Behavioural Interviewing

by Michael Kelly, MA


A behavioural interview uses questions designed to draw examples from a candidate's previous behaviour ... as opposed to just their knowledge or opinions.

In dealing with behaviours interviewers often look at two things:

  • previous behaviours the Candidate exhibits in their answers (their stories) - the idea here being that a Candidate's past behaviours best predict their future actions.
  • immediate behaviours related to how the Candidate answers the question (their eye contact, vocal intonations, body language, etc.)

Helping Candidates Through Common Interview Problems

Periodically we need to help candidates through the interviewing process - because they are nervous or are having difficulty connecting a question to an actual situation. Here are five common instances where some help might be required.

1. They deny or can’t think of a time when ...

Action: Try empathy, then restate. 

Example response: “I recognize it can be difficult to give an example. I wonder if we could give it a try though? Was there a specific time when you had to ...?”

2. They are too theoretical

Action: Try empathy, then restate.

Example response: “I can see there is much complexity to this situation. I wondering though, what specific action did you take to ...?”

3. Too much “we” in the Candidate's answer

Action: Try empathy and praise, then restate.

Example response: “I see you are very much a team player and that’s to be admired, but I’m looking for you to step outside the team for a moment. What specifically did you do to ...?”

4. They are too vague

Action: Try empathy, then restate.

Example response: “It sounds like it can be tough landing on the specifics of this situation. Can you be more specific about the particular aspect of the situation when you ...?”

5. They are too focussed on one event

Action: Try empathy, then restate.

Example response: "I see you have had quite a few dealings in this one particular situation. I recognize that coming up with examples can be challenging. I wonder if you could give us an example from another situation where you were asked to ...?"

Remember a behaviour is a demonstration of the way a person acts in response to a particular situation or stimulus and that observing these behaviours in our situation will involve the hearing, seeing and feeling senses.

Ethical Dilemmas

Can there be ethical dilemmas in behavioural interviews? (1) The short answer is yes. As for the long answer ...?

What exactly is an ethical dilemma? It, unlike a simple moral choice between a right and a wrong, happens when we are confronted with a situation that creates a mental conflict between moral imperatives. To obey one imperative means violating the other. 

Do they occur in behavioural interviews? As it turns out I've sat in hundreds of behavioural interviews and on rare occasions I've been stunned by Candidates who divulge morally questionable information. Most have had something to do with confidentiality violations, occupational health and safety infractions or compromises that negatively affected the environment.


Fictitious Sample: 

Interviewer: Can you relate a time when you were asked to review and implement a money-saving strategy in your organization? What did you do and what was the outcome?

Candidate: Sure, but I'll ask you to keep this on the QT, OK? Right now I'm saving the company thousands by quietly redistributing used oil, rather than paying to have it properly disposed. What I do is I package the old oil and drop it off at various dump sites around our community. So far it's been great and we've saved thousands. So, is it a success? Absolutely! I'm up for employee of the month. Beside no one has asked any questions so far.


So, what do we do? 

1. Have a code. Make sure you and your organization have a moral code of conduct that includes clearly stated actions to be taken in the event of an ethical dilemma.

2. Let the Candidate know about the code in a preamble to the interview. Be very clear that if a response reveals an actual and serious moral breach - meaning anything that violates the legality, morality or health and safety of any person, species, environment or organization - it will be the duty of the interviewing committee to take appropriate action.

3. If there is a questionable answer, search it for moral imperatives and clarify. A first moral imperative in our example is to ensure the objective integrity of the interview. Calling the Candidate on the matter may be risky (What if I'm wrong in what I just heard?) and almost certainly will compromise objectivity. A second moral imperative is to protect the environment and the health of others - even those outside the organization. Not do do so may expose them to harm. In our example the second imperative is clearly the more powerful. Once established ask the candidate it this is in fact the truth and observe and note their response. Take actions consistent with your code and the laws of the land.

When rephrase be sure to say you're rephrasing ... or else they'll think you are asking another question.



  1. To date I've not come across any behaviour interviewing literature dealing effectively - if at all - with the the issue of ethical dilemmas in behavioural interviews. Keep in mind that we must take action in these situations.
© 2011  Michael C Kelly