Tips to help you ace job interview questions

How to handle those questions in job interviews

Contributing columnistApril 19, 2010 

"Tell me about a time in which you showed good judgment in handling a customer's concerns." If you have never been asked a question like this before in a job interview, rest assured you probably will be in your next one.

Called behavioral-based interviewing, or BBI, this is an effective way for professional recruiters to assess their candidates.

The purpose of BBI is to help the interviewer learn clearly how you go about handling situations likely to present themselves in the job you are seeking. Your previous actions in situations are a pretty good predictor of future behavior.

So how do you successfully answer these types of questions? You can easily do a Google search for "behavioral-based interview questions" to find sample questions, and I encourage you to do so, because you will quickly see that the common theme is to draw on experience. The key, emphasized ed repeatedly by Mike Hammond, global recruiting manager with Enterprise Rent-A-Car, and employment consultant Crystal Gabbard of the University of Kentucky, was "give specific examples."

An effective answer to a BBI question encompasses three parts:

■ The first is the experience itself. Keep it brief, but provide the specific elements of the experience to allow the interviewer to clearly see what is going on and your role in it.

■ Second, what did you learn from the situation that addresses the content of the question (showing initiative, leading a group, etc.). If you read this column regularly, and can remember back to the one on résumés, I emphasized articulating skills and abilities learned from your experiences. By doing that work on your résumé, you are preparing to answer behavioral-based interviewing questions by recalling experiences when you used abilities recruiters seek.

■ Third, bring the answer back to the organization you are seeking to join. Remember, the recruiter is trying to imagine you working for his or her organization. By telling how you would bring the same initiative, problem solving, or persuasiveness to them, he or she can determine whether you are a fit.

Think about the following question: "Describe a situation when you demonstrated initiative and took the lead in something." Look for the three parts in the following answer: "In my previous position, I identified the need for stronger quality-control measures, and so I proposed and created a small group that reviewed quality-control documentation and made recommendations to our QC officers. This ultimately led to a 10 percent reduction in down time for our line. I would bring the same initiative to your company by always looking out for ways to improve protocols and presenting specific proposals."

I often hear this question from applicants: "What if I don't have or cannot recall an appropriate experience?"

The first thing is to not try to make one up. Hammond said that he has seen it and it is obvious.

Be honest and simply say that you cannot recall a particular experience. Then follow up by stating how you might imagine handling that situation in the future or offer a different experience that might relate somehow.

Hammond gave me an example of asking about a candidate's sales history. The candidate did not have previous sales experience but had done fund-raising and so used that experience to answer.

Behavioral-based interviewing is great for both the recruiter and the applicant. It gives you the opportunity to tell the employer that you can do the job well by relating your great experience to their needs. The recruiter is able to easily assess your fit with the company. This can result in what you both seek — a job offer.

Michael J. Cronk is a national certified counselor and has a master's degree in counseling from the State University of New York at Plattsburgh. He has been assistant director of career development at Transylvania University since 2003. Reach him at mcronk@transy.edu.

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