When you’re assessing candidates for a given position, a resume and cover letter will tell you some things about them, but an interview is the pudding where the proof is to be found. The questions you (or a recruiter, on your behalf) ask in the course of an interview take several forms. There are, of course, basic questions that arise in almost every interview. Some relating to the work history of a candidate – why they took and left various jobs; their goals and objectives, strengths and weaknesses, salary expectations. Behavioural interview questions complement those with deeper insight into the tendencies and preferences of your candidate.
Behavioural, or situational, interview questions ask a candidate to talk about a real-world example when they experienced a particular thing, or took a certain action. So why do we ask them? Simply put: past performance is the best indicator of future performance. What a person has done in the past, the way they’ve responded to various situations, is probably pretty similar to what they’ll do if they end up working for you.
If you plan to include questions like these in your interviews, first you’ll need to determine what questions will produce the most useful insights. To help, here are two questions to ask yourself:
What are the skills, attributes and characteristics that a person will need to be most successful in the position?
What are some situations that someone in this position will frequently have to deal with, or problems that they’ll often need to solve?
For the first question, let’s say you’ve determined that a successful employee needs to be highly detail-oriented, with well-developed analytical skills, and able to work well under pressure. It’s easy to write those words on a resume (and they appear on almost every one), but a great candidate should be able to provide evidence. So you might ask:
“Tell me about a time when you caught an error that others had missed.”
“Tell me about the most complex or difficult information you’ve ever had to analyse.”
“Give me an example of a time you had to juggle an unusually large number of projects and priorities.”
For the second question, imagine that the position involves negotiation of contracts, and some formal presentations. Let’s take a different approach with these examples. Questions that ask a candidate to talk about failure are particularly useful, because they not only give you information about what they’ve done in the past, they also provide signals about how well the person learns from their mistakes. So you might ask:
“Give me an example of a time you were unhappy with the results of a negotiation you were involved in.”
“Give me an example of a time when a presentation you were making wasn’t working and you switched tactics to attempt to turn it around.”
When answering these questions, candidates will often use what’s known as the ‘STAR’ format. ‘S’ stands for ‘Situation’ (what was happening that led to the events they’re about to describe?). ‘T’ stands for ‘Tactic’, or ‘Target’ (what was the plan, and what did they hope to achieve?). ‘A’ stands for ‘Action’ (what would you have seen them do, or known they had done, if you’d been there?). And ‘R’ stands for ‘Result’ (good or bad, what was the outcome?). If the situation was one that evolved and was dealt with relatively quickly or simply, with less planning and deliberation required, ‘CAR’ is fine: Context, Action, Result. Listen for all these elements, and don’t be afraid to ask follow-up or probing questions if you’re not hearing enough detail. Here are a few of my favourites:
“What other options did you consider?”
“How did you feel when that happened?”
“What do you wish you had done differently?”
“What did you learn from the situation that you’ve since used?”
Interviews are, by their very nature, ‘artificial’ environments where everyone is playing a role and putting their best foot forward. Behavioural questions offer a peek into the real-world thoughts and actions of a candidate, and can be a huge help in selecting the one that can offer the on-the-job performance you need. Choose wisely, and ask away.