Ready for Your Close-Up? Cue the Behavior-Based Interview

Jane was brought up to listen politely to others and not brag or talk about her own accomplishments. When the interviewer at a large industrial chemical company asks her to describe her proudest moment as a college student, she replies simply, “When I graduated, and my mom and dad were in the audience.” The interviewer shifts uncomfortably and makes a check on a piece of paper. Jane cringes. She feels as though she’s given a “wrong” answer, when, in fact, her response was absolutely true.

Alice has always been a star student. When asked by an HR staff member at a large professional organization representing chemists to describe her most challenging academic project, she launches into an intricate, 20-minute story, including descriptions of the lab, faculty, and fellow students. Finally, the interviewer stops her, mid-story, and says, “I think we’ll have to move on to other information here.” Alice is alarmed. She thought her story was pretty interesting-clearly the interviewer didn’t agree.

Susan sits in the outer office of the research lab, her lips moving slightly as she goes over several “stories” in her head. When called in for the interview, she is prepared. She keeps an acronym in mind that will help her structure her responses. She is prepared with several well-rehearsed examples of her career, life events, and learning experiences that will give the interviewer a clear and positive picture of her ability to function in the work environment. She leaves the interview feeling good about herself and confident that she communicated well.

All three women have encountered behavior-based interviewing, a job-selection technique that can seem deceptively like normal conversation to the unprepared candidate. All may have had similar qualifications and equal abilities to do any given job, but Susan is the one most likely to be given high marks by an interviewer-for the simple reason that she constructed several “scenarios” to describe her accomplishments and previous work experience.

Behavior-based interviewing attempts to find out what kind of employee you will be by eliciting details about skills, competencies, resourcefulness, and knowledge. This technique is “based on the idea that candidates’ past and present behavior is the best predictor of how they will behave in the future,” says Jim Kennedy, founder and president of Management Team Consultants in San Rafael, CA. Queries such as “Tell me about a time when you were called on to make a difficult decision” or “Describe a situation in which you had a colleague who was hard to get along with” are aimed at revealing what kind of worker you can be under pressure. Questions such as “Tell me about your best lab experience ever” or “Describe a moment when you were called on to lead” can tell the interviewer not only about your experience but also about the level of your self-confidence.

But even the most confident individual may become tongue-tied when faced with the task of condensing important moments of his or her life and work into a tidy and coherent package. The key, say the experts, is to understand the process and be prepared.

Lights, Camera, Action!

Think of your resume as a snapshot of your background and capabilities. It contains all the basic facts that the employer used to select you out of a pool of applicants for further consideration. If your face-to-face job interview consisted of merely going over these facts again (“So, I see you were at Michigan State.” “Yes, for four years.”), then the experience would be an empty exercise for you and the interviewer. Worse, if rehashing your resume constituted the entirety of the interview, then on what would the interviewer base hiring decisions? Your looks? How you sit in the chair?

Instead, behavior-based interviewing tries to take the “snapshot” provided by the resume and turn it into a “movie”-a detailed picture of what you’re like on the job and in action. And, even though you may not ordinarily be an extrovert, it’s up to you to step into the spotlight and perform.

The Critics Have a Score-Sheet

Although behavior-based interviewing feels like conversation, the interviewer is looking for evidence of very specific types of skills. Well before you or any other candidates appeared for the job, the interviewer should have used a description of the position to decide what skills and life experiences would best suit the position. Sometimes these are numerically weighted to yield a final score for each interviewee, a number that helps add the appearance (if not always the actuality) of objectivity to the final hiring decision.

Most behavior-based interviews are looking for examples that illustrate three specific sets of life and work skills:

Content skills: Do you have the specific knowledge base the job calls for? Obviously, you can’t recite the periodic table or draw intricate molecular structures on the interviewer’s desk pad, but you can give examples that show that in order to solve problems you had to have a grasp of essential knowledge in this field and that others recognized your mastery of the material.

Functional skills: Can you work with other people, process and manage information, and communicate well? Can you actually get the job done? Your ability to communicate verbally is on display in the interview, but you also need to give specific examples that show how you’ve managed projects, worked with colleagues, and prioritized workloads.

Adaptive skills: How well do you roll with the punches? In the past, have you shown the resilience and reliability the company is looking for? This is your chance to shine by talking about the details of past successes. But remember that not every company is looking for the same qualities in every candidate.

Here Are Your Cues

In general, behavior-based interview questions fall into three categories.

Theoretical: The question asks you to think on your feet about a hypothetical situation that, in some cases, may be entirely foreign to your own life or work experiences. “You’re told you need to get all your belongings out of your house in 30 minutes. What do you do?” is one example. Odd as some of these questions may be, you can be sure that the interviewer is looking for something specific and that other candidates will be asked the same or similar questions.

