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Using Behavioural Interviewing

Posted on 15/01/2015 by Jo Hodge

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What is behavioural interviewing?

Behavioural interviewing is an increasingly popular type of job interview, where an interviewee is asked to provide examples from their past employment of specific situations and go through how they behaved in those circumstances.  The logic is that past performance is predictive of future performance, ie how you behaved in the past will forecast how you will behave in the future.

Why use behavioural interviewing?

Behavioural interviewing is said to be the most accurate predictor of a candidate’s future performance.  Rather than simply taking a candidate's word for it that they have the skills and capabilities required for the role, this method of interviewing allows them to prove their worth.

Traditional interviewing, using open questions like “tell me about your past work experience”, often doesn’t give you enough data to accurately evaluate a candidate.  As each candidate can choose to answer these questions in a completely different way, it also makes it hard to compare candidates in an objective way.  Ultimately, a traditional interview tends to mostly judge candidates on how well they interview, rather than how well they will do the job.

Situational interviews are better, as they ask the candidate to describe how they might handle a certain situation.  However, this does allow the interviewee to talk about what they might do, rather than stick to what they did do.

By focussing purely on actual examples, behavioural interviewing makes it easier for an interviewer to objectively judge how a candidate will perform in the role.  Each question can be followed up by further questions to get more detail and depth on specific behaviours, such as “what factors did you consider when you made that decision?” or “what were you thinking at that point?”.  This makes it very difficult for interviewees to exaggerate or ‘fudge’ their answers to give you the responses they think you want to hear.

Behavioural interviews are also a really good way to discover new talent and avoid age discrimination, as they do not require the candidate to have a great deal of direct work experience, but concentrate more on transferrable skills and competencies.  Answers do not necessarily need to come from the workplace but could use examples from volunteer experience, extra-curricular activities or even family life.

Preparing your questions

Before you start putting together your list of questions for the interview, you need to establish exactly what behaviours are necessary for the role.  Use your job description and person specification to put together a list of the key responsibilities for the role and then determine how an employee would be judged successful in those responsibilities.

You’ll then need to think about the characteristics and traits necessary in an employee to deliver those successful outcomes.  Look at current successful employees in similar roles, and the qualities and skills they possess, to form a picture of your ideal candidate.  You should also consider your organisation's culture and whether you want your new employee's personality to be similar or complementary. A typical profile would include competencies like interpersonal skills, decision-making skills, creativity, flexibility, enthusiasm, time management etc.  Stick to the most important skills or you could be interviewing all day!

Once you’ve got a list of your ideal behavioural traits, you can start to make up a list of questions to judge interviewees against.  Make sure you use the same questions, in the same order, for every interview so it’s easy to compare candidates.

Typical behavioural interview questions

Behavioural interview questions are generally more specific and more probing than traditional interview questions.  Each question should be designed to elicit an example of performance from past experience and should be followed up with further tailored questions to get to the key behaviour shown.

Typical questions include:

  • Give an example of an occasion when you used logic to solve a problem.

  • Give an example of a goal you reached and tell me how you achieved it.

  • Describe a decision you made that was unpopular and how you handled implementing it.

  • Have you gone above and beyond the call of duty? If so, how?

  • What do you do when your schedule is interrupted? Give an example of how you handle it.

  • Have you had to convince a team to work on a project they weren't thrilled about?

  • How did you do it?

  • Have you handled a difficult situation with a co-worker? How?

  • Tell me about how you worked effectively under pressure.

You should be asking two-three behavioural questions for each competency to give you enough information to make an accurate assessment of the candidate’s ability.

STAR statements

When answering a behavioural interview question, candidates are expected to use the STAR method to shape their responses.  When all candidates answer the question in a similar way, it makes it much easier to compare them afterwards.

STAR is an acronym for the four parts of an answer to a typical behavioural question:

Situation – the background to the example.  The situation the candidate was in or the problem that faced them. 

Task – the ultimate goal or what the candidate needed to achieve.

Action – what the candidate did and the reasons why they made this decision.  If the action was a team initiative, it is important for the candidate to focus on their role only.

Result – what did the action achieve and was the goal accomplished?  It’s not necessary for all examples to have positive results, as long as a candidate can justify their actions and show that they learnt from the results.

Assessing interviewees

Once all the interviews have been completed, use your interview notes to rate each candidate on the answers they have given.  One of the benefits of using behavioural interviews is that it helps avoid bias in interviewing, so stick to a scoring system.

For each question, identify the key behaviours that would separate an excellent candidate from a poor one.  The interviewee can then be scored against each competency.

A typical rating scale would be 1-5 where 4 or 5 was an excellent demonstration of that competency, 2 or 3 was adequate and 1 was extremely poor.

Things to consider

Make sure your list of desired behaviours is actually reflected in the job description and person specification that you use to advertise the role, or you will end up with unsuitable candidates for interview.

Make sure candidates know it will be a behavioural interview when they are invited, giving them a chance to prepare their answers.  Giving a candidate the chance to prepare will get you better interview answers and should help you judge their responses more easily.

Taking very detailed notes is an essential part of the behavioural interview process, so that you can score a candidate’s performance accurately.

If you are using a recruitment agency like TPP Not for Profit, they should be able to help you put your list of desirable competencies together and help you construct behavioural interview questions.

Useful Links

Lists of behavioural competencies:

Top Ten Behavioral Interview Questions

75 Behavioural Interview Questions To Select The Best Candidate

TPP’s guide for candidates to competency-based interviews