They may sound innocent enough, but some so-called "behavioral questions" a job interviewer may ask, ostensibly to see if you have the right skills for the job, could actually be designed for something slightly more insidious, such as how you might behave in the position for which you are interviewing.
Chicago-based business psychologist Stephen Laser tells eFinancialCareers that behavioral interviewing has gained popularity over the last 10 years as a way for hiring managers to gain more in-depth information and thus more control over job candidates without stepping over the line.
Neutral Behaviorally-based Questions
Since it is now illegal to hire or discriminate on the basis of race, marital status or whether an applicant has children, such questions that used to be routine are no longer asked, says Laser, who is often hired by financial services companies and other organizations to interview and test job candidates before they’re hired to ensure they’ll make a good fit. He says that's one reason you now have these "neutral behaviorally-based interview questions.”
These questions, explains Laser, often center on specific situations a job applicant might have encountered in a previous position. “For example, employers will ask a candidate to tell about a time they dealt with a difficult employee or had to plan a project from start to finish,” he says. Or you might be asked how you handled an important customer that wanted you to bend the rules for them. Even someone who is normally articulate and fast on their feet might get tangled up answering questions such as these if they’re not prepared, says Laser.
To give you an idea of what you’re up against here, consider this list of possible behavioral interview questions that are readily available online:
- Tell me about a risky decision you made and how you handled it.
- Have you ever dealt with company policy you weren't in agreement with? How?
- Have you gone above and beyond the call of duty? If so, how?
- When you worked on multiple projects, how did you prioritize?
- How did you handle meeting a tight deadline?
- Give an example of how you set goals and achieve them.
- Have you had to convince a team to work on a project they weren't thrilled about?
- Tell me about a time you disagreed with your boss and how you dealt with that.
Teamwork is often a common theme here; one student candidate applying to a financial analyst position at Bank of America at the tail end of 2011 says he was asked a series of questions about behavior and teamwork before the interviewer moved on to a more general inquiry regarding the U.S. and global economic situation. Clearly, “You want to talk about your role and the role of other people you worked with so you don’t sound like an ego maniac. Think about what you’ve learned from your previous jobs or life experiences and how you’ve applied those principles," Laser suggests.
The key to mastering the art of the behavioral interview is in anticipating the kinds of questions you’re apt to get and preparing for them well before the interviewer has you on the spot.
“Write out your answers and vary them so you’re not all locked in on one particular job situation for all your examples,” says Laser. Have three to five examples of bright spots from your career or life history and draw on those, he says. Not every example has to come from the job site, Laser emphasizes, noting that often women wishing to return to the workforce after an extended time away raising children or caring for an elderly parent, for instance, will have a different set of relationships and experiences to draw from than other job candidates will. Here, it's totally acceptable for a woman to discuss the way they handled difficult dealings with people in churches, synagogues, community organizations or charitable groups, he says.