What Are Behavioral Interview Questions and How Do You Write Them?

young woman in blue dress sits for a behavioral interview

Stop us if you’ve heard this old job interview cliche before: 

In the middle of interviewing a candidate, the hiring manager asks, “What is your greatest weakness?”

Without missing a beat, the candidate smiles slightly, folds their hands on their knees, and responds “My greatest weakness is that I work too hard.”

Ugh! If you’ve ever been in a position to hire in the past — or have ever been interviewed for a job, yourself — it’s enough to make your stomach turn.

Implicitly, our professional minds understand that this is a bad interview question. Terrible, really. But what, specifically, makes it a bad interview question? 

Not only does it put the candidate in the awkward position of having to either lie or speak to a personal shortcoming during an already nervous situation, it also fails to provide any insight as to how the candidate will actually perform in the position they’re applying for.

Behavioral interview questions, on the other hand, help business owners and managers get the information they need to make an informed hiring decision, which is why behavioral interview questions are the best questions to ask candidates during a job interview.


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What is a “Behavioral Interview”?

A “Behavioral Interview” is a job interview that poses questions centered around a candidate’s previous employment experience in order to gauge how that candidate might handle specific situations and/or use their skills as an employee of your business. This practice is based on the principle that past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior. 

The framework of an effective behavioral interview question essentially boils down to the phrase “Tell me about a time when you…”. Other variations of this phrasing include:

  • Can you give me an example of…
  • Explain what it was like to…
  • Describe a situation in which you…

Instead of asking the candidate to talk about their skills or how they might behave in a theoretical situation (as is often the approach during a “Traditional Interview”), behavioral interview questions ask your candidates to describe the skills and behavior they demonstrated in an actual work situation in the past. 

When your candidate’s responses are geared toward explaining how they handled a situation in the past, or how they used skills and training in their past positions, those responses will offer a glimpse at how that candidate is likely to handle a similar situation in the future. Questions built on a behavioral interview framework require candidates to provide specific, thoughtful responses and cannot be easily dodged or answered with a simple “yes” or “no.”


Why “Traditional Interviews” Just Aren’t That Effective.

In a “Traditional Interview”, hiring managers often take a free-form, conversational approach to the interview process by asking candidates a series of straightforward, open-ended, and/or hypothetical questions. One of the common results of this approach is that, during a traditional interview, you, the interviewer, do most of the talking.

Some common Traditional Interview questions include:

  • How would you handle [insert hypothetical situation]?
  • What 5 words best describe you?
  • Describe what “customer service” means to you.
  • Do you consider yourself a “people person”?
  • What is your greatest weakness?
  • Tell me what you liked about your last job

Approaching an interview in this way may help you quickly determine the “likability” of the candidate in front of you. It may even help you develop some understanding of how well an applicant will mesh with your existing team on a cultural level. 

But, keep in mind that, during the interview, the person you are interviewing is trying to make you like them. Likability is not a qualification. It’s an attribute. Don’t fall prey to the “Halo Effect”.


The “Halo Effect”

The “Halo Effect” is a common pitfall of the traditional interview format.

The Halo effect, as described by Britannica, is: 

“…an error in reasoning in which an impression formed from a single trait or characteristic is allowed to influence multiple judgments or ratings of unrelated factors.” 

In plain English, this means that, because a candidate is likeable and is able to present themselves well during an interview, you get a feeling that they will be good at what they do for work. 

If you take the time to identify skills and cultural needs for an available position, and develop some killer behavioral interview questions, however, the Halo Effect will take a back seat to a much more effective process.  

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Keep Your Interview Process (and Especially Your Questions) Consistent 

When your interview process is inconsistent, it creates variation between your interviews with individual candidates and you get inconsistent outcomes. 

Being consistent throughout the hiring process is important to help you protect your business legally. But, even more important than that, when you are done interviewing and are choosing between candidates, consistency makes it much easier to identify the strong and weak points between your candidates. 


Prepare in Advance

As HR compliance experts, we would be remiss if we didn’t remind you that you can protect yourself from potential discrimination claims by preparing for your interview in advance

Write your behavioral interview questions before your first in-person interview. 

We are not saying that you have to use the same exact questions in the same exact order with each person you interview to ensure consistency in the process. 

We are advocating that virtually the same questions and skills tests, where it makes sense, are asked of, and administered to, each candidate in such a way that you end up with the same information about each person who interviews.

Wait until the interview is over to complete this evaluation process. Taking some basic notes during the interview is fine, even encouraged. But you’ll want to keep note taking to a minimum during the actual interview or else risk distracting your candidate or making them more nervous than they already are.


How to Write Effective Behavioral Interview Questions.

To write effective behavioral interview questions, start by making a list of the traits you would most like to see in your new hire, both in terms of personality and technical ability. Use the “Difference Maker Tool” in our free Hiring Guide to help with this process.

