How to Handle a Behavioral Job Interview

Business person being interviewed

I’ve interviewed thousands of job candidates as a Business Psychologist and Human Resource consultant.  In this article, I’m going to share some advice about how to prepare for and respond to behavioral job interview questions.

What is a Behavioral Interview?

Behavioral interviewing is also known as situational interviewing or the “STAR” method (Situation, Task, Activity, Result).  Basically, it means the interviewer will ask you to describe examples of things you’ve done on the job, and most of the interview questions will begin with something like, “Tell me about a time when you…”.  The interviewer then probes for details about the who, what, when, where, and how in the examples you provide.

It’s important to note that asking what a person did do in certain job situations is different from traditional interviews that ask people what they would do.  The behavioral method is used because what a person did do tends to be more predictive of what they will do in the future, in comparison to what they say they would do.

How to Prepare for a Behavioral Interview

Behavioral interview questions are usually designed to match the skills needed for success in a job (e.g., problem-solving skills, project management skills, relationship building skills).  For instance, if a job requires a person to think strategically, an interviewer might ask them to describe a recent time when they had to create a business strategy.

With that in mind, it’s very useful to identify the skills a job requires so you can prepare accordingly for related interview questions:

  • Formal job descriptions will usually list the skills required for a position.  If not, Human Resources or the hiring manager for the role may share the skills they’re looking for if you ask.  It’s alright to ask about the skills required for success in a role when applying for a job.
  • You may also be able to figure out what skills are required by reviewing the job description closely and “reading between the lines”, so to speak.  In my experience, most job skills fall into three categories: Thinking (e.g., problem-solving, innovating), Results (e.g., accountability, time management), and People (e.g., networking, influencing).  Those categories can be used as a guide for understanding the skills underpinning a job description.  For example, while reading the job description, you could ask yourself, “What thinking-related skills seem needed for this role?”, “What results-related skills seem needed for this position?”, and so on.

Once you’ve identified the skills required for a job, the next step is to recall examples from your work experience when you demonstrated those skills:

  • Recall examples that occurred within the last year or less (the more recent, the better). They’ll be easier for you to remember and share details about.  Further, behavioral interviewers usually require examples to be relatively recent because they tend to be more indicative of your current skill-level.
  • Avoid getting stuck in trying to identify the “best” example you can think of.  I’ve interviewed many people who had difficulty giving examples because they didn’t feel the example was spectacular enough to share.  Behavioral interviewers tend to focus more on the how than the what in the examples you provide.  For instance, if you’re a manager, you probably take a similar approach to holding people accountable for both small and large projects (e.g., making expectations clear, and then following-up), but it’d be easier to talk about the details of smaller projects when the interviewer asks for them.
  • Don’t let an unsuccessful outcome keep you from sharing what would otherwise be a great example.  I see this often, for instance, when asking people to describe a time when they had to influence upward (e.g., change their boss’s opinion).  They hesitate to share an example because they were unsuccessful at changing their boss’s mind.  Yet, once they share the example it’s clear that their approach was good, despite their boss being unconvinced.

How to Respond to Behavioral Interview Questions

Now that you’ve identified the skills required for a job and some examples from your work experience that illustrate those skills, the final step is to refine how you’ll communicate those examples:

  • Answer the question the interviewer asks. Seems intuitive, but I still come across candidates who give examples they believe will make them look good, rather than examples that fit the questions asked.  The behavioral interview method requires clear examples from candidates that match specific skill areas, and so it’s not the time to respond like a politician.  For instance, if the interviewer asks you for an example of how you dealt with a customer complaint, you won’t be able to get by with an example of how you exceeded your sales goals for the year.  Similarly, if you find yourself falling back into the traditional interview habit of responding to questions with guesses about what you would do in a hypothetical scenario, be prepared to be asked again about what you did do in an actual situation, or worse, leave a bad impression with the interviewer.
  • Center your responses on describing your actions and involvement in the examples you provide.  Remember, in most instances, the interviewer is seeking to understand what you did so they can draw conclusions about your skills and fit for a job.  For instances when you were part of a team, you can start your example with, “As part of a team I… (and then talk specifically about what you did or the role you played on the team)”.
  • Be concise.  Interview time is limited, and interviewers typically have several skill areas to cover.  Communicating only the important essentials of each example (the who, what, where, when, and how) will help ensure you don’t run short on time.  Keep in mind that interviewers can ask you for more detail if they need it, but in contrast, it’s difficult to make up for time lost on longwinded answers.  Moreover, interviewers are likely to be evaluating how well you communicate when speaking, as many jobs require strong verbal communication skills.
  • Practice to ensure examples are fresh in your mind, but do not over-rehearse or read from your notes during an interview.  Behaviorally based interviews are not like exams that can be “passed” by giving certain “right” answers.  As mentioned previously, interviewers will likely be evaluating how you communicate, think on your feet, handle pressure, etc., while you are responding.  Having a few notes (such as bullet points to jog your memory) is usually fine, but coming across as scripted during an interview is not.
  • Finally, don’t be shy about taking time to think before responding (especially if you’re asked a question you weren’t expecting).  It’s much better to take a few moments to recall an example that is fitting and straightforward than it is to respond quickly with an example that’s mismatched or convoluted.

I hope found this article to be helpful, and I wish you the best of luck.  For more information, please email me, Dr. Gary Dumais, Psy.D., SPHR at garydumais@gmail.com