Are Behavioral Interviews Still Relevant?

Behavioral interviews — where hiring managers ask questions of job candidates that elicit insight into how they may act in certain situations —  are much more common today than 10 years ago. But much like any interview method, it can lose its effectiveness as candidates learn to work around it.

That doesn’t mean it’s time to scrap the behavioral interview. “People may think they have beaten behavioral questions, but I believe you can beat the beat,” said Cristin Sturchio, global head of talent at Cognolink, an investment research firm.

The first step in refreshing the approach is understanding when to use behavioral interview questions. According to HR experts, these types of questions don’t work as well for more junior or entry-level positions, where the candidate doesn’t have as much real-world experience. A good behavioral interview question depends on the position.

“The best behavioral interview questions are going to ask somebody about a time that they had to do a task that is required for the role they’re in,” said Jason Berkowitz, vice president of client services at Seven Step RPO, a recruitment outsourcing firm. “If you’re hiring a writer, ask them about a time they had to produce a lot of content on a tight deadline. Their answer will give you a hint of their ideas of ‘a lot of content’ and ‘a tight deadline.’ ”

A bad behavioral interview question is one that is too vague or unrelated to the role. Questions that can be answered with a “yes” or “no” are also no good. Moreover, stylistic questions like “tell me about the kind of people you like to work with” that are self-reported preferences don’t let the candidate tell a full story.

“One of the reasons behavioral interviewing is so effective is that it’s hard to fake,” Berkowitz said. Good follow-up questions will help the trained interviewer catch those who are bluffing. “As I start to peel the onion, it gets very hard to fake it. It’s very effective at differentiating the people who talk a good game vs. those who have the experience you’re looking for,” he said.

Even then, it’s important to not fall in love with someone’s experience or ability to do the job. The way candidates answer the question can tell you a lot about how they would fit in your organization.

“Behavioral interviews are the most diagnostic because you have positions that require very specific skills,” Sturchio said. “Just because someone has those skills doesn’t tell you if someone is humble or coachable.”

For that reason, Sturchio recommends questions like, “Tell me about a time you made a mistake. What did you learn and did you make it again?”

Finally, it’s necessary that managers know how to evaluate responses to behavioral interview questions. Doing it right means training your recruiters and managers to ask the right follow-up questions. Training takes a couple of hours in a classroom or an online course.

Like any powerful tool, behavioral interview questions are most effective when operated by a trained professional looking to get the most out of an interview.