Behavioral Interviewing vs. Traditional Interviewing

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What is Behavioral Interviewing?

Behavioral interviewing is a style of interviewing developed in the 1970’s by industrial psychologists. The theory is that “the most accurate predictor of future performance is past performance in a similar situation.”

Behavioral interviewing emphasizes past performance and behaviors. The questions do more than simply determine what a candidate says they will do (i.e. job activities). In contrast, they should give the candidate an opportunity to share concrete examples of what they have done in their past work history that helped them to be successful.

More traditional interview methods would include hypothetical, cognitive, and personality type questions such as:

  1. Tell me about yourself.
  2. What are your strengths and weaknesses?
  3. Why are you interested in working for us?
  4. What would you do if you were having difficulties with another employee on your project?
  5. What would you do if someone asked you to overlook a problem with your project?
  6. Where do you see yourself in the next 5 years?
  7. How did you like your last job?

These more traditional interview methods have some shortfalls. Firstly, since they can be very closed-ended, they can limit further information. Secondly, they can elicit a hypothetical answer that may or may not reflect how they really behave. Finally, the interviewer’s personal bias can influence their evaluation.

Of course, hypothetical questions may be valuable in showing how the candidate thinks on his/her feet, but should not be the only basis of evaluation.

What are Cognitive Questions?

  • Cognitive questions are based on the theory that a candidate’s thinking, learning and memory functions are critical success factors.
  • This line of questioning often involves a series of scenarios where the interviewer describes practical problems
  • The interviewer evaluates the candidate’s methods used to solve these problems. These include evaluating how the candidate gathers and applies information, how they process data, and how they think through alternatives.
  • This type of interview question is best used for jobs with a high degree of intellectual content.

What are Personality Questions?

  • This type of question reveals more about who the person is rather than what they can deliver.
  • The answers are often characterized by trait words like reliable, hard working, quick learner, assertive, etc.
  • These questions save time in an interview but are not effective as an interview technique unless you ask for a real example of how the candidate used this trait.

In contrast, the sample behavioral questions below may result in more reliable answers.

Sample Behavioral Interview Questions

  • Give me an example of a time when you had to keep from speaking or making a decision because you did not have enough information.
  • Describe a time when you had to make a quick decision.
  • What is the toughest group that you have had to get cooperation from? How did you win them over?
  • Have you ever had difficulty getting others to accept your ideas? What was your approach? Did it work?
  • Give me an example of a time when you went above and beyond the call of duty.
  • Describe a situation when you were able to have a positive influence on the action of others.
  • Tell me about a situation when you had to speak up (be assertive) in order to get a point across that was important to you.
  • Have you ever had to “sell” an idea to your co-workers or group? How did you do it? Did they “buy” it?
  • What have you done in the past to contribute toward a teamwork environment?
  • How do you decide what gets top priority when scheduling your time?
  • What do you do when your schedule is suddenly interrupted? Give an example.
  • Give me an example of an important goal which you had set in the past and tell me about your success in reaching it.

How to Prepare Questions for a Behavioral Interview

Companies that employ behavioral interviewing techniques can use the same analysis they use to develop the job description. This helps determine the skill sets required to be successful in the job. The hiring manager should consider the following questions:

  • What are the necessary skills to do this job?
  • And what makes a successful candidate?
  • Identify the deliverables we are expecting.
  • What would make an unsuccessful candidate?
  • Why have people left this position?
  • What is the most difficult part of this job?

A sample list of skills resulting from the job analysis may include the following:

  • Decision making and problem solving
  • Leadership, motivation
  • Ability to work independently with little supervision
  • Communication, interpersonal skills
  • Planning and organization, critical thinking skills
  • Team building and the ability to influence others

When asking a behavioral question, try using the “STAR” approach. Be sure the candidate’s answer includes:

  • Situation or Task
  • Actions
  • Result

Using the “STAR” approach, the interviewer might expect the sample answer below to the question; “What have you done in the past to contribute toward a teamwork environment?”

The candidate might recount a time when communication within their work group had broken down (situation). To resolve the problem, the candidate organized informal lunch meetings for people to discuss relevant issues (action). Morale then improved, as did the lines of communication (result).

Benefits of Behavioral Interviewing

To recap, let’s list the benefits of behavioral interviewing:

  • Helps determine if the candidate can prove that they’ve taken actions that have delivered results.
  • Makes the candidate recall real actions and results they have experienced and describe them in detail.
  • Can establish a pattern of behavior.
  • The safest for inexperienced interviewers because they don’t require the evaluation of a psychological or organizational professional.
  • Behavioral interviews make it difficult for the candidate to make up stories that are not based on real situations.
  • Companies that invest the time and energy in developing behavioral interviews often attract top candidates and top candidates make the company a more desirable place to work.

Work to Reduce Hiring Bias

As you work to create an equitable evaluation process, keep the following in mind:

  • Evaluate the candidate only on his/her ability to deliver.
  • Base your evaluation on specific facts, not a gut feeling or general impression.
  • Openly share your impressions and evaluations even if they are different than the rest of the team.
  • Feel comfortable with raising red flags.
  • Don’t rush to make a decision if you don’t have enough facts.
  • Avoid allowing the impressions of others to pressure you to change your evaluation.


Simplify HR management today.

Simplify HR management today.

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