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The state of California strives to build a high performance culture that aligns individual performance to the organization’s strategic plan. This makes hiring decisions critical—departments and agencies must hire the right person with the right skills for the right job. Hiring decisions impact the organization for years—positively or negatively. Managers need a systematic, objective approach when making their hiring decisions.
Many organizations, public and private, have begun using behavior-based interviewing, a structured approach that focuses on looking at past performance to predict success in future performance.
The goal of this information is to provide basic information on how to effectively plan and conduct behavioral interviews. Using these ideas will increase your chances of making a good job/person match.
This is what you can expect to be able to do if you successfully learn from the material on this page:
Define behavioral interviewing
Explain the benefits of behavioral interviewing for organizations and candidates
Identify the steps in preparing and conducting behavioral interviews and behavioral reference checks
Identify and write behavioral interview questions
Develop tools to evaluate candidates
Interviews in which questions are designed for the candidate to give specific information on how the candidate handled or reacted to situations in the past that are likely to come up in the job for which you are recruiting.
Based on the premise that past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior
Relate specifically to knowledge, skills, abilities, or work qualities needed to be effective in the position being filled
Require the interviewee to provide examples of their experience and background in a specific area
“Describe a situation where you had to defend or explain an idea or proposal. Who was the audience, what were the issues, and what was the outcome?”
“Describe a situation where you had to complete work with little or no direction from supervisors or colleagues?”
A little later we'll look at how to develop behavioral interview questions.
Hire the best person for the job
More productive more quickly
Less initial training and development
Greater chance of retention
Individual performance is linked to organizational performance
Better application of one’s skills to job
Matching people to jobs leads to increased satisfaction, self-esteem, self confidence
Can immediately see their direct contribution to organizational goals
Sees organization as a place to build a career
See your HR Office as your strategic partner
What are your organization’s workforce and strategic plans?
How does your division, unit, etc. contribute to organizational goals and objectives?
How does the specific job you will be recruiting and interviewing for contribute to organizational goals and objectives?
Before you ever announce a job or set up interviews, think strategically. What does this mean?
First, work closely with your management and HR Office to find out about your department’s workforce plans, mission critical positions, anticipated layoffs, and anything else that may impact filling your vacancy.
Also look at the strategic plan. Ask how your division, unit, etc., contributes to organizational goals and objectives. Work closely with HR to ensure you are focusing on hiring people who will contribute to these goals and objectives.
Now you are ready to determine if the knowledge, skills, abilities, and on-the-job behaviors of your job align with the organizational goals and objectives. For example, if customer service is a key organizational priority, are you looking for those knowledge, skills, abilities, and on-the-job behaviors in the people you interview?
Must be detailed as to what you are looking for in YOUR position—now and in the future
Consider personal/interpersonal as well as technical skills
Don’t forget the organizational environment
Goal: Good job-person match
Spend upfront time to determine the duties and tasks that truly need to be performed in your job. You may be hiring an Analyst. But what does an Analyst do in YOUR division and / or department? In one department, an analyst may handle grants so the position requires fiscal skills. In another department, an analyst may be involved in training and presentation and customer service skills are required. Make sure you focus on what is important in your specific job that will get you a good skills match.
Also consider what will be needed 2-3 years in the future.
When doing this, many managers focus primarily on the technical skills. However, in most jobs personal and interpersonal behaviors, such as paying attention to detail, being self-motivated, or getting along with others, can be the critical job skills.
These interpersonal skills often go hand in hand with your organizational environment. For example, at the Franchise Tax Board or Board of Equalization, interpreting financial data and attention to detail are critical as both departments deal with taxes. But at the California Emergency Management Agency (CalEMA), speed and flexibility are the keys to success. Employees at CalEMA need to respond fast and in a flexible manner when there is a fire or other emergency. So look for candidates who match your organizational environment.
The goal -- a good job/person match.
Make sure it reflects the KSABs needed for successful job performance
Clear, up-to-date job descriptions helps candidates decide if they want to apply for the job and tells them exactly what you expect of the person you will select.
Zero in on the KSABs that are needed to perform successfully in the job
Focus on what the person has done in the past, NOT what they think they might do in the future.
Always remember what is important to the job and the organization.
Once you have identified the knowledge, skills, abilities, and on-the-job behaviors of the job and made sure the job description is current, develop a list of behavioral questions that you will ask each candidate during the interview. Developing the right questions takes time and thought.
