Behavioral Interviewing – Hiring the Right People

Behavioral Interviewing

In most lines of business, there are peak hiring seasons such as summer or winter, holidays, filing deadlines, and more. One constant remains the same; the need for good employees. So how do we find and hire the right people? Behavioral interviewing is still one of the most common approaches used to select new employees how your interview will, in large part, determine whether or not you are getting the “right” person for your organization.

Behavioral Interviewing

What is the best predictor of how someone will respond to a situation in the future? Typically, the same way they met in the past is how they will in the future. The foundation of effective interviewing is to ask questions that get candidates to talk about real, specific past job situations relevant to your hiring criteria.

Behavioral interviewing is a process of asking pre-determined questions that require the candidate to answer based on how they handled the past situation. A behavioral question is open-ended and directs a candidate to provide behavioral evidence of the desired competency. These types of questions lead the candidate to focus on experience and situations where the desired skill would have been tested and requires the candidate to paint a vivid, detailed picture of their performance in that situation. Candidates must recall what they did, said, and even though in critical real work situations. This is different from the traditional interview question in that they ask candidates to imagine what they would do in hypothetical situations, not what they did in real work situations.

Behavioral questions begin with phrases like, “Tell me about a time when…”, “Give me an example of a time when. . .” or “Describe a situation where you. . .” These types of questions help the interviewer gather information on four key areas:

  1. Situations where the desired skill was tested
  2. Tasks that required the desired skill
  3. Actions the candidate took
  4. Results (good and bad) of that action

For example, if you are hiring a Customer Service Representative and one of the critical hiring criteria is to resolve customer service challenges, you might ask the following behavioral interview questions.

 “Tell me about a time when you were confronted with an angry customer. 

  1.  What was the issue, and what did you do?”
  2. “Tell me about a time when you were unable to resolve a customer’s problems. What was the issue, what did you do, and what happened?”
  3.  Often interviewers wait until the candidate comes into the office to decide what questions to ask, making the interview somewhat haphazard by asking whatever pops into their mind like, “Tell me about yourself.” They may look over the resume and ask a few obvious questions about duration in position or reason for leaving, and then make a decision based on “gut feel.”

Some interviewers may ask situational-based questions like, “What would you do if you were faced with this kind of problem?” Knowledge-based questions are common where they assess someone’s job-specific expertise and understanding. Of course, these kinds of questions can obtain some essential information. However, the response may not be fact-based. Interviewees tend to impress the interviewer by saying what they think the interviewer wants to hear, not necessarily how they would perform the job or deal with the situation.

The result could be that the wrong person is hired for the job, with you potentially spending a lot more time trying to turn them into a good hire, or they leave early in the process. Hiring the wrong person is costly to the business in terms of productivity, training, and recruiting costs and disrupts the workforce.

Behavioral Hiring Criteria

The best place to start any job search or selection process is to define your hiring criteria clearly. Look at others who do the job well and ask, “What is it about them that makes them successful? What education, certificates, or degrees are needed if any? What type and level of job experience do they need to possess, and how many years of experience are needed? What is the right pay range for this position to attract and retain the ideal candidate?”

Next, determine the critical success factors needed to succeed in the job, such as knowledge, skills, abilities, and personality traits. Hiring the right person is overall fit with the situation, company culture, team, and manager. It is critical to define the personality needed to fit the job and work environment best.

Proper job analysis and clearly defined job descriptions are useful tools to help in this process. At a minimum, the job description should contain a job purpose summary, essential duties and responsibilities, qualifications, and competencies. Also, you should clearly define non-negotiables, the critical job requirements everyone in this position must meet to be a trustworthy candidate. For example, non-negotiables may include such things as the ability to lift 50 lbs. Regularly, to stand for long periods, work different shifts, work overtime, travel requirements, and so on.

Probing Questions

Probing questions are additional open-ended questions that encourage the candidate to delve more deeply into the situation they are describing and provide more detailed information on their performance in that situation. Examples of probing questions include, “What did you do next?” and “What were you thinking at that point?” Using the customer service question above, you might start with the core question of how they handled the angry customer, then ask probing questions like: “How did you get them to calm down?”, “How did you resolve the problem?” or “What was the result?”


You are more likely to hire the right person if you prepare and plan ahead of time by clearly defining your hiring criteria. Develop job-related behavioral interview questions in advance, and use probing questions to get the facts needed to determine if a candidate fits your hiring requirements.

When conducting interviews, ask every candidate the same questions, listen carefully to their responses, and probe for more details as needed. Keep short yet descriptive notes (relevant to the knowledge, skills, and abilities required; nothing personal that could be deemed discriminatory) during the interview to help you remember key facts needed to make your candidate selection.

Written by: Ken Spencer, SPHR, MHRM, President & CEO, HR Service, Inc.

HR Service provides leader training on interviewing and other selection techniques. We help conduct a job analysis and write job descriptions. HR Service also offers recruiting solutions to find the best person for the job when you need them. 

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