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Behavioral Interview Questions: Avoid These Three Mistakes

Behavioral Interview Questions: Avoid These Three Mistakes

By: Dona DeZube

Behavioral interviews have long been used to question job candidates about how they handled specific tasks in the past. When done well, they can reliably identify which prospects have the core competencies needed to get a job done.

However, the effectiveness of these type of interviews often depends on the interviewer’s skill in crafting behavioral interview questions and interpreting their answers.

We spoke with three top behavioral interview experts to find out where hiring managers most often go wrong in coming up with effective behavioral questions. Here are their picks and advice:

Mistake #1: Asking hypothetical questions.

Asking candidates how they would do something, or “what-if” questions, leaves the door open for them to possibly lie, enhance or exaggerate their skills, says Tom Foster, author of Hiring Talent: Decoding Levels of Work in the Behavioral Interview  and the Hiring Talent blog.

To avoid hypothetical responses, tie your behavioral questions to a specific task that the applicant would perform on the job.

How do you come up with task-oriented questions? Most roles have somewhere between five to a dozen key areas, Foster says. For each of those areas, you’ll create 10 interview questions.

For example, let’s say you need to hire a warehouse manager who does a monthly inventory cycle count, receives stock, places the stock into the warehouse bins, organizes the bins and rotates seasonal stock.

Focus on one task -- let’s say the monthly cycle count. Start with a general question that establishes that the candidate has performed the task:
Tell me about a time when you were responsible for the monthly cycle count in the warehouse.

After the candidate explains his supervision of count, follow up with additional behavioral questions that go deeper:

  • How many stock-keeping units were you responsible for?
  • How many would you select in the cycle count?
  • How many people were on the counting team?
  • Were they from the warehouse department?
  • What kind of paperwork was kept by the counting team and filled out for the accountants?
  • How were counts reconciled?
  • How many times did you count, once or twice?
  • How did you handle discrepancies?

Finish up with by asking two ad hoc questions that probe for more details:

  • Have you done monthly counts at other warehouses? What were the names of the people on your counting team?

During the interview, take brief notes using a rating system that assigns a rank of 0 to 10 for each response or simply use a happy face or sad face, Foster says.

At the end of the interview process, you can create a matrix: list the candidates across the top, the 10 behavioral interview questions down the side and the candidates’ ratings filling in the grid. It will quickly be very clear which candidate has the job skills, knowledge and ability to get the job done.

Mistake #2: Handling behavioral technical interviews.

It’s tough to use behavioral questions effectively when you’re hiring someone with more technical expertise than you yourself possess, says R. Wendell Williams, managing director of ScientificSelection.com in Jacksonville, FL.

Lacking this, you won’t have a frame of reference for understanding the job candidate’s answers to your questions.

“If you’re doing a behavioral interview for a tech position, the only person who can ask the questions and interpret the answers is someone who’s expert in that field,” Williams says. “If what you’re trying to dig into and discover is outside of your expertise, you won’t know how to score the quality of answers.”

If someone in your company has the needed expertise, have that person do the interview. Or have the employee who is leaving ask some technical questions. If not, reach outside your company or ask someone within your personal network to assist.

Mistake #3: Asking about typical experience versus a best experience.

When you write questions, always ask for a superlative example that allows applicants to talk about their best experiences, says J. Tom Janz, Ph.D., chief scientist at PeopleAssessments.com in Boca Raton, Florida, and author of one of the earliest books about behavioral interviewing, Behavior Description Interviewing: New, Accurate, Cost Effective.

In other words, says Janz, don’t ask a behavioral interview question about the last time someone used a skill. Instead, ask a question about the most effective way they’ve used the skill.

For example, if you’re interviewing a salesperson, don’t say:

  • Tell me about the last time you had to deal with a difficult customer.

Instead, say:

  • Tell me about the most difficult client you managed to close a sale with.

Then, you can move on to your follow-up questions: When did that happen? How did that happen? What did you do? When could you tell that person was going to be a hard sell and what did you do to move him toward the behavior you desired?

By posing a superlative-based interview question to all candidates, you ensure you’re giving everyone the same opportunity to shine.

In the salesperson example above, for example, you can ask candidates: Tell me about the last time you had to deal with a difficult customer. You might get answers that demonstrate one candidate’s worst time and another candidate’s best time in resolving the issue, Janz says.

There’s another good reason to ask superlative-based behavioral interview questions. They make job candidates feel good about the interview experience. Negative questions can have the opposite effect, Janz says.

“Some interviewers love behavioral interviews because they can ask tough questions to reject everyone but the one person they hire,” he says. “They focus on the negative and that turns off top performers. They’re going to lose them.”

You can get just as much information discussing accomplishments, overcoming challenges and dealing with disappointment by asking behavioral interview questions such as:

  • Tell me about the time you most wish you had a chance to do a sales presentation again.
  • What happened and what happened the next time you had a chance to put that insight into practice?

Writing effective behavioral interview questions requires a little time and effort to create correctly phrased questions that will set you up to select the best possible candidate.

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