Communication Currents

Death, Taxes…and the Behavioral Interview?

February 1, 2013
Organizational Communication

The old adage may soon be in need of some tweaking. While people know that death and taxes are certainties, they may not know that it is nearly as common to encounter a behavioral interview. Preparing for a job interview used to follow a pretty simple recipe for success. Cook up a story to communicate why you should be hired, sprinkle in a few of your greatest strengths, add in a dash of good interaction with the recruiter and “bam,” you got the job. Unfortunately for prospective job seekers, preparation is much more difficult today as over 80% of companies are asking at least one behavioral question and nearly 50% construct an interview consisting entirely of behavioral questions.

So, what is a behavioral interview and why is it becoming so popular?  A behavioral interview is based on the premise that the best predictor of future performance is past behavior. A behavioral question forces you to tell a story about something factual from your past that illustrates a behavior, skill, ability or personality characteristic for which the recruiter is looking.Behavioral interview questions essentially make it a lot more difficult to just make something up or tell the recruiter what you think s/he wants to hear.

When comparing a behavioral versus a more “traditional” interview question, consider leadership skills.  Even if you are applying for a lower-level position, the company may still want you to move up the corporate ladder. Leadership skills will be mandatory in order to progress. No company wants to discover two or three years after you’re hired that you have a mutiny on your hands any time you try to lead other people.

In assessing your leadership skills, a more traditional interviewing question might ask “Define leadership” or “Give me three words that describe a good leader.” The problem with both of those questions is neither really communicates to the recruiter how good of a leader you really are. Maybe you are able to recall a definition of leadership you read in a book or you can think of three good attributes from a former boss of yours, none of which you actually possess. That’s where a behavioral question picks up the slack. A behavioral question would ask: “Tell me about a specific time in which you have demonstrated leadership.” This question forces you to tell the recruiter about an example of leadership that you have already exhibited in your past.

One of the main reasons for the popularity of a behavioral question is that it really does make it difficult to just tell the recruiter what he/she wants to hear. When asking the more traditional question “What is your greatest weakness,” most recruiters would tell you that they have heard “I am a perfectionist” countless times. It makes perfect sense that a job applicant would want to supply the recruiter with a weakness that could be interpreted as a strength. Is it really that bad to be a perfectionist and take a little more time to get the job done to ensure it is done right the first time?  This illustrates one of the toughest tasks for most recruiters: deciphering fiction from non-fiction in applicants’ responses. 

While preparing for and answering behavioral questions are challenging, good preparation still gives you the chance to excel. There are two key steps when preparing for behavioral questions:

1. Determine relevant behaviors – First you want to try to anticipate behaviors about which a recruiter will ask you. The easiest way to do that is to examine the job advertisement, because it normally mentions relevant behaviors for which a company is searching. If they aren’t spelled out for you, use common sense. There are numerous skills, abilities and personality characteristics that most jobs need for the employee to be successful: communication, leadership, working well on a team, and managing conflict are just a few examples. Once you have a list, you need to prepare answers for each one.

2. Prepare answers - Create an outline in your head that covers the essential areas. Recruiters are looking for several areas of focus in an ideal answer to a behavioral question. You can provide them with the information they want by following the STAR technique, which details the Situation/Task, Action, and Results.

First, thoroughly explain the Situation that you were in and the Task you needed to accomplish. Make sure you describe aspecific event or situation, not a general description. If your answer begins with “There have been numerous times in the past I have demonstrated…,” you are off to a bad start because you are generalizing. Think about things like the setting you were in (work, school, etc.), who was involved, and what exactly happened that made you demonstrate your relevant actions.

Second, you need to specifically describe the Action you took. Make sure you focus on what you did and how you did it and not what someone else you were working with may have done. Describe the steps that you went through in demonstrating your actions and include specific dialogue whenever possible from all parties involved.

Finally, detail the Results by describing the outcome. Make sure you are specific about what happened as a result of youractions and what you learned from all of it. Believe it or not, this is one thing many people inadvertently leave out of their response.

Make sure you provide enough specific detail for each of the STAR steps or you will be faced with secondary, probing questions. This means you are making the recruiter work harder to get the information you should have provided in the first place. It is recommended that job applicants talk 80% of the time in a job interview. It is a good idea to have at least two examples ready for each behavior in question. You want one situation that is completely positive, and one that started poorly, but either ended positively or you made the best of and can communicate what you learned from it.

Hopefully, you know by now that the odds are you will encounter at least one behavioral question in an interview. As mentioned earlier, roughly four out of five organizations will ask behavioral questions. Be prepared to shine during your interview by utilizing the STAR method. 

About the author (s)

Blair W. Browning

Baylor University

Assistant Professor

John R. Cunningham

Baylor University

Senior Lecturer