Once you have a solid grasp on the traits you’re looking for, frame your interview questions to inquire about how your applicants exhibited those characteristics in a work setting previously. If they have little or no previous work experience to draw from, reframe the question to apply to any similar situation, even if it wasn’t work related. 

This provides interviewers with a great deal of information related to the characteristic they are attempting to evaluate with a particular question. It also makes it very difficult for candidates to evade questions, respond vaguely, or simply say what they think the interviewer wants to hear.

Imagine, for instance, that your business places a high premium on your employees’ ability to adapt to change. The resulting behavioral interview question from the above breakdown might look something like this:

Tell me about a time when you had to adapt to a change in your work environment or processes. What specifically did you do to facilitate and adapt to that change, and what was the final result?

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Go Deeper with Follow Up Questions

If you feel like a candidate’s answers leave something to be desired at any point in the interview, if you sense a tonal shift in a candidate’s response to a particular question, or you would like to get more detail from them about something specific, ask probing questions to get them to expand on their answers.

You do not need to write your probing questions before the interview. They should come to you organically based on your candidates’ responses. 

Acknowledge the candidate’s response, then prompt them to go into more detail without leading them to an answer they might think you want to hear. Examples of potentially helpful probing questions include:

  • You said “(repeat portion of candidate’s response).” Can you explain what you meant by that?
  • I’m not quite sure I understand what you meant by “(repeat portion of candidate’s response)”. Can you give me some examples?
  • Tell me a little bit more about (situation or response).
  • I understood your response to mean (your interpretation). Is this correct?

If you like the answer you received but you still would like more information from a candidate, great probing questions can include, “How did you know to do that?” or “Where did you learn that technique?”

Probing questions like these can help you get to the root of a candidate’s answer to a specific behavioral interview question without straying into traditional (read: “unhelpful”) interview territory.


Run Your Questions by Someone You Trust

As a final point, it’s a good idea to run your interview questions by someone you trust in order to make sure they are easy to understand and are likely to work as intended. 

Try posing questions about particular traits or characteristics to individuals on your team (or elsewhere) who you think exhibit those characteristics. If they are able to answer your questions in a satisfactory way, you’re probably on the right track!

You can also use the handy flowchart below to evaluate whether the questions you’ve written fall into traditional or behavioral categories, and to determine if you should legally ask them at all.

Behavioral interview question flowchart


50 Example Behavioral Interview Questions

Here are some example questions you can use during your next interview. Or, use them for reference and try your hand at writing your own!


Trait or Competency: Technical Skills and Ability

  1. How do you feel your past work experience or education has prepared you for the technical aspects of the position you are interviewing for today?
  2. Tell me about a time when you had to solve a problem in a previous position and you got a great outcome. What resources did you use? What steps did you take and how did it ultimately turn out?
  3. Tell me about a time when you encountered a patient in pain and your first attempt to help him/her did not work. How did you ease the patient’s pain?
  4. Have you ever had to adapt your work technique to accommodate a doctor or manager’s needs, preferences, or style? What was the issue and what specifically did you do to make the adjustment work for yourself and the other person?
  5. Tell me about a set up, process, or procedure that you felt worked really well at a previous place of employment. What did you like about it and how did it make your work easier?


Trait or Competency: Motivation / Attitude

  1. Tell me about a time when you were having a bad day. What did you do to make sure your circumstances didn’t affect the quality of your work?
  2. What does it mean to you to have a “good attitude” at work? Why is it important and how do you make sure you are able to stay positive when facing a difficult task or situation?
  3. Explain what “work ethic” means to you. How has your work ethic served you in specific situations with previous employers.
  4. Describe a time when you had to address another employee’s poor attitude at work. What did you do or say to help them adjust and what was the result?
  5. Describe a time when you were able to set and achieve a specific goal at work. What was the goal and how did you achieve it?

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Trait or Competency: Leadership Skills

  1. Tell me about a time when you had to train someone to complete a complex process. What steps did you take to make sure they understood and what was the result?
  2. Tell me about a time when you had to step into a leadership role at work. How did you know you were right for the job? What was the final outcome of the project or situation?
  3. What, in your eyes, makes someone a good leader? Can you provide some examples of good leadership that you’ve experienced in the workplace and explain why you chose those examples?
  4. Describe a time in which you felt confident in a leadership role at work. What were the circumstances and what do you feel prepared you for that role?
  5. Part of being a good leader involves knowing your limitations. Describe a time when you had to enlist help from someone to complete a task. How did you know you weren’t equipped to complete the task on your own, who did you ask for help, and what was the final result?


