Behavioral interview tips needed.
September 8, 2016 5:17 AM   Subscribe

Do you have any behavioral interview tips you can share? Or resources you can point to, such as great articles or an online guide?

I've never faced any behavioral interview questions before because that isn't typical in my field (law). But I'm interviewing at a firm for a senior associate level position that typically asks those questions.

I understand what these questions are generally, although not necessarily how to prepare for them. But what do I do if I haven't failed at anything meaningful? Or if I haven't worked with an asshole? Etc.

Help me get ready, please!
posted by J. Wilson to Work & Money (12 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
My best tip is to think of stories from your professional life about challenges. You can cherrypick from those stories to answer the questions. For example, one of mine is the time I let myself get talked into proceeding with a project with insufficiently specific specs because the developer team insisted that they understood and wanted to get going. (Spoiler: it was more complex than they thought, and we missed our deadline, but I was accountable.) That story is also from long ago! So it works for a bunch of different Failure and What I Learned questions.

I don't recommend making stuff up (I'd be sketched out if I found out later you'd confabulated) but emphasizing different pieces of a story for different purposes is totally fine.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 5:25 AM on September 8, 2016 [2 favorites]

How I handled this when preparing for behavioral interviews is as follows: I found one of those big lists of behavioral interview questions. I don't have the exact list I used, but there are a number of them out there to pick from. Then for each question, I picked a relevant anecdote or example I could use from my own life, trying to keep the examples as work-related as possible.

I did this for about fifty questions, writing my answers down as I went. That sounds like a lot of work, but I found that I basically used a set of about 6 or 7 stories over and over again. I went back through old notes or emails to make sure I had all the details of those stories correct.

Then I spent some time making sure I could think of each story under time pressure. I had someone quiz me by randomly asking different questions and seeing if I could get to a relevant anecdote within about 30 seconds. I downloaded more question banks, and was quizzed on those, to see how I could handle unfamiliar questions using those same 6 or 7 basic stories, and whether I could slightly modify each story to answer the question being asked.

I feel that behavioral interviewing is a skill just like anything else, and can be practised. Since so many people think they can just wing it, a little preparation can go a long way towards making you stand out.
posted by peacheater at 5:39 AM on September 8, 2016 [4 favorites]

Similar to chesty_a_arthur, I found it very helpful to leave lots of time for thinking to remember and write down 'stories' from my professional past. There were lots of events or projects that I'd forgotten about! Only after an extensive brain-dump do I go back and see what type of questions these would be relevant to. I found this much more productive than just trying to 'think of when I failed' or whatever.

I found the STAR model helpful in structuring answers and drawing out the details. Also, like peacheater, lots of revision of the stories so they can be recalled quickly.
posted by firesine at 5:43 AM on September 8, 2016 [2 favorites]

But what do I do if I haven't failed at anything meaningful?

If this is really your answer, the thing you have failed at is self-reflection, which is plenty meaningful.

I've administered a lot of behavioral interviews and aside from making sure the interviewee isn't a psychopath and speaks fluently, the most important thing I always learned was how much insight the candidate had. People who can't reflect meaningfully on their experiences, at work or otherwise, tend to be harder to work with -- they make the same mistakes over and over and they get defensive about feedback because it doesn't ring true for them.

On preview, I think peacheater's exercise is a great way to prepare. Once you have identified your anecdotes, definitely practice telling them out loud to a friend in a simulated interview setting (e.g. no "timeouts" or "let me start again") until they are polished yet natural.

Make sure your friend is someone who you trust to recognize if a story reflects really poorly on you or doesn't really address the prompt you think it does. I once interviewed a woman who spoke very elegantly about how she had solved her problems with a difficult coworker by telling her boss she refused to work with that coworker. She had obviously practiced telling the story, maybe in front of another person, but no one had pointed out that the story was extremely unflattering to her. If anything, I was left with the impression that she was the difficult employee.

