What are behavioral interview questions?
Behavioral interview questions seek to estimate the future performance of a candidate by looking at their past behavior. They can revolve around interpersonal matters, questions of leadership, how a person acts under pressure and more. These are more specific than standard interview questions, such as, “What makes you a great fit for this job?” A hiring manager may exclusively ask a candidate behavioral interview questions, or they may ask other types of questions as well.
While the number of behavioral interview questions a recruiter might ask are practically limitless, some are especially useful. These questions are important to ask because they speak to universal core skills that matter in every position, such as problem-solving and resilience. Other questions pertain to more specific qualities, such as leadership styles. If you’re hiring for a specific position, then you should keep the requirements of the position in mind while choosing your questions.
15 top behavioral interview questions
Depending on the position you’re conducting an interview for, you can incorporate some or all of the following 15 behavioral interview questions into the process. Doing so will help you identify the right candidate for your organization.
1. Can you give me an example of a difficult problem you solved at work? How did you go about reaching a solution?
Problem-solving is an essential skill for any profession or industry, and people can exercise this skill in virtually any context. While you might want to hear about something pertaining to solving a problem in your industry, this isn’t actually the purpose of this behavioral interview question. Rather, you want to learn about a candidate’s general ability to solve problems and see how they work in tough situations.
“Once, I was working on a project for a client with a tight deadline when I realized there were two ways to interpret their instructions. By the time I could expect clarification, the deadline would be looming uncomfortably close. I solved the problem by partially completing both versions of the project. While it entailed a little extra effort, I was able to deliver on time.”
2. Tell me about a time when you made a mistake. How did you handle this experience?
Mistakes occur in everyone’s career at one point or another. Making mistakes isn’t a personal failing as long as you admit your error and work to fix it. When assessing a candidate, you need to ask this question to make sure they’re the kind of person who fixes their mistakes rather than hiding them. By asking this question, you’re giving the candidate an opportunity to display their sense of accountability, humility and transparency.
“When I got started in retail, I accidentally sold an item that we were supposed to hold for a specific customer. I was horrified for a moment, but then I realized I had to tell the manager immediately. Thankfully, the customer was gracious about my mistake and we were able to resolve everything.”
3. Please share a time when you faced an unexpected challenge. How did you overcome this challenge?
This question is essential for understanding how a candidate turns a challenge into an opportunity. Unexpected events occur constantly in business, so it’s important to know that your hires can handle them. By asking potential hires about how they’ve defeated unexpected challenges, you gain insight into several important qualities. You assess their ability to reorient themselves and reprioritize tasks under duress, as well as their actual competence.
“I once took on a large order for web content with a short deadline but underestimated the complexity of the work. It was difficult to figure out what to do because my schedule was tightly packed, and it was hard to find extra time to spend. In the end, I decided to leave my car at work that night and commute by bus so I could study on my phone during the ride. With this extra time, I was able to get everything back on track.”
4. Can you tell me about a time when things didn’t work out well?
Most interview questions that touch on adversity carry a silver lining, such as questions about overcoming hardship. This question doesn’t do that and simply asks candidates to describe a time that things didn’t work out. As such, this question is harder to answer from an emotional point of view because you’re only asking to learn about a failure they experienced. A good answer to this question shows humility and a sense of personal responsibility.
“My first job out of college was sales, and right away I was full of confidence and ambition. I worked hard in training and tried to become a great salesman, but I found it surprisingly hard to get results. In the end, I had to admit that sales just wasn’t for me.”
5. Tell me about a time when you had to develop a new skill. How do you approach the learning process?
Skill-building is one of the most valuable processes for your hires to appreciate. Everyone you hire should ideally seek to grow their knowledge and abilities throughout their career. By asking this behavioral interview question, you learn about the value that a hire places on skill-building. Furthermore, discovering how they go about building new skills will be invaluable during the training process if you do hire the candidate in question. The ideal candidate will display an enthusiasm for learning, self-understanding and effective learning techniques.
