How to cope with behavioral interviewing questions

How to cope with behavioral interviewing questions – In the Trenches

Marilyn Moats Kennedy

What should a potential employee do when asked behavioral or highly intrusive questions during the interview? Here are some suggestions to help you be prepared should the interviewer ask you personal or objectionable questions: (1) Take some time for introspection; (2) be prepared to draw the line; (3) complain; and (4) write it off. And remember: A show of determination and setting boundaries in an interview may advance your progress. Coolness under fire is an attractive personality trait.

Key Concepts: Behavioral Interviewing Questions/Preparing for Interviews/Fielding Intrusive Questions

Do you remember eight years ago when interviewers used to torture candidates with such questions as, “If you were a tree, what tree would you be?” or “Why have you chosen to live your life as you have?” In the early 90s, jobs were scarce and abusing candidates was an acceptable sport. However, we’re hearing from candidates that they’re being asked the same absurd questions now. Employers don’t understand that a desirable candidate doesn’t have to put up with such silliness for the duration of a single interview when jobs are so plentiful. That’s because many candidates do put up with such questions.

Recruiters tell us that they like to pose hypothetical questions such as, “What would you do if?” Candidates expect them so it’s not a problem. However, many move on to asking objectionable questions such as, “What has been your greatest failure?” or “What would you have done differently?” Other behavior related questions we’ve heard include: “What influence do you think your parents had on your career?” “How much do you care about the prestige of the college you attended?” “How assertive are you?” “What do you feel strongly about?”

Not only are some of these questions frighteningly intrusive, they are not job related. Who would tell an imperfect stranger his or her worst career disasters? Talk about shooting yourself in the foot! The interviewer doesn’t know you. How can he or she balance your answer against the overwhelmingly positive skills and qualities you offer? Are these curiosity questions or designed to get to know a candidate better? Remember, most are asked by HR or a recruiter, not by the boss a candidate would work for. Bosses tend to have a narrow agenda, such as, “Can you do the job well and quickly?”

Here’s the problem: Since HR is the gatekeeper you may have to answer some so-called behavioral questions to get passed on to the boss. Think carefully about how such questions may mirror how employees are treated. If you’re determined to run this gauntlet, here are some ways to prepare.

1. Take some time for introspection

There aren’t any books that can prepare you for the turns and twists of an interviewer determined to get under your skin. But, if you want to be prepared for anything, reflect on your life/work philosophy. Why did you choose your particular field? What part does work play in your life? Are you working to live or vice versa? What have been the milestones of your career? How did you handle the low patches? Then, compose a statement in writing. If you spend four or five hours on this, you’ll benefit even if all the interviews you have are perfectly straightforward!

2. Be prepared to draw the line

Offensive questions about mental health, sexual orientation, or those that border on stereotyping should be gently refused. “I really can’t answer that,” or “I would prefer not to answer that,” or, even, “How is that relevant to the job of marketing manager?” are acceptable answers. If the interviewer persists. say, “I had no idea that the organization intruded into people’s private lives. Is it company policy?” The most obtuse interviewer will feel an invisible jerk on his or her dog collar.

3. Complain

If the interviewer exceeds the bounds of civilized behavior and you are truly offended, write a letter to the CEO. State the facts, time, date, etc. Explain politely why, however much you might have wanted to work for the organization, you were thoroughly put off. What you want to know from the CEO is whether such HR behavior is an accurate reflection of the CEO’s business philosophy and practice. Enclose your resume so the CEO will know what he or she is losing. You will get a response. CEOs are not pleased when reasonable people are offended.

4. Write it off

There is no living job hunter who hasn’t been through at least one interview from hell, although what made it hell varies. It’s part of everyone’s work life. However, since these aren’t learning experiences, work tirelessly to avoid them. The way to do that is to network. As the job search process becomes more web-dependent, you will need to solicit and evaluate other peoples’ experiences with an organization. Only former employees can tell you what really went on. If you hear from reliable sources that an otherwise desirable company uses behavioral interviewing, you can always ask If it’s true when you are called for an interview. If the recruiter says yes, ask what the organization expects to gain from such strafing. Even if you decide to interview, you will have blunted his or her attack.

Our experience has been that a show of determination and setting boundaries in an interview may advance your progress. Coolness under fire is an attractive personality trait.

Marilyn Moats Kennedy is Managing Partner, Career Strategies, Inc., Wilmette, Illinois, and a long-time member of the ACPE faculty She can be reached at 1150 Wilmette Avenue, Wilmette, Illinois 60091, 847/251-1661. via fax at 847/251-5191. and via email at com.

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