How to Create Behavioral Interview Questions That Don’t Give Away the Answer

Mar 3, 2016
This article is part of a series called Tips & Tricks.

The first rule of creating behavioral interview questions is that they do not end with a question mark. They are not questions at all but more a sentence asking that the candidate reflect on past experiences.

Behavioral interviewing is a type of interviewing based on the belief that a person’s recent past experience is the best predictor of future performance. On the surface, this makes a lot of sense to ensure the best quality of hire. So interview questions should be designed to understand a person’s past experience in a similar situation to yours. The best way to understand a person’s past experience is to use behavioral interviewing.

The problem with most behavioral questions is that the author tries to make them a question.

Behavioral Interview Questions Are Not Questions

If you find yourself creating questions instead of statements, you might be giving away the answer. To understand this more let’s take a look at the basic structure of a behavioral interview question.

A behavioral interview question is different than an open-ended question. An open-ended question is simply a question that does not get a yes or no answer, but it does not guarantee that you will get a behavioral answer. Any affective behavioral interview question will have at least two parts and the simpler the better.

The first part of the behavioral interview question is the introduction. There are several traditional phrases that begin a behavioral interview question. When these opening phrases are used it almost ensures you have started down the right path of creating an effective behavioral question. Here’s some examples:

  • Tell me about a time …
  • Give me an example of …
  • Describe for me …

The second part of the behavioral question is called the situation or problem. This situation should be as close to your reality as possible. Here are some examples:

  • … you were faced with constant change.
  • … an important goal that you set.
  • … a conflict you had it work.

Where Behavioral Questions Give Away the Answer

In examining many behavioral questions we have found where most authors trip up writing interview questions is trying to make a behavioral question into an open-ended question. This is just not necessary as the behavioral question is open-ended by its very nature.

Another situation where we find the answers being given away in a behavioral interview question is by putting conditions of success on the situation. This is often in the form of asking a person to describe a situation where they have been successful. This leaves out a situation where they may not have been successful and you may want to know just as much about this as the time that they were successful.

If we take the examples we used above, let me show you how to take a perfectly useful behavioral interview question and give away the answer.

  • Tell me about a time when you were faced with constant change. How did you manage this effectively?

Here the interviewer is giving away the possibility that the candidate did not handle this constant change effectively. If your situation is one that requires adaptability during change it’ll be important to understand the candidate’s orientation toward change.

  • Give me an example of an important goal that you set and were successful in accomplishing it.

Even though this behavioral question does end with a period, it is still giving away an equally interesting part of the discussion around the time when the candidate set an important goal but was unsuccessful in meeting that goal.

  • Describe for me a conflict you had at work. What did you do to resolve it?

While this question does call for an open-ended response, the assumption in the way the question is worded is that the conflict was resolved. Again, it is equally interesting to understand the situation where the candidate dealt with a conflict that was unresolved and how they managed that situation.

Raising the Bar on Your Behavioral Interview Questions

In the research on building behavioral questions for our product Talentron, we found an interesting variation on creating this traditional behavioral interview question. In some situations it is possible to increase the level of difficulty on an interview question by placing conditions on the topic. Be very careful in doing this not to give away the answer you expect to hear.

One way of doing this that we have uncovered is to add or remove resources from the situation described in the question. Most resources are often described as people, time, money/budget, or management support. When done correctly this can help to simulate the actual situation in which the candidate will be working.

Following our earlier examples:

  • Tell me about a time when you were faced with constant change … much of which was initiated by management.

By adding this phrase to the end of the interview question we can more accurately replicate the situation they will be facing. The risk here is that the candidate may respond. “I have never been in a situation like that before” or “That’s why I’m leaving my current job and talking to you.” In either event, this is good to know.

  • Give me an example of an important goal that you set and were successful in accomplishing it … in spite of not having the budget you would’ve liked.

By adding the bar raiser, “… in spite of not having the budget you would’ve liked.” You’re able to have a useful conversation about the candidate’s creativity with less than the obvious resources required.

  • Describe for me a conflict you had at work … with your manager.

By removing the open-ended question, “What did you do to resolve it?” and substituting the phrase “with your manager,” you get a much better view into how the candidate interacts with their current manager. This is much more useful information to most interviewers.

The Takeaway

When creating your own behavioral interview questions, be careful not to give away the answer and keep your questions short. Make sure to end each of them with a period, not a question mark.

Give me an example of your favorite behavioral interview question that does not give away the answer.


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This article is part of a series called Tips & Tricks.
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