How to Conduct Behavioral and Situational Based Interviews


August 24, 2021


180 Engineering

The candidate interview, of course, is the cornerstone of the hiring process and, ultimately, a key to the success of your business. Hiring the wrong candidate can cause issues with team morale, productivity, and your bottom line. As we noted in a past blog post, industry specialists calculate the cost of a bad hire at about $240,000 to $850,000, depending on a variety of factors. But making a successful hire isn’t just about meeting potential candidates and asking them random questions.

It’s important to choose the interview format that will result in the best hire. There are several different things to consider. First, there are different types of interviews, including behavioral, situational, stress, and competency-based. Second, there are different formats, including structured (where all candidates are asked the same set of questions) and unstructured (where the interviewers and candidates engage in more casual and open-ended conversation). And, finally, of course, interviews can be held in different modes, including in person, telephone, or online.

In professional fields, structured behavioral and situational interviews generally achieve the best results. Candidate responses from these types of interviews can be applied to a scale, making it easier for employers to objectively evaluate and compare candidates. Further, as pointed out in an interview guide produced by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), “structured interviewing is not only effective for making a hiring decision, it can be crucial in defending against allegations of discrimination in hiring and selection.”

What Are Behavioral/Situational-Based Interviews?

Behavioral and situational interviews both attempt to gauge how candidates would respond to certain scenarios in the workplace. But these interviews take slightly different approaches.

Behavioral Interviews

Behavioral interviews are extremely effective. They probe the candidate’s past work experience by asking for specific examples of how certain situations were handled. The questions are usually pointed, probing, and specific. Each answer should be based on actual evidence, making it verifiable. The information provided  gives the employer insight into the behavior, knowledge, skills, and abilities that each candidate can bring to the role. Knowing how a candidate behaved in the past is a good indicator of how they will perform in similar situations in the future.

Situational Interviews

Situational interviews also look at how a candidate would perform in a given situation; however, in these types of interviews, the questions are hypothetical. Rather than being based on actual, verifiable, actions, the questions pose a hypothetical scenario, asking how the candidate would respond.

As noted in a blog at Glassdoor, situational interviews can be a terrific indicator of a candidate’s problem-solving skills, their ability to think on their feet, and how they respond to ‘curveballs.’

Why Is A Structured Interview Better?

By their nature, behavioral and situational interviews are structured.

Structured interviews follow the same format with each candidate, posing the same job-specific questions, in the same order, each time. Unstructured interviews are more informal and conversational. The questions asked are not prepared in advance but rather depend on where the conversation naturally flows; additionally, they are often more about the personal qualities of the candidate than their job-specific competencies.

Structured interviews have several advantages. In particular, since all candidates are answering the same questions, their answers can be graded on a scale. Grading the answers makes it easier to objectively evaluate and compare the different applicants. If each applicant answers a different set of questions, evaluating the candidates will end up being like comparing apples to oranges.

Second, structured interviews can be advantageous if an employer is holding a panel interview with multiple interviewers. Using a scale to grade answers can help limit the discretion of the different interviewers due to their personal perceptions and opinions. This is particularly helpful if members of the panel vary from candidate to candidate.

Finally, because the information collected is ranked objectively on a scale, a structured interview is the best way to prevent allegations of bias and discrimination in hiring. As pointed out in a piece at Forbes by Michael Podolsky, “without a structured interview plan, you can end up straying into dangerous territory when it comes to compliance issues.”

Podolsky uses this example: In an unstructured interview, you might end up discussing what a candidate does in their free time on the weekends. If a candidate mentions that they attend religious services, it could be difficult later on to prove that their religious beliefs did not factor into your hiring decision. As Podolsky says, it’s simply better not to know.

Types Of Questions To Ask

Hopefully we’ve convinced you that a structured behavioral or situational interview is your best option for an unbiased and successful hire. Now what?

Now it’s time to develop your questions. Fortunately, there are many excellent articles online that you can pull questions from, or use as a template to develop ones that are specific to your workplace. We like the list created by Lily Zhang at The Muse.

Zhang breaks the questions into six different categories. The author provides guidelines for developing your own behavioral questions in each category, as well as examples of fully-formed questions that you can use as is. In addition to the behavioral examples provided by Zhang, situational (hypothetical) questions can be developed for each category as well. More on that below.


Since successful teamwork involves maintaining congenial relationships with colleagues and managing interpersonal conflict, these questions should focus on a problem that could occur within a team. Zhang suggests asking questions like:

  1. Talk about a time when you had to work closely with someone whose personality was very different from yours.
  2. Describe a time when you struggled to build a relationship with someone important. How did you eventually overcome that?

