How to Build Powerful Behavioral-Based Questions

We are getting better at realizing that our recruiting process must assess for behaviors and abilities in addition to skills and experience. After all, in an intellectual workplace, we must be able to assess candidate thinking, considering we are paying our employees to think their way through the day.

The best way to assess candidate behaviors/talent is to craft and deliver effective behavioral-based questions. These questions, unlike conventional interview questions, follow a formula I share with my clients. This formula makes the questions easy to build, deliver, and effective at gathering meaningful information.

Before sharing the formula and some sample questions, review why these questions are so effective. Behavioral-based questions are designed to assess a candidate’s top-of-mind response — the thinking that the candidate will bring to the workplace. Assessing how the candidate handles situations provides greater information as to the effectiveness of the thinking style for what the job requires. To gather this information, our questions must be unique (not predictable), focused around the behavior we are assessing for, and include real workplace situations. In short, we want and need to see the thinking in action.

Building an effective behavioral-based question follows this formula:

Standard question format + required behaviors + a workplace situation = great question

Once going through these three sections of the formula, I’ll share four completed questions that follow this formula.

Standard question format

An unpredictable or unexpected question (not the routine questions that interview candidates have prepared for and rehearsed their responses) is critical to get a true and top-of-mind candidate response. The following four formats work well to create unexpected and effective behavioral-based interview questions. Notice that the first two formats are related to the past (and therefore I would expect a more confident and significant candidate answer); the second two are hypothetical and are looking for how the candidate would handle something that he may not have yet encountered.

  1.  “Tell me about a time when…”
  2. “If I were to ask your previous boss or co-worker about how handle … , what would they say?”
  3. “Here is a situation … How would you handle this?”
  4.  “Here are your choices… which would you choose and why?”

Required behaviors

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The focus of the question is built around behaviors we have specifically identified as required for the job (examples: organized, methodical, strategic, responsive, amiable, insightful, deliberate, competitive, etc).

A workplace situation

A great behavioral-based question must include an actual situation the candidate will encounter in the workplace because you want to see the thinking and the required behaviors in action. This is how you “kick the tires” and see the candidate’s ability to use the behaviors you are assessing for in a situation he is likely to encounter in your workplace.

Examples of behavioral-based questions using this formula:

  1. Tell me about a time when you had to determine whether to push for a workplace project to get completed, or decide it was time to let it go. (Format 1 + behaviors assessed: adaptive, resilient, persuasive, determined + situation expected in your workplace.)
  2. If I were to ask you previous boss about how you build team unity cohesion and loyalty, what would he say? Give several examples. (Format 2 + behaviors assessed: supportive, team-focused, upbeat, persuasive, optimistic, creative or diplomatic + situation expected in your workplace.)
  3. Here’s a situation: Two of your employees get into a disagreement about something in front of a customer. How would you handle this and keep the customer? (Format 3 + behaviors assessed:  innovative, decisive, deliberate, considerate, nurturing, inspiring or supportive + situation expected in your workplace.)
  4. You are dealing with a business slowdown. Here are your choices: is it better to layoff employees or cut back on their hours and benefits? (Format 4 + behaviors assessed:  methodical, analytical, creative, strategic, compassionate, adaptive + situation expected in your workplace.)

Great interviewing is more about information gathering than anything else. To get meaningful information requires great questions. Commit the time to build questions that get the candidate thinking about your particular workplace situations to be able to meaningfully assess the responses. We want to test our candidates’ approach and responses before we add them to our team. Ask only questions that get candidates thinking so you can see the thinking in action. Then determine if that thinking is right for the job.

Jay Forte is a workplace consultant, certified executive coach, business speaker and author of Fire Up! Your Employees and Smoke Your Competition and The Greatness Zone – Know Yourself, Find Your Fit, Transform The World. He is the president and founder of TGZ Group, an organization committed to transforming organizations and lives through talent-based tools, education, and coaching. He writes the Manage for Big Bold Results newsletter, is the host of the Fire Up! Your Employees Podcast (Feb 1, 2014), and is a frequent chapter and national SHRM speaker. His Fire Up! Process, tools, books, and information can be found at


13 Comments on “How to Build Powerful Behavioral-Based Questions

  1. Unfortunately, this information does not represent the process BI experts follow to get the most accurate data from a candidate. In all fairness, however, it does reflect something better than a “what’s your favorite animal” question…

    A truly effective behavioral interview starts with a thorough job analysis (JA)…asking job holders (and their managers) enough of the right questions to learn critical skills that affect job success or failure…If you don’t know this, the rest is just better-sounding questions…Naturally, JA is not as simple as it sounds. It takes considerable time to practice and learn.

    Once the interviewer knows the critical skills from a JA, they need to go back to job experts to learn what a good response should be (as well as a bad one) for each BI question. This information is included into a standardized behaviorally-anchored score sheet.

    Conducting the actual behavioral interview takes months to learn because it requires the interviewer to un-learn common communication shortcuts…Like a detective, he/she must know how to dig underneath candidate responses, seeking examples when (and whether) the candidate used the critical skills necessary for the new job…In addition, most candidates have not done the same job and the interviewer has to “translate.”

    So…there is nothing to be learned about BI from a “how to” blog. It takes a competent job analysis; several thoroughly trained and practiced interviewers; standardized behaviorally anchored score sheets; and, multiple people.

    1) No JA means no accurate idea about skills…In most cases, only the job holder knows what skills their job requires…not his/her manager
    2) No standardized scoring sheet means answers may or may not meet job requirements
    3) Untrained and inexperienced interviewers are usually unable to effectively uncover skills
    4) Single interviewers can overlook important information

  2. Behavioral interviewing delivers among the most accurate assessments of future job performance (Google Schmidt and Hunter 1998) on their own, and even more accuracy when combined with a measure of general mental ability. However, of the four questions offered as “great questions”, three are not even behavioral and the first one can be improved.

