How to Build Custom Behavioral Interview Questions

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Most behavioral interview questions are not questions at all. They are statements designed to get a candidate to reveal information in a job interview.

Behavioral interviewing is based on the theory that a person’s most recent past behavior or performance is the best indicator of their future behavior or performance. This theory was put forth and gained popularity in business during the 1970s and 80s.

Aside from being a popular technique, behavioral interviewing is also more effective in many ways than other types of interviewing. In a recent study completed by Glassdoor, behavioral questions were listed among several techniques for making interviews more difficult. The result of 10 percent more difficult interviews was that the candidates arrived on the first day of work almost 5 percent more engaged than if their interview had not been difficult.

For no extra cost, by using behavioral questions you increase the engagement of your newly hired and enthusiastic workforce. That is a return on investment that is worth making.

Behavioral Interview Questions Have Three Parts

There are three parts to any well-formed behavioral interview question; the Opening, the Problem or Situation, and the Bar Raiser. Each of these three parts accomplishes something different.

  • The Opening sets the stage for the story you want to hear the candidate tell.
  • The Problem or Situation makes the question unique to your situation or the problems you’re facing.
  • The Bar Raiser is designed to make the questions not only more specific to your situation, but it also raises the level of difficulty in answering it.

Now let’s take a look at how to use these three parts of an interview question to build your customized behavioral interview questions.

Once Upon a Time

The first part of the interview question is called the Opening. It is the beginning of the interview question that gives the candidate instructions to tell a story.

All stories have a beginning. For instance, “Once upon a time … “ and from there the story unfolds. Well, the same thing is true for the behavioral interview question. There is always a beginning statement to every behavioral question.

A few of these are:

  • Tell me about a time when …
  • Tell me how …
  • Describe a time when …
  • Give me an example of …
  • Walk me through how …

As you build your custom behavioral questions, you will want to vary the Openings you use so that your questions do not sound repetitive. Some Openings may also fit certain situations better than others. Try making up your own Openings that invite the candidate to tell you a story.

Make the Questions Relevant to Your Business

The second part of the interview question is called the Problem or Situation. It turns a generic question into a custom question. This part begins with an action after which you fill in a few more details about your specific situation.

For instance, in a position you’re hiring for, a typical action that the new hire might have to engage in could be influencing another person or implementing a specific policy or recruiting engineers. In these situations, you might add the second part of the interview question resulting in something like this.

  • Tell me about a time when …You had to influence,
  • Walk me through a time when …You had to implement,
  • Give me an example of a situation where … You had to recruit engineers,

To further refine your questions, you want to fill in more details about your unique situation. Staying with the same examples, you would now add a qualifier that makes the interview question very specific to your situation.

  • You had to influence individuals on a team that did not agree with you
  • You had to implement an unlimited vacation policy
  • You had to recruit engineers who have ASIC design experience

Think of the actions a person will have to take on the job in this position. Now you can easily begin to build a robust set of interview questions. Here are a few more examples of actions to consider.

  • You had to convince (fill in the situation)
  • You had to sell (fill in the situation)
  • You had to overcome (fill in the situation)
  • You had to give some feedback (fill in the situation)
  • You implemented a process (fill in the situation)

With the Opening and the Situation of a behavioral interview question in place, let’s now consider how to increase the difficulty of a question.

The Bar Raiser

In raising the level of difficulty of a behavioral question, you will also make it even more custom and specific to your situation. To do this use the third part of the interview question called the Bar Raiser.

Raising the bar on any question can be done by removing or adding resources that increase the difficulty of the question. Staying with our current examples, let’s increase the difficulty even more.

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  • You had to influence individuals on a team that did not agree with you, and you had a limited amount of time to get them on board
  • You had to implement an unlimited vacation policy, and you did not agree with it.
  • You had to recruit engineers who have ASIC design experience, and the budgets had not yet been agreed to

In any situation, the resources you might be removing or adding will vary but are usually things like budget, people, time, money, organizational support, etc. Adding a Bar Raiser to the end of your question makes it more complex.

Here are some examples of Bar Raisers you might consider using to increase the level of difficulty.

And you were not given adequate resources

And you did not have enough time

And you had difficult people to work with

And you do not agree with the direction given

And you had a critical member of the team missing

A word of caution about adding a Bar Raiser to your interview questions — do not give the answer away. Often the more specific your question is, the more you’re telegraphing the answer you want the candidate to come back with. So make sure as you refine your questions that you’re not giving away the answer.

The Takeaway 

You can build your own custom behavioral interview questions using these three components:

  1. An appropriate Opening
  2. An accurately described Problem or Situation
  3. A Bar Raising component to increase the difficulty

Tip — If your behavioral question ends with a question mark, it is probably not a behavioral question. If this is the case, what you could have is an open-ended question that might be interesting to explore but may lack focus.


2 Comments on “How to Build Custom Behavioral Interview Questions

  1. John’s approach provides practical ideas for tuning behavioral interview questions to make them more powerful. I recommend one tactic for going even further, and then suggest that new natural language analytics could well remove interviewers from the interviewing business, at least for screening to the final decision list.
    For those final decision in-person interviews, I recommend avoiding the practice of asking about “a time” or “the last time” in favor of asking about superlative situations. By superlative, I mean “the largest deal you closed” or “the most difficult negotiation where you came out ahead in the end”, or “the time when you were most disappointed with falling behind on an important new project”. If you ask for “a time” or “the last time” that might well be the best example for one candidate but the worst example for the next one. No one does brilliantly all the time or fails equally badly all the time. Some people do great things more often than others. Some people repeat their mistakes with astounding regularity. Framing the situation around superlatives puts all candidates on the same scale, reducing noise in the ratings.
    While some hiring managers will diligently ask carefully prepared behavioral questions, steer candidates who wander away in their answer back on track, take clear & complete notes, and rate each answer on behavioral anchors, most don’t. They will attend the workshop, each the doughnuts, and then fall back into the traditional practices they learned from their boss. The Automated Behavioral Interview (www.BiLABs.Science) deploys behavioral interview questions on a video interviewing platform, with automated: (1)answer coaching, (2)answer scoring, and (3)third-party confirmation. Like your handy smart-phone, it’s a bit sophisticated under the hood (latent semantic Indexing using exemplar stored sets of top and bottom 20% answers), but it has been reliably proven to work in the context of rating SAT essays and accomplishment record answers. Hiring manager can then focus on carefully interviewing 1-3 of the very best candidates, based on objectively assessed test and interview answers. And I should know– I published the first research and wrote the book on behavioral interviewing back in the 80s.

    1. Tom, I am flattered that’s someone of your stature would be reading my blog. I like your suggestion to use superlative situations. I can see how this would reduce noise in the ratings and will add this knowledge to my repertoire. Thanks again for your comment.

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