As mentioned earlier, in a behavioral interview, the interviewer asks candidates to recall specific instances where they were faced with a set of circumstances, and how they reacted. Instead of asking how they would behave, they ask how they did behave.
A structured list of questions keeps you focused on what is important in your job, helps you avoid the trap of misleading first impressions or just “going with your gut,” and helps you make comparisons between the various answers and approaches of your interviewees. This also makes your hire more defensible.
Stay focused on what is important to the job and the organization.
“Tell me about a time that you had too much work to complete by the deadline.”
“Give me an example of a time when you were unable to meet your goals. What did you do?”
If you are looking for the ability to resolve conflict:
“Describe how you successfully handled a situation with a particularly difficult customer or coworker.”
If you are looking for the ability to analyze:
“Tell me about a recent work problem you encountered. How did you analyze the situation and come to a decision?”
“Can you provide an example of when you had to make an important decision about your work when little data was available.”
Behavioral questions are open-ended questions that may begin with such phrases as:
Describe a time….
Tell us more about….
What is an example of when…
When have you…
What (how, where, why, when) did you….
Seek both positive and negative examples of behavior.
“Describe a time when a project you worked on received organizational recognition.”
“Tell us about a time when you made a mistake, what were the consequence, and what you learned from the incident.”
Many of us were taught to interview by using general, leading, or theoretical/ situational questions. Let’s take a look at these pitfall questions and see if they sound familiar.
Avoid general non-behavioral questions
“What are your strengths? weaknesses?’
“Why should we hire you?”
General non-behavioral questions are those requiring general knowledge or personal awareness. These can have very little to do with the specific duties of a position. Questions requesting a description of strengths, weaknesses and personality characteristics, while at times valuable, rarely relate specifically to knowledge, skills, abilities, and on-the-job behaviors necessary for a specific position. General questions also encourage memorized answers and the interviewee is rarely asked to back up what was said.
Avoid theoretical or situation questions
“How would you handle an irate customer?”
"If given assignments by two different people, how would you set priorities?"
"How would you handle an employee who is always coming in late?"
A second pitfall is to ask questions that puts the applicant in a hypothetical situation. For example, “What would do if you had conflicting priorities?” These questions are more likely to test skill at answering questions rather than performing well in the job. It is easy for applicants to say what they would do; it is more important to find out what the person has done.
Instead you might ask:
Describe a time when you handled an irate customer. What did you do? What was the outcome?
Describe a time when you were given assignments by two different people who both wanted their work done first. How did you go about setting your priorities?”
As a supervisor, tell me about a time when you had an employee who regularly came in late or left early? How did you resolve the situation?
Avoid leading questions
“We need people who are team players. Are you a team player?”
A third pitfall is asking leading questions such as “Working on your own does not bother you, does it?” Of course the response will be something like “Oh, certainly I can work alone or on a team.” The interviewer hints at the answer by the way the question is phrased. Instead, if working alone is important, ask about a time a person had to work independently with little supervision or guidance.
Avoid questions that could be considered illegal
Avoid irrelevant questions
“If you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be?”
Behavioral interview guides on CalHR's website
Virtual help desk for supervisors and managers
What is your ideal job?
In this position, you would be part of a virtual team. How would you develop relationships with your colleagues in such a setting?
Tell us about a time when you had multiple priorities and how you prioritized them.
What is your experience in writing research papers?
Describe a situation when a leader should not involve staff in a decision.
What are your three most important work values? Why?
The quiz answers are at the bottom of the page.
Ability to write
Ability to communicate
Suggested exercise answers are at the bottom of the page.
Rating – a comparison of a candidate’s education, experience, awards, and performance against a set of job-related evaluation criteria to assess his/her ability to successfully perform in the position being filled
Set in advance
Check with your HR Office for any departmental policies or guidance on rating job applicants
The fifth step in preparing for a Behavioral Interview is to develop a rating scale to evaluate candidates on a competitive basis.
But first, just what does it mean to rate on a competitive basis? It is a comparison of a candidate’s education, experience, awards, and past performance against a set of job-related evaluation criteria to assess his or her ability to successfully perform in the position being filled. It also allows you to compare candidates to each other
Developing effective rating scales is one of the more challenging steps in the interviewing process as it forces the interviewer to truly think through what is important in a specific job.