“When I first started writing product descriptions, I found them hard to wrap my head around. But I knew this was a valuable skill to have, so I spent all day studying good product descriptions and different styles for writing them. At first it was hard work, but with continued practice it eventually became second nature.”
6. Please share a time when you had to share or pitch an idea to someone in a more senior position. How did you go about this task, and what was the outcome?
Many people struggle to speak to superiors. As such, the ability to speak frankly and confidently to a higher-up is invaluable in your subordinates. Furthermore, this behavioral interview question gives you an opportunity to assess their confidence, persuasiveness and communication skills. These qualities are vital for anyone taking a role in sales, customer service, client relations or management.
“When working in hospitality, I saw opportunities for our hostel to improve the guest experience and make money through partnerships with other local businesses. Before talking to the owner, I spent a few days thinking through potential problems and built a solid pitch. When I suggested my ideas, the owner was impressed and gave me the support I needed to implement them.”
7. Tell me about a time when you had a task to complete with a tight deadline.
Whether through procrastination, error, bad luck or a demanding client, everyone needs to deal with tight deadlines now and then. When a candidate answers this question, it will give you a look into their sense of organization and discipline as well as their ability to work under pressure. In telling this story, your candidate has an opportunity to display their ability to work deeply and think strategically.
“While working on a project for a new client, they shifted their deadlines and needed the product much sooner than previously indicated. At first, the new timetable seemed impossible due to other commitments. However, I communicated with our other clients to secure extra time and shifted resources toward the urgent project. With everyone putting in their best effort, we were able to complete everything.”
8. How do you resolve situations with difficult clients?
Difficult clients are part of any business, particularly fields such as customer service and sales. Clients can place unrealistic demands, refuse to listen and even become rude, but it’s important to remain professional no matter what. Being able to resolve situations with difficult clients is an important skill in itself that indicates professionalism, grace and patience.
“For me, the first step in dealing with a difficult client is getting on the same page. When things don’t go a person’s way, they often assume you’re malicious and become defensive. Of course, this isn’t the case, and my first priority is proving this. Once I reassure a difficult client that their success is also in my best interest, it always becomes easier to resolve their problem.”
9. Tell me about a time when you experienced conflict at work. How did you overcome it?
It’s important that potential hires can navigate disputes in the workplace. By asking this behavioral interview question, you’ll get a sense for how candidates handle arguments and high tension. In the process, you’ll also learn about their capacity for self-management, their temperament and their interpersonal communication skills.
“After a really contentious election a few years ago, arguments in the office became more common and could become a bit heated. Eventually it started to go too far, but I managed to relieve part of the tension in the workplace by pointing out that even the opposing candidates had significant common ground. It didn’t end the conflict, but it made it easier to let differences lie.”
10. What’s one thing you’ve done in your professional history that you wish you would have handled differently?
Many interview questions focus on a candidate’s best traits and professional accomplishments. On the other hand, there’s much you can learn about a professional based on their past failures or opportunities they missed. Asking this question gives the candidate an opportunity to demonstrate their self-awareness, ability to learn from past experiences and dedication to self-improvement.
“When I started making more progress in my career, I gave up some reliable business relationships to make room for new ones that seemed more lucrative. Looking back, I wouldn’t have been so rash, and I’ve learned to place more value on consistency and reliability.”
11. As a leader, how do you motivate those who follow you?
Those in leadership positions need to be able to motivate their subordinates. Good morale is one of the keys to maximizing the quality of work, as well as quantity. By learning how a person motivates their team members, you’ll gain a look into their interpersonal skills, maturity and knack for management.
“I believe that when you set people up to succeed while doing work they’re good at, they motivate themselves. I get to know my team members as individuals, make use of their unique skills and show my appreciation and awareness for the contributions they make.”
12. Tell me about a time when you were under a lot of stress. How did you handle this pressure?
Stress is often an unavoidable aspect of any position, but it’s crucial to learn how candidates react to workplace stressors before you make your hiring decision. By asking this question, you can determine whether an interviewee is prepared to manage the types of pressures they may face in this position and how well they’re equipped to perform their job in a variety of stress-inducing conditions, such as when the team is understaffed or a timeline is reduced.