Trait or Competency: Customer Focus

  1. Give a specific example of a time when you had to address an angry customer. What was the problem and what was the outcome? How would you assess your role in diffusing the situation?
  2. In your opinion, what are the key ingredients in guiding and maintaining successful patient relationships? Give examples of how you made these work for you.
  3. Tell me about a time in which your focus on a customer or patient changed a negative situation into a positive one. What was the situation and what did you do to improve it?
  4. Describe a time in which you had to step in for a coworker to improve the experience of an unsatisfied patient or customer? How did your approach differ from that of your coworker and what was the final outcome?
  5. What does good customer service (or chairside/bedside manner) look like to you? Give me some examples of how you apply those principles to your everyday work experience.

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Trait or Competency: Attention to Detail

  1. Give me an example of a time when you noticed something that someone else on your team had missed. How did you correct the issue? How did you address it with your team?
  2. What’s the difference between “streamlining a process” and “cutting a corner,” as you see it? Tell me about a time when that distinction came into play for you at a previous job.
  3. Tell us about a job or setting that required great attention to detail to complete a task. How did you handle that situation?
  4. Tell me about a time when your attention to detail got you out of a bind at work.
  5. Tell me about a time when you had to put in extra effort to ensure that a job was not just done, but done right.


Trait or Competency: Interpersonal Skills

  1. Tell me about a time when a coworker was having a bad day and you helped them get through it. What did you do and how did the rest of that day turn out?
  2. Tell me about a time when your interpersonal skills helped you build a relationship with a customer or patient.
  3. What are your greatest strengths when it comes to your interpersonal abilities? Give me examples of how those strengths have helped you in the workplace.
  4. Walk me through a time in which your ability to empathize with a patient or customer improved the experience of that individual.
  5. Tell me about a time in which you felt like your interpersonal skills left you unprepared for a particular situation at work. How did you address the issue, how did it play out, and what did you do to make sure you were prepared the next time a similar situation arose?


Trait or Competency: Ethical Practice

  1. Tell me about a time when you saw or heard about a coworker who was acting unethically. What did you do and what was the final outcome?
  2. Tell me about a time when you felt proud of yourself for doing what you thought was “the right thing” at a previous job. What did you do and why did you feel it was right?
  3. Describe a time in which you had to put your ethics ahead of your own self interest in the workplace.
  4. Describe a situation in which someone asked you to do something unethical at work. How did you respond? What did you do?
  5. What does an “ethical workplace” look like to you? Give me an example of a time when you felt a coworker failed to live up to this standard, as well as what you did to address it.


Trait or Competency: Business Acuity

  1. Give me an example of a time when you used data to adjust a process or procedure at work. What did you do and how did it turn out?
  2. Tell me about a time when you had to choose between two or more products, services, or pieces of software to implement for your workplace. How did you determine which was the best option? What was the result?
  3. Describe a time in which you had to adapt to a change in the workplace. What did you do to facilitate that change and how did it turn out?
  4. What is your favorite piece of business software and why? How has that piece of software helped you do your job better?
  5. Share a time in which you feel like you completed a project but later felt like you could have done a better job. What did you do and what do you feel like you could have done better?

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Trait or Competency: Critical Thinking Skills

  1. Describe a time when your first attempt to complete a task or assignment didn’t work. How did you adjust to get your work done and what was the final result?
  2. Explain how you were able to use your critical thinking skills to make a task or process easier for your team.
  3. Tell me about a time when you were assigned a task that you didn’t know how to complete. How did you get the information you needed to do the job and what was the final outcome?
  4. Tell me about a time when you had to adjust your strategy to compete better with another business. What was the situation, what did you do, and what was the result?
  5. Give an example of a time in which you were asked to report on specific trends or metrics in the workplace. How did you find the information you needed, how did you present it, and how was the information ultimately received?


Trait or Competency: Communication & Listening Skills

  1. Describe a situation in which you effectively “read” another person and acted according to your understanding of his or her needs and values.
  2. Have unforeseen problems or obstacles with a patient or customer ever caught you off guard? What happened and how was the situation resolved?
  3. Tell me about a time in which you had to lean on your writing skills to communicate an idea or process. What was the situation, what did you write, and how did it turn out?
  4. Give me an example of a time when someone gave you a piece of feedback about your behavior or performance that you didn’t agree with. How did you respond? What was the result?
  5. Tell me about a time when you helped solve a problem between two coworkers. What was the issue and what specifically did you do to resolve it?

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Sep 11, 2020

Friendly Disclaimer: This information is general in nature and is not intended to provide legal advice or replace individual guidance about a specific issue with an attorney or HR expert. The information on this page is general human resources guidance that is believed to be current as of the date of publication. Note that CEDR is not a law firm, and as the law is always changing, you should consult with a qualified attorney or HR expert who is familiar with all of the facts of your situation before making a decision about any human resources or employment law matter.
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