Career Column: How To Handle 'Behavioral Interviews'

Aug 12, 2002

CIO Update Staff

Executive career advice from Dave Opton, founder of ExecuNet.

Dear Dave:

During a recent interview I was bombarded with questions that were framed to determine how I would handle myself on the job under certain situations. The interviewer suggested that I draw on specific examples from my current employment in answering these questions. Not only do I find this interview format difficult -- I'm concerned that information about my current employer's business was being sought.

Any suggestion on how to handle these questions would be helpful.


Irving A.


The questions you refer to, often called "behavioral questions," are used in most senior management interviews because they've proven to be effective in helping potential employers gather information that provides insight into your skills and qualifications. They are part of a recent trend toward trying to gather feedback from "real world" situations rather than just probing people about their philosophy or "style."

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In most cases the interviewer develops these questions around the traits or skills they deem essential for success in the position or organization. Rather than have you simply describe your experience and current responsibilities, the interviewer will pose questions designed to elicit responses that focus on actual situations or problems that you may be faced with in the new position. This style of interviewing is also known as "STAR," an acronym that stands for:

Situation or Task;
Action you took to solve the situation or problem; and
Results you achieved as the result of the actions you took.

If this is new to you, then I can certainly understand the discomfort, but like anything else in life, becoming more comfortable requires preparation and practice. Try developing a list of past experiences and accomplishments that incorporate the skills, talents, and traits required for the position you seek. This list can then be used to craft actual responses to questions that might require an illustrative example.

As for drawing on experiences from your current or past employer, I would not be too concerned. Unless you were faced a very unique situation, the problems you helped solve are probably very similar to issues confronting the company with whom you are interviewing. If you feel that revealing certain examples might be a violation of confidentiality, then use a different example or mask the current one to the point where you are comfortable.

As with all types of interviews, the key to gaining a better idea of what questions may be asked is research. Before interviewing with an organization, research their reputation, leadership, recent accomplishments, and financial status. The Internet is a good place to start, but don?t forget to use other sources including, members of your network, annual reports, and industry trade magazines. After learning as much as you can about the company, you'll have a better idea about what types of problems it's facing -- and what questions may be asked during an interview.

Hope this is helpful to you.


Dave Opton is CEO and Founder of ExecuNet, an online career services center for executives. Questions can be sent to Dave at, he can't answer each individually but look for yours in an upcoming column.


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