Behavioural interviewing: focussing on actions, not words

Most employers have a pretty good idea how their staff are going to act and react in certain situations. This intuition is based on how the same workers behaved in previous, similar situations: whatever they did before, they’ll probably do again.

When it comes to interviewing potential employees, understanding that what has happened before is most likely to happen again can help you ask the right questions – and guide you towards the right candidates.

Behavioural interviewing

This idea of ‘behavioural interviewing’ is based on asking candidates about their previous work experiences, actions, reactions and skills to predict how they will perform in a specific role.

As the employer/recruiter, you decide in advance which precise skills are necessary for the job, then you probe the individual with questions that are precisely tailored to find out if they have what it takes.

So, if the role for which you are interviewing requires the ability to manage a budget or devise a business plan, you ask a series of questions about their previous experience (behaviour) in that specific area.

So far, so logical! In preparing and phrasing your questions, many employers find it useful to use the ‘STAR’ method which is as follows:

  • Situation: can you give me an example of a positive work situation in which you were directly involved
  • Task: describe the tasks that were involved in that situation
  • Action: tell me about your specific actions in addressing those tasks
  • Results: summarise the results you achieved through these actions

Basically, this is a test of the candidate’s critical thinking ability. If they are smart and have done their homework (more on that in a moment) they’ll see what you are getting at, as you delve into their initial answers to unearth the specific behaviours you are looking for: Why did you do this and not that? What made you choose that path?

That point about candidates doing their homework is one to watch out for. As more people understand and prepare for a behavioural interviewing approach – by forensically analyzing the job description, by talking to people who know your company, by studying your website – more of them will be able to simply tell you what you want to hear!

That can work (for them) up to a point on the ‘softer’ side, e.g. when talking about things like decision-making and thought process, so it’s important that you home in on the results part of their story. How much of their success can be accurately measured and demonstrated? You are looking for numbers; metrics; tangible outcomes.

What does this look like?

Let’s go back to one of the hypothetical job descriptions I mentioned earlier, and imagine using a behavioural approach to interview someone for a role that requires leadership qualities. If you were to structure your initial questions according to the STAR technique, you might ask:

  • Tell me about a time when you successfully led a team through a difficult work situation
  • What was the scope of the task? What were the challenges and risks that you faced?
  • What actions and decisions did you take in order to address the challenge? What did you do yourself and what did you delegate?
  • What was the outcome? How did your actions and decisions ensure a successful result?

At each step, the candidate will likely provide you with openings and opportunities to ask additional, more detailed questions about how they acted throughout the process. I emphasise the word ‘acted’ because actions, not words, are always the key indicator – as we said at the outset, if they did it before they’ll probably do it again.

Additional questions

As you expand the discussion and drill down into the information the candidate is giving you, you should be forming a clear picture of whether that particular person has the right skills and experience (behaviour) for that particular role.

Other examples of behavioural-type questions include the following – note that they are all quite open-ended, introducing a scenario and paving the way for the interviewer to bring the candidate through the situation-task-action-results (STAR) framework:

  • Describe a situation where you managed to persuade someone to see things your way.
  • Describe an occasion when you had to improvise to resolve a challenging situation.
  • Give an example of a time you used judgment and logic to solve a problem.
  • Give two examples from your career that demonstrate how you can adapt to a range of different people, situations and environments.
  • Give an example of a time you had to cope with a problems or crisis at work.
  • Describe a situation where you had to make an important decision in a very short timeframe.
  • Describe an occasion where you set yourself an important goal, and tell me how you achieved it.
  • Give an example of a time you went beyond the call of duty to get a job done.

As the Irish jobs market continues to accelerate, we expect to see more employers and recruiters using behavioural interviewing to gain a competitive advantage. Remember, actions not words!

Denise Grant is HR & Office Division Manager with Eden Recruitment and a Chartered Member of the CIPD.