Better Behavioral Interview Questions

by Marcianne Kuethen
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Remember the anticipation you felt as a kid when you heard the phrase, “Once upon a time…”? Nowadays, if you’re an HR or hiring manager, “Tell me about a time when…” holds similar possibilities as this equally famous opening line is used to prompts candidates to tell their own stories. Since past performance is the best indicator of future behavior, no one doubts the value of behavioral questions, open-ended questions that allow a candidate being interviewed to tell you about his or her past performance. But if you’re not careful, you could be framing behavioral interview questions in such a way that you’re losing some of that value.

Leadership IQ’s Mark Murphy cautions that not all behavioral interview questions are created equal. You might think you’re asking an open-ended behavioral interview question, when in fact you may be giving away clues instead.

The whole point of behavioral interview questions is to get honest feedback by asking carefully worded, open-ended questions that don’t cue the candidate to give the answer you’re hoping to hear. For instance, you don’t want to say, “You do have experience with ______ , I assume?” Any smart candidate would nod and answer, “Of course.” Behavioral interview questions are to be framed open-endedly so that the candidate reveals his or her attitude without being influenced by the hoped-for outcome. The danger, says Murphy, is that you may think you’ve framed a question without influencing the answer, when in fact, certain words in your question may be suggesting the intended answer.

For example, suppose you were to ask, “Tell me about a problem you had with a co-worker and how you successfully handled it.” Inadvertently, you are suggesting that the candidate answer with a story that ends positively, when in fact, had you asked the question a different way, you may have received a different story. Murphy’s research showed that, if the interview question doesn’t reveal the right answer, up to 50-60% of candidates will give you answers about failures rather than successes–which could help you weed out the problem bringers from the problem solvers!

The good news is that the problematic interview questions we’ve been discussing are fixable (as are most behavioral interview questions). The first big fix is to replace loaded words (like adapt, successfully, balance, persuade) with less presumptuous language. For instance, instead of asking candidates about when they ‘balanced’ competing priorities, we should ask them about when they ‘faced’ competing priorities. Instead of asking about when they ‘adapted’ to a difficult situation, we should ask about when they ‘faced’ a difficult situation.

Murphy also suggests not finishing a question by asking how they did it or how they handled it. It’s possibly that they chose not to do anything, which will also reveal something very important about they way they operate.  (We often suggest asking the followup question, “What did you do?” which allows room for candidates to be truthful either way.)

Behavioral interview questions are a necessary tool to have in the arsenal of your hiring process. But make sure you’re framing them properly and leaving room for whatever candidates really have to say. If you don’t, you may learn the hard way that you coached them into the answers you wanted to hear.

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