Client-facing Skills

If the candidate will be expected to work directly with clients, ask about their past successes and challenges with clients. Zhang offers five suggestions, including:

  1. Describe a time when it was especially important to make a good impression on a client. How did you go about doing so?
  2. When you’re working with a large number of customers, it’s tricky to deliver excellent service to them all. How do you go about prioritizing your customers’ needs?

Ability to Adapt

Being able to adapt to change, think on your feet, and problem solve are skills that are necessary to almost every job. Zhang suggests exploring these skills by asking questions such as:

  1. Describe a time when your team or company was undergoing some change. How did that impact you, and how did you adapt?
  2. Tell me about a time you failed. How did you deal with the situation?

Time Management Skills

There are many different aspects to managing time successfully, including being able to prioritize projects and clients, multitasking, and organizational skills. Consider asking questions like these examples from Zhang:

  1. Sometimes it’s just not possible to get everything on your to-do list done. Tell me about a time your responsibilities got a little overwhelming. What did you do?
  2. Tell me about a time you set a goal for yourself. How did you go about ensuring that you would meet your objective?

Communication Skills

As Zhang points out, everyone communicates in all areas of their lives. Successful interview questions about communication skills are those that are specific to the workplace and focussed on the thought process behind the communications. Zhang suggests questions like these:

  1. Give me an example of a time when you were able to successfully persuade someone to see things your way at work.
  2. Give me an example of a time when you had to explain something fairly complex to a frustrated client. How did you handle this delicate situation?

Motivation And Values

Understanding what drives each candidate in their decisions and choices can provide insight into how well a candidate will fit into company culture. Zhang offers a few different suggestions to explore this topic, including:

  1. Tell me about your proudest professional accomplishment.
  2. Describe a time when you saw some problem and took the initiative to correct it rather than waiting for someone else to do it.
  3. Tell me about a time you were dissatisfied in your work. What could have been done to make it better?

Situational Questions

A structured interview can have a mix of behavioral (evidence-based) and situational (hypothetical) questions. While Zhang’s piece focuses on behavioral questions, situational questions can be found or developed for each category as well. A blog piece at Indeed suggests situational questions like these:

  1. What would you do if you made a mistake that no one else noticed?
  2. What would you do if you were asked to perform a task you’ve never done before?
  3. What would you do if an angry and dissatisfied customer confronted you? How would you resolve their concern?

The STAR Method

Most candidates will be familiar with the STAR method of answering interview questions. It’s a useful tool that’s often included as part of job-search coaching.

The STAR method helps candidates flesh out their answers without straying off track. STAR stands for:

  • Situation: Describe the situation that you were in.
  • Task: Explain what your role was within the situation.
  • Action: Discuss the steps you took to resolve the situation.
  • Result: Share the outcomes of your actions.

Whether a question is behavioral or situational, the STAR method gives candidates a structured outline to follow as they gather their thoughts in order to answer.

When you formulate questions and your grading scale (discussed below), it can be helpful to keep the STAR method in mind. Having answers from each candidate that are formulated similarly can help with grading those answers and ultimately with choosing the best candidate for the role.

How To Grade/Scale Answers

A simple grading scale for interview questions is crucial to a fair and effective hiring process. This scale does not have to be complex. A sample scale provided by SHRM suggests grading answers by these simple criteria:

  • Far Exceeds Requirements: Demonstrates complete competency by providing many examples, all of which are good.
  • Exceeds Requirements: Demonstrates strong competency by providing many good examples.
  • Meets Requirements: Demonstrates fair competency by providing some good examples.
  • Below Requirements: Demonstrates weak competency by providing few good examples.
  • Significant Gap: Fails to demonstrate competency and provides no good examples.

Many other websites also provide guidelines or templates for grading interview answers. We particularly like the ones at Smartsheet.

Whichever scale you decide to use or develop on your own, it should be provided to everyone on the interview panel. As each question is asked in the interview, notations can be made and answers can be graded on the spot, to be discussed by the panel later.

While we’ve all sat through interviews ourselves, we may have not realized the strategy behind the questions that we were asked. For interviews to be effective and hires to be successful, certain interview procedures should be implemented. If you keep in mind that the best interviews are structured, with behavioral or situational questions that are based on the STAR method of answering and objectively grade answers, your own interviews should pinpoint the best candidate for your role.