It is critical that you do this in advance as it helps you remain objective during the interview.
Before you begin this step, check with your HR Office to see if they already have a policy or guidance on how to rate job candidates. Always keep in mind HR is your strategic partner.
Make sure it focuses on what is critical to YOUR job
Keep it simple
Some people give a weight to critical job elements or use numerical scores
Leave room for notes –document your selection
Having a rating scale tells everyone in the rating process exactly what to look for. If you are developing your own rating scale, here are some simple guidelines to consider.
Make sure the scale focuses on what you have determined to be the critical knowledge, skills, abilities and on-the-job behaviors of your job. If you are hiring a scientist, one candidate may have excellent scientific credentials and experience, but may not communicate well and has poor interpersonal skills. If the job requires providing testimony to the legislature on issues such as swine flu, make sure your rating scale identifies and puts a weight on having presence and communication skills.
Keep it as simple as you can. Some interviewers just rank each person above or below previous applicants with notes as to why. They end up with the candidates in priority order of how they came across in the interview. Some people give a weight to critical job criteria or use a numerical rating scale. Do not make it too complex. Leave room for notes. This will become the documentation for your selection. You will know if your rating scale is effective if interviewers are consistent in how they rate candidates on each job element.
In this example, you simply list the important knowledge, skills, abilities and on-the-job behaviors and the questions you will ask related to these areas, leaving room for notes. You might rate as having “good experience or background”, “some experience or background”, or “little or no experience or background.” Or you might use “acceptable”, “acceptable with reservations”, and “not acceptable”.
Knowledge, skill, ability, or behaviors:
Experience and background: Good / Some / Little or no
Other scales get more complex and use numerical ratings. In this case you give the candidate a numeric rating for each element of the profile.
5: Excellent experience or background that fits the job
4: Good experience or background that fits most of the job
3: Some experience or background but training will be needed
2 Experience and background is very limited
1: Experience or background is not apparent
Leading: 5 / 4 / 3 / 2 / 1
Managing Change: 5 / 4 / 3 / 2 / 1
Integrity: 5 / 4 / 3 / 2 / 1
Here is a slight variation on the other two examples. The key is to develop a rating scale that will help you make the best selection in a format that will serve as documentation for your decision.
Knowledge, Skill, Ability, or Behaviors:
Rating: 1 (no experience) / 2 (some experience) / 3 (good) / 4 (very good) / 5 (excellent)
Now let’s look at actually conducting the interview.
The length of the interview depends upon the complexity of the job. Regardless of the length, to get the best results, make sure the interview is structured so both the interviewers and interviewees stay on track.
There are generally three parts to an interview: the opening, the body, the closing.
In the opening, you set the tone to make the person comfortable and explain how the interview will be conducted.
The body is the heart of the interview where you ask the initial and follow up questions to determine if the candidate has the knowledge, skills, abilities, and on-the-job behaviors for the job.
In the closing, you take the candidate’s questions and let the person know what comes next.
Let’s take a closer look at some of the basics for each of these parts of an interview.
Create a positive tone; make the person feel comfortable
Introduce the interviewers
State the objectives of the interview
Establish the timeframe so the candidate can judge how in depth to go when responding to questions
Introduce any other interviewer(s), explain their role, and explain that everyone will be asking questions. It is a good idea to have at least two interviewers so there are different points of view. And make sure the same interviewers interview all applicants so there is consistency in ratings.
State the purpose of the interview –to ask questions about the candidate’s background and qualifications to see if there is a good fit with the position. Equally important to say is that the candidate should feel free to ask questions about the position and organization to determine if it will meet their expectations.
Remember – this is a two way street – the candidate is interviewing you as well!
Let the candidate know the steps you will be following and the estimated timeframes so they can judge how much time to spend on questions. You might say that you will start with an overview of the job, ask questions about their background and experience, and close with answering their questions and explaining when they will hear your decision.
Tell candidates you will be taking notes
Tell the person about the job and duties
Tip: Tell candidates in advance you are conducting a behavioral interview and want them to provide specific examples of accomplishments and results
Tip: Consider giving them the questions in advance
Use the 25/75 rule (interviewer talks 25% of time; candidate talks 75% of time)
Start with open-ended questions that encourage candidates to talk (your prepared behavioral questions)
Use closed questions to confirm a point. “Am I correct that you graduated from CSUS with a degree in counseling?”
