Published on

Career Connexion

Bracing yourself for behaviour-based interviews

It is the day you’ve been waiting for – your big interview! You’re dressed to the nines. You’ve highlighted your strengths and you’ve rehearsed your answers to assumed questions that interviewers could ask you. Just as you thought you are on a winning streak, the interviewer asks you a question, which you had not anticipated on answering – “Give me an example of a time when you had to deal with a difficult customer.”

You feel as though you’re lost in space and you start to stutter. You think to yourself, “Wait a minute, are they trying to trick me?”

Welcome to the wonderful world of behaviour-based interviews.

Behavioural interviewing is a relatively new method of job interviewing. Behaviour-based interviewing originated from the principle that past behaviour is the best predictor of future behaviour. Although it is a technique commonly used for screening candidates at the management level, it is predominant in larger companies. Large Canadian employers such as Inco Limited, James Richarson International, the Civil Service Commission, and Canada Post Corporation are examples of organizations that use behaviour-based interviewing.

Because more and more companies are using this type of interviewing to weed out job candidates, understanding how to tackle it is becoming critical in the process of an individual’s job search. The idea behind this style of interviewing is to assess how a person has reacted or behaved in particular situations in their previous jobs. It attempts to get a response based on actual experiences rather than a response based on how candidates view themselves, as in the case of “traditional interviewing”. Let’s take a look at some of the questions used for behaviour-based and traditional interviews:


  • Tell me about yourself.
  • What are your strengths and weaknesses?
  • What do you see yourself doing five years from now?


  • Describe a time when you had to make an important decision. What was it and how did you handle the situation?
  • Give me an example of a time when something you tried to accomplish had failed.

You will notice that behaviour-based interview questions tend to be more difficult and more probing than the traditional style. Traditional interviews are easier to prepare for as questions are much easier to anticipate and answers can be rehearsed. At times, in traditional interviewing, you can get away with telling the interviewer what he or she wants to hear. On the other hand, in a behaviour-based interview, your answers cannot be rehearsed and preparation can be challenging.

You will often find that behaviour-based interviews generally take longer and can often involve a panel of interviewers. This can be a little intimidating if you are not used to it. I remember being interviewed by 3 panel members that lasted for almost 2 hours. It was very exhausting. You see, behaviour-based interviews are designed for candidates to do most of the talking and to leave room for follow-up questions.

To prepare yourself for a behaviour-based interview, first read the job advertisement and identify the skills and competencies required for the job. For example, if the job ad is looking for someone who “strives to exceed customer expectations,” the competency would be “excellent customer service”. The question in my opening paragraph would be a perfect example for this type of skill - “Give me an example of a time when you had to deal with a difficult customer.” Instead of just listing the achievements that correspond to this skill, consider illustrating a story to communicate to the interviewer how you demonstrated those skills in your previous jobs. Your story should include a situation from the past, the action that you took (how you dealt with it) and what happened as a result of your actions.

As a candidate, you should be equipped to answer the questions thoroughly. It’s obvious that the only way you can prepare for this type of interview is by knowing which skills and competencies an employer requires for the job. One great way of obtaining the skill that companies look for is researching about them to determine the kinds of behaviours they seek. Some company websites actually post job descriptions, along with an outline of competencies they desire.

At the interview, your response also needs to be specific and detailed. Candidates who provide particular situations that relate to the question will be more successful than those who respond with general answers.

How will you know beforehand which type of interview you will be doing? Well, you won’t really know. I can tell you that based on my experience, if you’re applying for a larger corporation or a management position, it is highly likely that the interview will be behaviour-based. If it’s for a small company, you can most likely expect to undergo a traditional interview. However, don’t rely on your assumptions. When you do get a call for an interview, do not forget to ask the person on the other end of the line what type of interview it will be, how long it may take and who will be present during the session.

The key to answering behaviour-based questions is providing actual instances, dates, people involved and other information that can give credibility to your examples. Most important, relax and be yourself.

Michele Majul is an HR Professional with Canada Post Corporation in Prairie Region. She graduated from the University of Manitoba with a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Psychology and a Certificate in Human Resource Management.