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Behavioral Job Interviewing - It's Not Just a Fad Anymore

July 22, 2011

By: Carletta Clyatt
Behavioral interviewing is not a fad that is sweeping corporate America – it’s been around since the 1970s.  Industrial psychologists of that era conducted studies on the overall effectiveness of traditional interview questions, quickly discovering that they weren’t very effective in determining how well a candidate will perform in a given job.  Many of the questions are close-ended and for variety the interviewer would throw in a hypothetical situation or two to get the candidate to think on her feet (and, unknowingly, afford the opportunity to embellish or tell the interviewer what he or she wants to hear).

Conversely, behavioral interviewing gives the candidate very little (if any) wiggle room for embellishment.  Its premise is simple: Past behavior is the most accurate predictor of future behavior.

Consider This 

You are about to interview Leslie for your vacant customer service rep position.  Neatly inscribed on your legal pad are several tried-and-true interview questions that should help you determine Leslie’s ability to do the job. 

Leslie arrives and you pose the traditional ice-breaker questions, followed by your usual favorites.  Among them: 

•    What types of software programs have you used?

•    How many words per minute can you type?

•    Which do you find most interesting – working independently or as part of a team?

•    What is your ideal supervisor – one who provides maximum independence or one who is attentive? 

Decent, legitimate questions, perhaps.  However, these are all close-ended questions – potential dead-ends that can lead to three-second answers, awkward moments, and, worst yet, a lack of beneficial information.  Thoughtfully crafted questions that are part of a behavioral interview can give you a much better read on your job candidates, making it easier to separate the wheat from the chaff. 

Here’s How Behavioral Interviewing Works

Let’s say that you want to determine Leslie’s problem-solving abilities, especially in a pressure-cooker situation where an incensed customer is involved.  Your first instinct may be to ask this question: 

“How would you deal with an irate customer?” 

Leslie may respond with a heavily rehearsed presentation and a textbook response.  You want specifics – a problem she faced in the past, the action she took to overcome the problem, and the results attained.  Because past behavior will give you the best read on how Leslie will perform if hired, you may want to rephrase the question this way:

“Tell me about a time when you had to deal with an angry customer.  Describe the circumstances, the actions you took, and the eventual outcome.” 

In responding Leslie may pause for a few seconds to gather her thoughts.  This is perfectly acceptable.  If it becomes obvious that Leslie is drawing a blank and the silence becomes deafening and awkward, move on to the next question.  However, don’t let Leslie depart the interview room without providing a satisfactory answer to your question!

Consider this exchange: 

Interviewer: “Tell me about a time when you had to deal with an angry customer.  Describe the circumstances, the actions you took, and the eventual outcome.” 

Leslie: “Um … ah … uh …That’s a good question but I can’t think of a specific example.”

Interviewer: “That’s fine.  Take your time.” 

Leslie: (After a 15-second pause) “I’m sorry, I just can’t come up with one.” 

Interviewer: “No problem; we’ll revisit that question later.  In the meantime, tell me about a work situation that required extra effort on your part … “ 

Once Leslie provides a sufficient response, look for natural follow-on questions, such as “Lead me through your decision process.” 

Careful planning will lead to a smooth and effective behavioral interview. 

Consider adopting this five-step approach:

1.  Identify the most important skills for the job.  Review the job description (if available) and make a list of the technical and performance criteria for the position.

2.  Write the questions.  Make sure they are legal and relate to the job.  Avoid questions on the following topics:

  • Race
  • Color
  • Religion
  • Sex
  • Age
  • National origin
  • Marital status
  • Disability
  • Sexual orientation
  • Veteran status
  • Arrest record
  • Weight
  • Height
  • Organizations that are not job-related

Use open-ended questions whenever possible, and always look for specific job-related situations from the past to predict the candidate’s future job performance. 

3.  Conduct the interview.  Alert the candidate that you will take notes to jog your memory during the selection process.  Ask ice-breaker questions to build rapport, then ask your open-ended, behaviorally related questions.  If the candidate does not give you the response you want or is trying to sidestep the question, insist on a specific answer.  Remember: You can allow for brief silence as the candidate gathers her thoughts. 

4.  Evaluate the candidates on your “short list,” then make your selection.

 5.  Reevaluate the questions you asked; look for ways you can improve the process.

Give behavioral interviewing a try in your next interview.  When combined with The Omnia Profile  you will assemble a seamless pre-employment hiring regimen that should help reduce your employee turnover and boost your bottom line!

Carletta Clyatt

Carletta Clyatt, a popular seminar speaker, is the SVP at The Omnia Group. She offers clients advice on how to manage more effectively and gain insight into employee strengths, weaknesses and behaviors. For more information about employee behavioral assessments, call Carletta at 813-280-3026 or email:

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