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Avoiding 'Behavioral Interview' Landmines

All the interviews that I had recently seemed to be implicitly composed of two components - a "skills and experience" component and a "soft skills" component. A misstep in either area can cost you the job.

According to author Vicky Oliver, the goal of these behavioral interviews is to give the interviewer the opportunity to assess your problem-solving skills, people skills and closure skills.

Skills and Experience Component

If you have done your homework on the company, you should be able to easily map your skills and experience to the company's needs. My previous employer followed the STAR method of interviewing. Most of the firms I have interviewed with recently seem to follow some derivation of this.

"STAR" stands for "Situation, Task, Action, Results." Situation: Give an example of a specific situation you were involved in that addresses the interviewer's question. Task: Describe the tasks involved in that situation. Action: Talk about the various actions involved in completing the tasks. Results: What results directly followed because of your action?

I have seen the STAR method applied either by asking questions about specific accomplishments on a resume, or questions that start with the opening "Tell me about a time when..." This can create two potential landmines.

First, you have to be able to clearly explain every detail on your resume. As a hiring manager, I have interviewed candidates whose resumes included phrases like "Cut operating expenses by 20%," but, when asked, couldn't clearly explain just how they did it. From the other side of the table, I recall an interviewer asking me to explain what I hoped to accomplish by selecting my school. Another asked me to detail what I do with the professional associations listed on my resume.

So, always remember that anything on your resume is fair game!

Painting Yourself As a 'Superhero' Can Be a Mistake

Second, interviewers seem to be getting wise to "happily ever after" stories. When behavioral interviewing first started becoming popular, every candidate seemed to tell a "superhero" story. In these stories, candidates would talk about how they leveraged their skills to turn around problem employees, failing projects, etc. and every one of these stories had a happy ending.

As an interviewer, I am inherently suspicious of candidates who never encountered problem situations that they couldn't turn around. I am sure there are people who never had a bad boss, never fired or managed out an employee, or never worked on "death march" projects. But I think such people are few and far between.

My view is that interviewers want to hear about both your successes and your difficult moments, as it humanizes you and allows you to connect with the interviewer on a personal level. A potential employer wants to hear that you picked your battles appropriately, you won more times than you lost, you didn't take risks that would leave them financially or legally exposed and that you learned from any mistakes.

Telling Stories

What has worked best for me is telling a story in response to each behavioral interview question. Academic literature says that this style of response allows people to connect with your message and remember what you said.

This style of response goes back to the STAR method. You need to establish the plot of the story by describing the situation, the characters and their roles. The body of the story is the tasks and actions taken. I have found that interviewers respond well if you give sufficient details on the actions that you took. The conclusion of the story is the results. This should be a quantifiable number - revenue generated, costs saved, etc. You need to help the interviewer understand the specific actions you took and the results of those actions.

I have also found it helpful for my candidacy to tie the stories back to a core theme. You have probably answered the question, "Tell me about yourself," within the first few minutes of the interview. I structure my response to this question to establish two to three key points that I want the interviewer to know. It seems to help reinforce these points by linking back to them via stories of accomplishments.

Rob Gordon (a pseudonym) is a senior professional who has held management roles in product development, business management and technology.

AUTHORRob Gordon Insider Comment
  • Ke
    17 September 2008

    Rob, I had a similar interview recently and it went pretty well. The main purpose with this type of interview, is to find out if you really did what you said you did. I will compare this to a Top-Down search in a tree. You ask a general question. you get an answer. You ask another question that is more specific to the problem etc... as you go deeper and deeper into the tree, candidates who really experienced the problem will be able to answer more and more specific questions. If you never had this situation before, you will probably be able to answer the few initial questions but then as the questions become more and more specific, the interviewer will realize that you never really did the work.
    My advice: never lie about what you did on your resume. They will find out.


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