    Question 2 asks for a previous boss’s option to get started. That opinion could be subject to positive or negative biases unrelated to the performance of the candidate. Question 3 asks what the candidate WOULD DO, not DID. Research shows these situational questions tap mental ability, revealing if the candidate knows what to do but not what the candidate has actually done. The latter can be impacted by ethics, interests, and interpersonal skills beyond merely what the candidate knows. The same can be said of the last question.

    The first question is a behavioral question, but I suggest it could be improved by requesting a superlative example instead of “an example”. By asking the candidate to tell you about “a time” the candidate could describe a typical time, the most recent time (which could be one that turned out badly compared to a typical time) or the time when the decision reached was most valuable to the company. The interviewer (without further probing) just doesn’t know which of those ‘times’ the candidate picked. Better to ask for the ‘most valuable’ or ‘most challenging’ time (superlatives) so that candidates respond with a common anchor point.

    Just an observation and a tip from the guy who published the initial research (Journal of Applied Psychology, 1982) and wrote the first book on behavioral interviewing.

  3. I agree with the Drs. comments re BI. The problem is most hiring managers do so little interviewing most are rusty. Generally, they are not well prepared but launch an interview after a quick glance at a resume. Within minutes they are doing all the talking. Job aids (although available) are rarely used and debriefing several interviewer’s assessment of a candidate can be as little as a thumbs up thumbs down passing by an office door and no real dialog.

    With respect to questioning. The hypothetical is of no value in my opinion. Any slick candidate will tell a tale as good as Kevin Spacey did in The Usual Suspects. You have to be a mind reader to determine if the tale they are weaving is grounded in any kind of reality. Stick to the facts Mamm – just the facts a good Joe Friday or Columbo beats a soothsayer. Who was Keyser Soze?

  4. Drs. Williams and Janz: can you recommend some resources offering hiring managers a short, basic guide to BI? I understand that BI mastery takes a great deal of practice, for which most manager have neither the time nor inclinations. Finally, is bad BI better than no BI?


  5. @John…an inexperienced manager/interviewer should not be encouraged to do more than a “chemistry-check”… As Tom suggested, misleading someone to believe they are doing behavioral interviewing is wrong-headed…

    People responsible for day-in/day-out candidate screening should have responsibility for mastering the BI… Incidentally, there is also a minor benefit to asking hypotheticals (even though they are non-behavioral)…while you might dismiss a “right” answer, you can often trust a “wrong” one.

  6. Good points Wendell. Likely “chemistry” is all that most line sales leaders do get to in an interview. While a minor benefit of hypotheticals might be realized – it still is subjective – as the interviewers opinion of “wrong” may be wrong. All in all, there is not much six sigma in the selection and interviewing process.

    My other favorite questioning error is the “telegraphing” question. Tell me about how you went about developing new business in your territory? The message to the applicant is – well prospecting for new business must be key here – better talk this up. They may even know they are a farmer – but they go on to describe their hunting prowess.

    BTW- I always enjoy your articles and often pass them along to my groups and clients. Please keep them coming.

  7. Hey all, thanks for the great comments and the expanded lessons in BI.

    My intent was to show a changed approach to asking questions that start to listen for thinking and performance preferences in workplace situations that a candidate will be responsible for handling. I realize that exceptional behavioral interviewing takes great practice and does require a thorough understanding of the activities and responsibilities of the role to be able to assess the quality and meaningfulness of the responses. But to get more hiring managers to start to think about behaviors and cultural fit in addition to skills and experience in the interview process requires helping them not feel that the process is overly complex. My thinking in these questions was to provide a format to create situations that would elicit responses that could start to get at the core performance preferences or go-to behaviors, to assess whether those behaviors align to behaviors needed to consistently and successfully handle the activities of the role – something I still find few organizations do.

    In my work, I see that the second two question formats (hypothetical) allows for an introduction to how a candidate processes an unknown, whereas the first two questions can corroborate what was done in similar situations to then assess whether that thinking and approach could make sense in this organization.

    I look forward to any additional comments – your input is greatly appreciated as we all learn from the experts. And in the process, we may inspire a few more hiring managers to get better at meaningful interviewing. Thanks.

  8. @ Dr. Williams. Thank you.
    @ Jay: ” But to get more hiring managers to start to think about behaviors and cultural fit in addition to skills and experience in the interview process requires helping them not feel that the process is overly complex.”
    ISTM that you’re using BI for both capability and likeability. It was my impression that BI was best used for capability. Furthermore, the more work that someone can do remotely, the less likeability may matter. (While you might not be able to tolerate someone around you40+ hours week, you might be able to tolerate them 8 hours/week. Another argument for tele-work.)


  9. @Jay Hypothetical or Situational questions are most useful when probing ethical challenges or other low base rate challenges that few candidates have actually faced in the past.

    @Keith @Wendell It is still possible to find my book “Behavior Description Interviewing: New, Accurate, Cost Effective” (Janz, Hellervik, and Gilmore) on Amazon, but it is old (1986) and hideously expensive new from Pearson, if even available. Used is a better bet. And who reads anymore? I have updated video-based online skills training, with virtual skills certification in beta launch, for anyone interested. Contact me at:

  10. @ Dr. Janz. Thank you, too.
    What’s wrong with “old and hideously expensive”?
    You’ve just described many of us ERE authors….


  11. Speaking of old and hideously expensive, where is Lou? He should chime in on the performance outcome theme that often gets missed. Then all of the oldies on this topic would be in the house.

  12. Jay thanks for at least addressing this section of the hiring process. The discussion from your post has generated real value for me. I appreciate what has been shared.

    Thanks for the great insights.

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