods. Traditional interviews ask general questions such as “Tell me about yourself.” The process of behavioral interviewing is much more probing and works very differently.

In a traditional job-interview, an applicant usually can find a way to tell the interviewer what is expected, even with favorable enhancements to the actual facts. Assuming the applicant is asked situational questions that start out “How would you deal with situation ABC?”, there is minimal obligation to provide a real life response. Rather, the interviewer needs to know how the applicant would actually react to a real situation in the way they say they would.

The difference between traditional and behavioral interviews is that it is much more difficult for an applicant to offer responses that are untrue to his/her character. When the applicant starts to tell a behavioral story, the trained behavioral interviewer dissects it to elicit information which reveals specific behavior(s). The interviewer will probe further for more depth or detail such as “What were you thinking at that point?” or “Tell me more about your meeting with that person,” or “Lead me through your decision process.” If the applicant has told a story that’s anything but completely honest, their responses will not hold up through probing questions.

Use the behavioral interview technique to evaluate an applicant’s experiences and behaviors so you can determine the applicant’s potential for success. Identify job-related experiences, behaviors, knowledge, skills and abilities that you have decided are desirable in a particular position. Some the characteristics which an interviewer might look for include:

  • Critical thinking
  • Being a self-starter
  • Willingness to learn
  • Self-confidence
  • Teamwork
  • Professionalism

The interviewer should structure very pointed questions to elicit detailed responses aimed at determining if the candidate possesses desired characteristics. Questions (often not even framed as a question) typically start out: “Tell about a time…” or “Describe a situation…” The applicant’s responses should be specific and detailed. Because of the huge number and variety of possible behavioral questions that might be asked, it is difficult for an applicant to prepare for a behavior-based interview. Many human resource professionals use a rating scale to evaluate selected criteria during the interview.

Behavioral interviewing techniques probe beyond superficial answers. They require candidates to assess themselves and recall examples of behavior. Most behavioral questions are formed as either self-appraisal queries or situational queries. Some examples are:

Sample Interview Questions

Self-appraisal query: If you had the choice of working in a job with peaks and valleys in the workload or a job with a steady volume of work, which would you choose and why?

Past situational query: Tell me about a time when you had to make a critical decision in your supervisor’s absence. How did you handle it?


Situational questions

A situational question presents a hypothetical situation to the interviewee and asks how s/he would respond to it.

Future situational query: Give the candidate a scenario of a current or past problem that your organization has had to address. (The problem should be related to the position being staffed.) Ask the candidate to describe how they would handle the situation or resolve the problem.

NOTE: For behavioral or situational questions, it is a good practice to prepare sample answers in advance of the interview. Identify the types of responses you are looking for and rank them from excellent to fair. Use your guide to rank the interviewee’s responses.


Open-ended questions

These questions require an explanation from the candidate. Open-ended questions begin with words such as “what,” “why,” “how,” “describe,” and “explain.” For example:

  • What is the greatest asset you will bring to this job?
  • What is the most important thing you do at your current job?
  • Describe the last time you had a short deadline and explain how you handled it.
  • How have you had to adapt to your job’s changing needs?


Neutral questions

Neutral questions do not reveal a bias toward an acceptable or correct answer.

For example: If you had to choose between one extreme or the other, would you want a supervisor who leaves you alone to get your work done and only wants to hear from you if there’s a problem, or would you prefer someone who meets with you regularly to help you focus on your goals for the day or week?


Yes or no questions

Use questions that can be answered with a “yes” or “no” to confirm information you already have. In general, use these types of questions sparingly because they don’t add new information.

For example: Were you with ABC organization 7 years before you relocated to Blue Mountain?


Follow-up questions

After a candidate answers a question, follow up with another question that probes their attitudes or delves further into the issue.

For example, you may start with a broad question: “What are your responsibilities as the administrative assistant?”

A candidate may respond with a list of duties such as: answer phones, type, keep the calendar, arrange travel, and file documents. Although this information confirms the resume, it does not give information about the relationship with the supervisor, consequences of actions, or pride in work output.

To get this kind of information, ask follow-up questions, such as:

  • What aspects of your job are most crucial?
  • How many hours a week do you find you need to work to get your job done?

Common behavioral-interview questions

  • Describe a situation in which you were able to use persuasion to successfully convince someone to see things your way.
  • Describe a time when you were faced with a stressful situation that demonstrated your coping skills.
  • Give me a specific example of a time when you used good judgment and logic in solving a problem.
  • Give me an example of a time when you set a goal and were able to meet or achieve it.
  • Tell me about a time when you had to use your presentation skills to influence someone’s opinion.
  • Give me a specific example of a time when you had to conform to a policy with which you did not agree.
  • Please discuss an important written document you were required to complete.
  • Tell me about a time when you had to go above and beyond the call of duty in order to get a job done.
  • Tell me about a time when you had too many things to do and you were required to prioritize your tasks.
  • Give me an example of a time when you had to make a split second decision.
  • What is your typical way of dealing with conflict? Give me an example.
  • Tell me about a time you were able to successfully deal with another person even when that individual may not have personally liked you (or vice versa).
  • Tell me about a difficult decision you’ve made in the last year.
  • Give me an example of a time when something you tried to accomplish and failed.
  • Give me an example of when you showed initiative and took the lead.
  • Tell me about a recent situation in which you had to deal with a very upset customer or co-worker.
  • Give me an example of a time when you motivated others.
  • Tell me about a time when you delegated a project effectively.
  • Give me an example of a time when you used your fact-finding skills to solve a problem.
  • Tell me about a time when you missed an obvious solution to a problem.
  • Describe a time when you anticipated potential problems and developed preventive measures.
  • Tell me about a time when you were forced to make an unpopular decision.
  • Please tell me about a time you had to fire a friend.
  • Describe a time when you set your sights too high (or too low).

Other questions

The following questions can be used for information gathering as may be pertinent to the position for which the candidate has applied

  • What challenges do you think you’ll face in this job?
  • What concerns you about this job?
  • What is your long-term career plan?
  • What do you think it takes to be successful in an organization like this?
  • How long will it take before you can contribute to this organization?
  • Why are you seeking a new job?
  • If you are offered this job, what factors will influence whether you accept it or not?
  • This position will require developing and implementing some changes to our way of doing things. How will you help make the transitions smooth?
  • If I were to call up your previous boss, what would they tell me is your strongest quality and why?
  • Describe a situation in the past where you had to resolve a difficult situation with a colleague and explain how you went about it?
  • Tell me what you did in your last/current job?
  • Why do you wish to leave that position or why did you leave that position?
  • Where do you see yourself 5 years from now?


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