Behavioral Interviews

In the preliminary interview or on-site interview, you will be talking to someone who represents the hiring company. More and more people involved in hiring decisions are using a format known as the behavioral interview. The more familiar you are with this format, the more successful you can be answering the interviewer’s questions.

The underlying principle of the behavioral interview is that the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. The questions are aimed at finding out how and what you did in the past and the skill sets you used in the process — because if you did it before, you can do it again.

The behavioral interview also provides a standardized format that different interviewers can use to compare notes among themselves and to compare one candidate with another. The questions are very specific and often start with: “Tell me about a time when. . . ?” or “Have you ever. . . ?” This answer calls for a specific example of an event and the interviewer will assess your future performance from the examples you provide.

Answering Behavioral Interview Questions

Interviewers often meet in advance to decide who will ask what questions, and use these questions to explore a candidate’s non-technical skills. Aside from providing a self-portrait, this technique can bring out points or questions that the interviewer otherwise might not have considered. Using this format allows all candidates to be evaluated equally, as opposed to relying solely on a candidate’s résumé, which is designed to present the candidate in the most favorable light.  It also avoids:

  • Using psychological and intelligence tests, which do not tell the whole story, especially about technical background and communication skills; or
  • Conducting non-structured interviews, which make it difficult to compare candidates since the interviewers aren’t asking the same questions.

Questions in a behavioral interview will, of course, vary depending on the position in question. But in general, the responses all tend to have the same three-part structure: C-A-R.

  • Context: Candidate describes a job-related context or situation similar to the one in question.
  • Action: Candidate describes what he or she did in that situation.
  • Result: Candidate describes the outcome of his or her action.

First, describe the context of the situation in enough detail so that the interviewer fully understands your role. Then, describe the action you took and discuss the results, quantifying them with examples whenever possible.  The total answer should take on the order of one minute.

In part, this information allows the interviewer to make a hiring decision based on facts, not feelings. The quality of what you say — rather than how much you say or how long it takes you — determines the effectiveness of your response.

This technique does have a few potential pitfalls:

  • An over-reliance on the past instead of the present and future.
  • An interviewer’s assumption that people never change.
  • An applicant’s tendency to talk too much.

If you understand the theory behind behavioral interviews and prepare for them, you can be more confident and better equipped to convince interviewers you’re the best choice for the job. 

  • Provide enough information to convince the interviewer you’re the right person for the job; don’t just say what you think they want to hear. Take the time to develop an answer, and then support it with quantifiable facts and examples.
  • Don’t turn the response on its head. You may be tempted to twist your answers to avoid saying anything negative about yourself. But if you really can’t think of an example, say so, then give a hypothetical example of how you might behave.  You can use one or two anecdotes from your personal life, but the vast majority of your stories should be work-related.
  • Answer all the questions the interviewer asks, not just those you prepared for — do not evade any questions.

Behavioral Interviews in a Panel Setting

The C-A-R response is also useful if you find yourself in a panel interview. In this format, interviewers don’t have to rely on the memory of individuals or the quality of note taking; they all hear the same answer. Also, you don’t have to answer the same question again and again for different individual interviewers. Panels can vary in size, but will generally consist of three to four interviewers. It may be a formal meeting in a conference room or it could occur informally during a meal. The questions are likely to be the same as in a one-on-one interview, but may be efficiently divided among several individuals who are responsible for a particular line of questioning such as technical, communications, or leadership. Panel interviews are not designed to be stress interviews, but they can be stressful if you’re not prepared for the process. It can be unsettling to enter a room and encounter several people seated around a table, ready to ask you questions. The best preparation is to know the company, know your own skills and accomplishments, and be certain you can give examples using the C-A-R approach.

At the end of the interview, you may be told when to expect a decision. If not, ask what the time frame is for the next step. If you don’t hear by the specified date, call to ask about the status of your application.