Use follow up questions to delve deeper into an area or to clarify a point
Can you give us another example of…
Can you give more specifics
Can you elaborate on exactly what your role was in….
And be sure to show interest in the person—be attentive, listen, and encourage them to share examples.
But if you do have to cut them off, find a way to graciously redirect the conversation. For example, “Well, let’s move into another area.”
When closing the interview, end on a clear and positive note. You can do this by…
Summarizing the key information you have heard about them, their experience, their background and education
Asking if the candidates have any questions or information they want to share. Listen carefully to what questions are asked by the candidate. They can tell you a lot about the person. Does the person immediately ask about alternate work schedule, days off, etc. If so, it may be an indication they are more interested in time off than the actual work. Or do they ask about the job duties, the type of assignments they will have, and who they will be working with? Such questions may indicate more interest in the work they will be doing and who they will be doing it with.
Providing clear follow up information. Let the candidate know what comes next-- when will they hear your decision or if any other paperwork needs to be provided.
Above all else, stay neutral. Don’t discourage or overly encourage any candidate. You never know who will walk in next.
Make notes while the candidate’s answers are still fresh in your mind. They will help you rate candidates more objectively. Some tips are:
Focus on the specifics. What examples did they provide?
Use quotes when possible.
Make sure all comments are objective and job-related.
These notes become part of the file.
Rate the candidate using the scale you have developed. Make sure you focus on your key selection criteria. Some quiet candidates can be the best hire. It all depends on the job!
Interviewers should rate separately, then discuss the ratings with the other interviewer(s) and come to consensus on the rating. Often two people can perceive an example or situation differently. It is the discussion that is critical when making your decision.
Keep in mind that the person with the highest rating may not be the final selection. You still have other steps in the selection process. Unless your HR Office says differently, the final score is just an indicator of who you may select, not must select.
How did you do? What did you learn from this experience? Did you develop effective questions that got you the information you needed? Did the interviewers rate consistently? Did you talk too much? Did you handle awkward silences effectively? Always remember- the candidate is also assessing you! They also get an impression of whether this is an organization where they want to work. So learn from each experience.
Work with your HR Office to ensure all the information you rely on during the selection process is appropriate.
If interviewing State employees, review the Official Personnel Files (OPF) of top candidates. To do this, you will need a release signed by the candidate. If you go in person to review the file, be sure to take the candidate’s application and see if it matches other applications that may be in the file. For more information on file reviews and a sample “Authorization to Review A File” form, click on the link on this slide.
And for all candidates, don’t forget to conduct behavioral reference checks. This is a valuable means of gathering information about job candidates to make an informed hiring decision.
Ask for specifics by using behavioral questions
Ask about examples the candidate gave during the interview
Stumped as to what to ask?
Need a form to capture the information you obtain?
The virtual help desk for supervisors and managers (under Selection) has sample questions and an employment reference form.
Here are two examples of behavioral reference check questions. You will see they may parallel the questions you prepared for the actual interview.
“This job requires writing and editing papers with minimal supervision. Does Mary perform this type of work in her current position? If so, what is your assessment of her writing and editing skills? What types of documents has she written and edited?”
“Did Jordan deal with any major change or upheaval while he was with your organization? What was the change and how did he deal with it?”
Support your selection or non-selection
Check with your HR Office as to what is required
Don't forget to notify all candidates about the results
Avoid getting into the situation where there is “not sufficient information to justify the decision.” Do a thorough and complete job and document your process.
For each question, is it a correct behavioral question? Why or why not?
No. This is a general question.
No. This is a hypothetical question.
Correct. This question focuses on past performance.
Correct. This question focuses on actual experience.
No. This is a general question but could be useful in some situations if the candidate is asked to elaborate on why they are important.
Back to the quiz...
For each of the following, write a behavioral question.
Ability to write - Can you tell me about your experience in writing technical reports? What type of reports were they? What impact did they have?
Ability to communicate - Please share an example of when you had to make a presentation to an unfriendly audience. What was the situation? How did you approach it? What was the result?
Integrity - What is an example of a time when you were faced with an ethical dilemma? What was the issue? How did you resolve it? What was the outcome?
Back to the exercise...