How to Build Powerful Behavioral-Based Questions

Feb 11, 2014

We are getting better at realizing that our recruiting process must assess for behaviors and abilities in addition to skills and experience. After all, in an intellectual workplace, we must be able to assess candidate thinking, considering we are paying our employees to think their way through the day.

The best way to assess candidate behaviors/talent is to craft and deliver effective behavioral-based questions. These questions, unlike conventional interview questions, follow a formula I share with my clients. This formula makes the questions easy to build, deliver, and effective at gathering meaningful information.

Before sharing the formula and some sample questions, review why these questions are so effective. Behavioral-based questions are designed to assess a candidate’s top-of-mind response — the thinking that the candidate will bring to the workplace. Assessing how the candidate handles situations provides greater information as to the effectiveness of the thinking style for what the job requires. To gather this information, our questions must be unique (not predictable), focused around the behavior we are assessing for, and include real workplace situations. In short, we want and need to see the thinking in action.

Building an effective behavioral-based question follows this formula:

Standard question format + required behaviors + a workplace situation = great question

Once going through these three sections of the formula, I’ll share four completed questions that follow this formula.

Standard question format

An unpredictable or unexpected question (not the routine questions that interview candidates have prepared for and rehearsed their responses) is critical to get a true and top-of-mind candidate response. The following four formats work well to create unexpected and effective behavioral-based interview questions. Notice that the first two formats are related to the past (and therefore I would expect a more confident and significant candidate answer); the second two are hypothetical and are looking for how the candidate would handle something that he may not have yet encountered.

  1.  “Tell me about a time when…”
  2. “If I were to ask your previous boss or co-worker about how handle … , what would they say?”
  3. “Here is a situation … How would you handle this?”
  4.  “Here are your choices… which would you choose and why?”

Required behaviors

The focus of the question is built around behaviors we have specifically identified as required for the job (examples: organized, methodical, strategic, responsive, amiable, insightful, deliberate, competitive, etc).

A workplace situation

A great behavioral-based question must include an actual situation the candidate will encounter in the workplace because you want to see the thinking and the required behaviors in action. This is how you “kick the tires” and see the candidate’s ability to use the behaviors you are assessing for in a situation he is likely to encounter in your workplace.

Examples of behavioral-based questions using this formula:

  1. Tell me about a time when you had to determine whether to push for a workplace project to get completed, or decide it was time to let it go. (Format 1 + behaviors assessed: adaptive, resilient, persuasive, determined + situation expected in your workplace.)
  2. If I were to ask you previous boss about how you build team unity cohesion and loyalty, what would he say? Give several examples. (Format 2 + behaviors assessed: supportive, team-focused, upbeat, persuasive, optimistic, creative or diplomatic + situation expected in your workplace.)
  3. Here’s a situation: Two of your employees get into a disagreement about something in front of a customer. How would you handle this and keep the customer? (Format 3 + behaviors assessed:  innovative, decisive, deliberate, considerate, nurturing, inspiring or supportive + situation expected in your workplace.)
  4. You are dealing with a business slowdown. Here are your choices: is it better to layoff employees or cut back on their hours and benefits? (Format 4 + behaviors assessed:  methodical, analytical, creative, strategic, compassionate, adaptive + situation expected in your workplace.)

Great interviewing is more about information gathering than anything else. To get meaningful information requires great questions. Commit the time to build questions that get the candidate thinking about your particular workplace situations to be able to meaningfully assess the responses. We want to test our candidates’ approach and responses before we add them to our team. Ask only questions that get candidates thinking so you can see the thinking in action. Then determine if that thinking is right for the job.

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