How to Answer Behavioral Interview Questions and Get More Job Offers

Martin Yate By Martin Yate January 14, 2020
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job interview with two people

Best-selling author Martin Yate, a career coach and former HR professional, takes your questions each week about how to further your career in HR.

I followed your advice on resumes, and I'm finally getting interviews, but not offers. I have 15 years of experience but only two jobs. I can see that my lack of experience with job interviews is costing me  offers, but I don't know what to do. At my last interview I was asked a question and I answered it, but the interviewer acted like she didn't believe me and continued to ask the same question in different ways: "When did it happen? "Who or what caused the problem?" "How could it have been prevented?" and so on. I have all the relevant experience, I'm good at my job and well-qualified for the ones I'm chasing, but this third-degree questioning gets me flustered and I start babbling.

First, don't be too hard on yourself. Getting through job interviews is hard! Here are some tips to prepare and get better at it.

Second, understand that the issue is probably not that the interviewer doesn't believe you. More likely, he or she wants more information to be able to envision you handling the daily challenges that come with the job.

Behavioral Interviews

A powerful interviewing technique that gives hiring managers better insight into candidates' potential on-the-job performance—known as "behavioral interviewing—has become an integral part of almost every job interview today.

This approach is based on the reasonable assumption that a leopard doesn't change its spots—or, in other words, that your past behavior in given situations is a good predictor of your future performance. Interviewers think, "If I know how you behaved in specific situations on someone else's payroll, I'll know how you will behave on mine."

You can deal with this. If you can list each of your responsibilities and the challenges each can deliver, describe how you avoid them whenever you can, and also describe how you handle them when you they do pop up, then you have pretty much answered typical behavioral interview questions.

Behavioral interview strategy bases questions on past actions and specific jobs, projects, dates and places, and requires a candidate to give detailed answers from real-world events in their work history.

Interviewers who use these techniques often bring them into play early in the interview, so that a candidate may quickly recognize that detailed examples about past work situations are going to be the norm at this interview.

What Behavioral Questions Sound Like

Behavioral questions begin with a general query about an area of responsibility and are then followed up with questions that dig into your experience and behavior:

  • "Tell me about a time when you ..."
  • "Share with me an experience where you had to ..."
  • "Give me an example of a situation that ..."
  • "Can you tell me about a specific time when this happened?"

Behavioral questions can also address:

  • "What caused this situation?"
  • "What problems did it cause you, your department and the company?"
  • "What specific problems did you have to tackle and how did you handle them?"
  • "How could this situation have been avoided in the first place?" "Looking back, what could you have done differently?"

Often this sequence of focused behavioral questions ends with "What did you learn from this experience?"

Identify the problems that you've tackled and solved on the job—the day-to-day and the once-in-a-blue-moon problems. Then think of how, or if, each experience changed your understanding, expertise or approach to such situations. This will prepare you for the behavioral questions an interviewer is likely to ask.

Extra Credit

Here is a little more prep work for behavioral questions:

  1. With some research on your target company's areas of focus and a few Google searches, you can bring yourself up to speed on current industry thinking. Educate yourself on issues the company is concerned about and that an interviewer may query you about. Prepare in advance so that you have time to think through your answers. This also demonstrates your engagement with your profession.
  2. Compare the job description with your resume. Craft answers about how you would do the tasks outlined in the job description, based on your work history in your previous jobs.

Desirable Behavioral Traits of Successful Professionals

Regardless of your title or seniority, there are certain behaviors that underlie the successful execution of most jobs. None of these behaviors apply to the successful completion of every job or solution of every problem, but one or two of them nearly always apply to the different issues you face every day. Try to work these traits into your answers, as they apply:

  • Communication
  • Critical thinking
  • Multi-tasking
  • Teamwork
  • Creativity
  • Leadership

There are also a series of values that successful professionals hold in common that you can also work into your responses:

  • Motivation
  • Energy
  • Commitment
  • Determination
  • Confidence
  • Productivity
  • Economy
  • Systems and procedures
  • Integrity

You don't have to say, for example, that you're motivated or determined, but show how you exemplify these traits by telling about your actions in previous work.

If you have the adequate technical skills for the target job, using these tactics will give a behavioral profile of the candidate that every manager wants to hire.

Have a question for Martin about advancing or managing your career? From big issues to small, please feel free to e-mail your queries to YourCareerQA@shrm.org. We'll only publish your first name and city, unless you prefer to remain anonymous—just let us know.

Packed with practical, honest, real-world guidance for successfully navigating common HR career challenges, Martin Yate's new book, The HR Career Guide: Great Answers to Tough Career Questions, is available at the SHRMStore

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