Leading questions: You won’t have to be a genius to know what the right answer is here. “Working into the night on special projects isn’t a problem for you, is it?” would be one example. But consider your answer carefully. Leading questions are often one way the interviewer may alert you to elements of the job that other people have found problematic.

Behavioral example questions: These are the questions designed to elicit stories about your past work. Kennedy and other interview experts refer to these as “competency” questions because that’s exactly what you should be highlighting: your ability, either by direct evidence or analogous stories, that you can do the job. Sometimes the interviewer constructs the question using material from your resume: “I see you worked as an agricultural chemist in Guatemala one summer. What was your most challenging work situation there?” More often, behavioral-based questions are less specific, such as “Tell me about a time when you disagreed with someone in charge.” You need to be prepared with a range of vignettes from your life that both answer the question directly and can be used to let the interviewer learn more about your capabilities and resourcefulness.

Learn Your Lines

As self-centered as it may seem, the most important part of preparing for a behavior-based interview is to sit down and write a few moving stories about yourself, the star of the moment. Put aside any discomfort you may feel about this and look at it from the company’s point of view. They have only a brief snapshot of you from your resume, and the interview will provide only the most fleeting “screen test” of what you have to offer.

Your job, then, is to be your own “script writer” in preparing for your interview. You can start with a list of 10 to 20 events, activities, or skills that are part of your life story. Try to include examples of different kinds of skills and experiences. For each one of these, construct a brief-no more than 3-minute-short story, including all the elements that make a story compelling: problem, action, and resolution. Practice telling each story in front of a mirror. Refine your wording. You may even want to practice with a tape recorder. The point is to have these polished vignettes ready to use as responses to any number of different types of questions.

Behavior-based interviewing is of special importance for younger workers, who may not have extensive references or experience that employers can assess. Many colleges and universities include tips for behavior-based interviewing, and most use an acronym (STAR, PAR, PHAR, etc.) to help applicants “structure” stories that showcase abilities and knowledge. JobSpectrum’s mnemonic is similar, but with a few added twists to make you shine.

A: Know your audience. Before your interview, find out as much about the company as you can. If a copy of the job description is available, break it out into the skill areas-content, functional, and adaptive-that the company may be looking for. Keep these requirements in mind when constructing your life stories.
G: Give the interviewer a solid grasp of the extent of the problem or difficulty you faced. Make sure that it’s clear that this situation required specific skills, ingenuity, or perseverance.
L: Lay it all out in a straight line. This is where your story-telling abilities come into play. Include only facts that are essential to understanding the story and tell them in a clear chronology.
O: Highlight the outcome. This is the punch line, the reason you’ve told the story. Tell the interviewer how the problem was resolved, what good (or bad) happened as a result of the resolution, and what recognition you received for your efforts.
W: Wrap it up. Don’t belabor points, repeat yourself, or go off on tangents. Know when to conclude your story on a high point and wait for the next question.

Have Your Encore Number Ready

A good interviewer will appreciate the fact that you’re able to present well-thought-out examples from your past experience. But he or she will also want to follow up by asking you probing and sometimes challenging questions about what you’ve just said. In most cases this is to learn more about how you behaved in a specific case, but, says Kennedy, it’s sometimes to find out how truthful you are. “Most candidates generalize, many exaggerate, and some, unfortunately, completely fabricate stories and examples of their behavior,” he says. Your honesty in telling about past experiences and your forthcoming responses to follow-up questions will work to your advantage in the interview.

A Final Note: Dealing with Stage Fright

What if you come from a culture in which talking about yourself at length is regarded as the worst form of hubris? Of what if you’re just very shy and reticent by nature? Preparing and practicing specific stories about your past experience will help to some extent, but you still may find yourself blushing and at a loss for words at some point in the interview. The best strategy here is absolute directness. Stop, look at the interviewer, and say, “You know, I’ve always had difficulty talking about myself, and this is no exception.” Then you can explain the reasons-your cultural background, previous work isolation, an early speech defect, for example-and talk about how you’ve dealt with this in the past. You’ll not only get high marks for honesty, but you’ll turn a potential drawback into a positive example of a behavior-based response.

Additional Resources

The career Web sites of many colleges and universities offer a standardized advice sheet on behavior-based interviewing, as well as additional resources for candidates preparing for interviews:

University of Montana-Missoula Career Services
Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University
University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire Career Services
Texas A&M University Career Center

For an interesting perspective on what employers look for from the behavior-based interview and the ways in which they approach the selection of candidates and the evaluation of results, see Jim Kennedy’s The Interviewer’s Edge, available at www.interviewedge.com.

Many job counselors and most high-powered “headhunter” services offer one-on-one advice on structuring stories for behavior-based interviews, with some firms going to the length of filming clients and critiquing speech, gestures, and facial expressions. Kennedy and others caution, though, that it is possible to appear too prepared and polished. You want to come across as genuine and truthful, not as a “professional performer.”