Finally, a lot of these questions ask for negative experiences -- times you've failed, made a mistake, whatever. Don't fall into the trap of only telling humblebraggy stories for fear of revealing that you're a human who has erred before. As long as you end the story with an accurate self reflection, a description of what you learned, and steps you took to improve, you can (and should) tell stories about real mistakes.
posted by telegraph at 5:48 AM on September 8, 2016 [12 favorites]

Seconding the STAR model. Structure your response in terms of those subparts. A little conversational back and forth is fine, but answers tend to have more impact when roughly structured along those lines.
posted by peacheater at 5:49 AM on September 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

In case this is useful information to have: At least for some interviewers, it is not essential that the anecdote be a work related one. If you want to tell me about a difficult interaction you had with someone at a volunteer job you do, or a hobby you participate in, that's totally fine as long as you can illustrate the thing I'm asking about. It's not even the end of the world if you just come up with, "I can't actually think of a time I've had that specific experience, but I think I would probably tackle it by [doing xyz]." Candidates sometimes get really apologetic and worried when they do that, and I'm pretty sure I was that way myself the first couple of times I ran into that kind of thing before I'd had experience asking the questions, but there's really no need to be flustered about it.

You may very well find that when you prepare the way suggested here, what you really have is a small handful of anecdotes that you can spin to reflect various types of questions. That's okay, too - you don't want every single answer to be the same story, but it is okay if you use the same story for a couple of different answers, as long as you can point to a different facet of it. Maybe a particular clusterfuck of a project was both a lesson in working with difficult coworkers, and in juggling multiple priorities with little guidance. You can talk about both those things. (Maybe don't say "clusterfuck", though. Or do. I don't know your life.)
posted by Stacey at 5:52 AM on September 8, 2016

I think you've gotten some great advice so far, and I'd add that you should definitely review your prepared anecdotes immediately before the interview so you have a lot to draw on, quickly.

Personally I found it easier to go chronologically though different roles and responsibilities (not just rom work, but all from work-appropriate discussion topics) I'd had and pick a few accomplishments, events, or issues from each. Then, I went through and summarized each of those to myself. The ones that I was able to describe in a particularly clear and detailed way, I marked. Then, I just drew from them as-needed during the actual interview - reviewing them immediately before made that much easier.
posted by R a c h e l at 6:07 AM on September 8, 2016

You might want to review a few behavioral competency dictionaries or marking rubrics for a better idea of the answers being sought and some keywords to put in your responses. A law firm is obviously unlikely to make theirs public, but many public service agencies have theirs online, like this one:'s%20Competencies%20Dictionary.pdf
posted by northernish at 7:04 AM on September 8, 2016

I do exactly what peacheater does.
posted by kevinbelt at 9:15 AM on September 8, 2016

Keep in mind, they don't want you to say you've failed at something meaningful. The correct answer to that question isn't "this one time I got really drunk and overslept and came into work late and hungover and stuff, and I missed my presentation to our biggest client and then threw up on my boss". That's failure, and even if you're able to identify what you learned from it, you probably won't get hired. What they're looking for isn't failure, but more like dissatisfaction with the outcome. "This didn't turn out the way I wanted, because I made a few specific choices. Here's why I made those choices, and here's what I'd do differently now".
posted by kevinbelt at 9:21 AM on September 8, 2016 [7 favorites]

Hey, I'm back. I want to give a couple of additional examples from the hiring manager's perspective. I have a couple of favorite questions to ask in interviews, so I want to explain what they are and why. One is "tell me about a time you really messed up and what you did about it." If I ask this, I'm looking for a) the ability to communicate a narrative clearly and appropriately, b) the ability to identify when you've messed something up and c) self-reflection. What I don't care about is the magnitude of the mistake, the nature of the mistake (barring the mistake being MURDER), or whether you were 100% successful in mitigating the damage. My own story along these lines is a total rookie move story, and I wasn't really able to mitigate the error, but I can talk pretty well about what went wrong and why, and what I do differently now.

My other favorite, is "tell me a story about something you accomplished as a group or team." I'm looking for something similar here: a) the ability to clearly and appropriately tell a story, b) some minimal insight into teamwork -- why a team works or doesn't, what some of the pitfalls are and c) insight into what you did or didn't contribute to a dynamic. I had an intern candidate once tell me a story that was all about how he singlehandedly saved the soccer team from defeat with his winning goal because he was so awesome, and I did not hire that person, because it was a story about the opposite of teamwork, and that gave me pause. I cannot remember any stories told by successful candidates, though, for what it's worth.

In short, if you can tell me a story (it doesn't have to be gripping, it just has to be clear) and show some insight into what happened, you're good. I am not your hiring manager etc etc.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 1:49 PM on September 8, 2016 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks, all! They would up not asking behavioral interview questions -- but I was prepared for them!
posted by J. Wilson at 7:47 PM on September 12, 2016

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