“When I was working as a restaurant manager, we were once badly understaffed for the lunch rush. There were long lines of customers waiting for their meals, and the kitchen staff were overwhelmed. It was just chaos. It wasn’t easy to keep a cool head, but I managed to stay in control of the situation and we were able to keep up with customer demand.”
13. Please share a time when you set a goal for yourself and achieved it.
A candidate who sets their own goals and adheres to their plan is typically ambitious, dedicated and determined. Goal-setting is also indicative of well-developed organizational skills and an interest in career advancement. Asking this question gives the candidate a chance to outline their process for setting goals and reaching objectives and helps you better understand what motivates them to do well.
“As a copywriter, I found my greatest obstacle was myself. I was always a bit distraction-prone, so I resolved to increase my productivity by improving my discipline. I used website-blocking apps and rigid scheduling to get in the habit of working in a more focused, consistent way and ended up increasing my output by 50%.”
14. Tell me about your proudest professional accomplishment and why this achievement is significant to you.
Asking behavioral interview questions about a candidate’s accomplishments is helpful for a few reasons. First of all, it gives the interviewee a chance to discuss how they’ve applied their skills to achieve success. Second, it gives you insight into the sorts of projects they find meaningful and fulfilling. Third, it helps you assess whether they can share their wins while remaining humble and gracious. Consider whether they mention how their achievement provided value, who else was involved in the project and what they learned from the experience.
“A few years into my career in sales, I felt really confident in the team I’d put together. I decided that this was the year we were going to use our skills to go above and beyond our sales goals, and by the end of Q4 we’d achieved that goal. This achievement has always been important to me because it took me and my team so much to get there, and it showed that persistence really pays off.”
15. Tell me about your greatest professional failure and how you recovered.
Everyone experiences failure, and learning about how a person collects themselves after a disaster is important. For one, it’s important to know they aren’t going to crumble under the pressure if things start to go poorly. But this question is also important because it helps you see how the potential candidate learns from their mistakes and takes them as an opportunity to grow professionally.
“Early in my career, I was too ambitious and prone to over-promising with regard to deadlines. For a long time I got away with it, but eventually it became too much and I was severely late. Ever since then, I’ve been careful to schedule my work more realistically. Instead of using my skills to inch past harsh deadlines, I aim to set reasonable deadlines and beat them by days or weeks.”
3 tips for conducting a behavioral interview
- Be strategic. You may not have time to ask all the behavioral questions on this list. To determine which questions are most important, consider which skills are most critical for the role and ask the behavioral questions most likely to help you uncover those abilities. Questions about leadership and dealing with failure become more important for managers and leaders in the company.
- Ask each candidate the same questions. When it comes time to make a hiring decision, it’s critical you’re able to make a fair comparison. If you’re consistent in your questions, it’ll make this phase of the process much more manageable. Asking different questions to different candidates will complicate the hiring process and make it harder to exercise good, consistent judgment. While the questions you ask are a matter of personal discretion, you should only ask different questions to different candidates if you have a good reason. Consider implementing scoring sheets for interviews to help ensure your application process is as fair and objective as possible.
- Keep questions open-ended. Behavioral questions are purposely thought-provoking, so it’s important you keep them open rather than asking in a polar “yes” or “no” format. For example, instead of asking “Have you ever experienced conflict at work?” you should ask, “Tell me about a time when you experienced conflict at work. How did you overcome it?” By starting from the assumption that a person has experienced conflict at work, you’ll get more interesting, honest answers to the question.
A behavioral interview is essential for learning how a candidate will perform tasks, handle challenges and interact with others within a specific job role. It also allows candidates to share previous experiences and provide examples of how they’ve applied their skills and knowledge throughout their career. By asking these behavioral interview questions, you can determine how an applicant will add to your company culture and whether or not they can help your organization meet its objectives.