Most job interviewers ask a few conventional interview questions, like this breakdown of the twenty-seven most common interview questions and answers. Most ask at least one unusual interview question.  Some even ask a brain teaser (even though research shows that approach is not only worthless, asking brain teasers also makes the interviewer look bad.)

But just about every job interview includes at least a few behavioral interview questions, and for good reason.

Hold that thought.

What Are Behavioral Job Interview Questions?

Say you ask a job candidate, "How important do you feel diversity is in the workplace?" That's an opinion-based question; even if the candidate feels understanding and inclusion is unimportant, the fact you asked tells them you care about diversity.

So they will give you an answer they think you want to hear.

But if you ask a job candidate, "Give me an example of how you've fostered diversity in your workplace," or, "Tell me about a time you made sure every voice in the room was heard," or, "Give me an example of a time you went out of your way to solicit an opinion you felt sure you wouldn't agree with," that's a fact-based, behavioral interview question.

The candidate still knows the answer you want to hear... but has to respond with facts, figures, or concrete examples.

Behavioral interview questions require job candidates to share examples of past behavior: Skills, experiences, lessons learned, etc., because the past is a reasonable predictor of the future.

How I've dealt with confrontation, how I've functioned as part of a team, what I've done in the face of adversity, times I've stepped in or stepped back... what I've actually done in the past provides a reasonable indication of what I will do in the future. 

Say you want to evaluate a candidate's ability to follow and lead. You could ask, "What would you do if you knew a better way to accomplish a task... but were required to follow guidelines instead?"

That's an opinion-based question; I get to tell you what I would do. 

The same question, using a behavioral interview approach, could be, "Tell me about a time you felt you knew you had a better approach... but you still had to follow directions or guidelines." Now I have to tell you what I've actually done in the past.

Maybe I'll say, "I knew I was right, so I did it my way." Or, "I followed the rules but it was really frustrating." (Some candidates will tell you they were annoyed or even angry and didn't work hard as a result, especially if they think you feel their pain.)

Or maybe I'll say, "We were in a time crunch, so I followed guidelines and got things done. Later, I suggested a way we could improve the process."

That sounds better: An employee who is able to say, "For now, I'll do my best and get this done," and then later suggest ways to improve the status quo?

We can all use more of those folks on our teams.

How to Ask Behavioral Interview Questions

The key is to determine the skills, attributes, behaviors, etc. that are important for the job.

Then ask questions that give job candidates the opportunity to share examples of how they've demonstrated those skills, attributes, and behaviors. 

Need employees willing to challenge the status quo? You might ask, ""Tell me about a time you had to raise an uncomfortable issue with your boss."

Need employees willing to take risks? You might ask, "Tell me about a goal you failed to achieve."

Need employees willing to not only embrace authority but also responsibility? You might ask, "Tell me about a major mistake you made, and what you did to correct it."

As with any other interview question, evaluate a candidate's answer on the basis of your company's organizational and cultural needs.

And keep in mind you may have to guide the candidate through the process. The goal is to get an answer that fits into the STAR framework:

  • Situation: Background, setting, etc.
  • Task: What needed to be done
  • Action: What the candidate actually did
  • Result: How it turned out

For example, say you ask, "Tell me about the last time your workday ended before you were able to get everything done."

I might say, "I stayed late to get things done."

That doesn't reveal much, so probe for details. Ask for specifics: What was going on, what needed to get done, what deadlines were in jeopardy, etc. Then ask for details that reveal what the candidate did. Not other people, not the team, what the candidate did. ("We" is an awesome pronoun... but not in a behavioral interview.)

Say the result is: "I knew I couldn't get everything done so I prioritized the tasks on my list. I let my boss know my plan so she could provide input and also manage customer expectations. We decided I should stay an hour late to finish the one project that absolutely had to be done, and we tackled the rest the next morning. All of the customers involved were happy, and we barely disrupted internal workflow." 

How do you evaluate that answer?

Maybe like the fact I communicated and collaborated. Or maybe you would prefer I said, "I stayed until ten p.m. to get everything done."

Only you know your performance and culture expectations -- but at least you now have a sense of how I approach certain situations. 

How to Ask Follow-Up Questions

The best interviews are conversations, not interrogations.

Even if a candidate is well versed in the STAR approach, still: Ask questions that help you fully understand the situation the candidate describes, determine exactly what the candidate did (and did not do), and find out how things turned out.

Follow-up questions don't need to be complicated. Keep it simple:

  • What did she say?"
  • "Really? So what did she do?"
  • "What happened next?"
  • "How did things work out?"
  • "Would you do anything differently next time?

For example, say you're interviewing a candidate for a sales job and ask, "What was the hardest sales call you ever made?"

That conversation could go on for twenty minutes: Why it was so hard, what the prospect said, how the candidate responded, what helped bridge the gap, what did and didn't work... ask enough questions and you could gain incredible insight into the candidate's perspectives, strategies, people skills, ability to deal with rejection and conflict, build rapport... all the things that make a good salesperson great.

5 Great Behavioral Interview Questions

Here are five great behavioral interview questions that aren't industry specific. (Here's a handy breakdown to help you evaluate candidate answers.) 

1. "Tell me about a goal you recently achieved. What did your initial plan look like? What worked particularly well?"

A great icebreaker question; any candidate who can't talk in detail about a goal achieved is likely to be a terrible candidate. Plus, the best employees are able not just to plan well, but also to react and adjust well.

2. "Tell me about a goal you didn't achieve. What happened? What did you do as a result?"

Disappointment, adversity, and failure are a part of life -- both professional and personal. That's why everyone has failed. (In fact, most successful people have failed a lot more often than the average person; that's why they're successful now.) 

Great candidates can describe, in detail, what they learned. 

3. "Tell me about a time you initiated an uncomfortable conversation with a co-worker. What did you say? How did it turn out?"

When there's a problem, many people hesitate to be candid and open. It's a lot easier to stay silent and hope someone else steps up.

The best candidates show they have a feel for team dynamics, interpersonal issues, etc., and are willing to step up and raise issues when other employees hesitate.

4. "Tell me about the last time someone got upset with you. What did you do in response? How did it turn out?" 

Conflict is also a fact of professional life, and every job at some point requires dealing with conflict.

5. "Tell me about the first three months at your last job. What did you do? What did you accomplish?"

The best employees don't want to spend their first few weeks just learning about the organization, getting their feet wet, and finding their way -- they're self-starters.

The Proof Is In the Follow-Up

Some candidates will come prepared to answer at least aa few behavioral interview questions with made-up answers.

That's okay, because few candidates can bluff their way through more than one or two follow-up questions. If an answer sounds rehearsed or boiler-plate, dig in: Ask who, how, when, why, what happened, what happened next.... and you'll quickly discover whether the situation and actions described are fact or fiction.

Which is at least partly the point, since turning an interview into a fact-based conversation helps you identify potential disconnects between the candidate's resume and his or her actual experience, qualifications, and accomplishments.

And you'll have a much better chance of identifying a potentially great employee, because great employees shine during fact-based interviews -- they've been there, done that, and are happy to explain how.