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Be Prepared to Answer Behaviour–Descriptive Questions

In your next job interview, the interviewer may ask you to describe a situation from your work history. The interviewer is assessing how you will perform in the future based on how you performed in the past. The interviewer is employing behaviour–descriptive questions.

The interviewer might ask you to describe a time when you:

  • had to deal with a challenging problem
  • went above and beyond the call of duty
  • were criticized for your work or an idea you suggested
  • had a problem working with others on a team project
  • faced a schedule interruption
  • did not agree with an employer's policy

Interviewers who ask behaviourdescriptive questions are not interested in how you usually respond or might respond in the future. They want to know what you actually did in a specific situation in the past. It's important that you recall the situation you’re describing clearly and concisely and that your story reflects well on you as a potential employee.

Analyze the job requirements

Behaviour-descriptive questions help an interviewer assess how you will handle conditions you will likely encounter on the job. For example, if the work requires good decisionmaking skills, the interviewer may ask you to describe a situation where you had to choose between two strong options. The interviewer may follow up with specific questions about how you handled the situation and what happened as a result of your actions.

Based on the job description and the research you’ve done on the employer, list the work-specific, transferable and personal management skills that the job requires. Visit Look for Work for help with researching employers.

Think of several situations in which you have used the skills the job requires (e.g. leadership skills, problem-solving skills, communication skills). Choose situations where your actions contributed to positive outcomes. These situations do not have to be workrelated. They could involve leisure activities, volunteer work or school projects.

Use STARS to develop descriptions

Use the STARS technique to clearly describe what you did and the results you achieved:

  • Situation—Describe the circumstances and the problem you faced.
  • Task—Explain what you needed to do, why you needed to do it and the challenges involved.
  • Action—Describe the actions you took.
  • Results—Explain what happened as a result of your efforts.
  • Skills—Describe the skills you used to accomplish what you did.

This example shows how a candidate uses STARS to answer the following behaviour-descriptive question:

Tell us how you’ve handled a problem with a customer.

An unhappy customer claimed the shipping department sent his shop the wrong parts.

As parts foreman, I had to determine if it was our mistake or the customer’s.

I assured the customer that I would look into the situation myself. I checked all the details. Sure enough, we’d made the mistake—a typo. The problem was with our parts-numbering system, where similar parts had numbers that were too much alike.

I couriered the correct parts to the customer overnight and told him this order was on us. I assured him that we would make changes so that the problem wouldn’t happen again. I worked with a team to develop a new numbering system that has cut response time by 15% and reduced errors from an average of 11 to 3 per month.

I used my communication, analytical and teamwork skills to solve a specific problem for a customer and an overall problem for my organization.

Prepare to answer behaviour-descriptive questions

It’s a good idea to develop at least 3 STARS descriptions of how you handled situations similar to those you might encounter on the job. Use the Analyzing Your Accomplishments (PDF) worksheet to help you get started.

Limit your examples to situations you handled well. Interviewers who ask behaviour-descriptive questions believe that how you reacted in the past is a good indication of how you’ll react in the future. They may disregard anything you say about how you would handle the situation differently next time.

If your prepared stories do not fit the question, take time to think about your answer. You can't anticipate all of the possible questions, so be ready to think on your feet. If you don’t have work-related experience, describe a situation from a volunteer or community experience. If you have no experience relevant to the situation, describe how you would handle the situation, if it were to happen.

Always be honest. Don’t make up an answer to a behaviour-descriptive question. When the interviewer follows up with detailed questions about the situation, you risk exposing your dishonesty.

Try STARS to successfully answer behaviour-descriptive questions

Interviewers ask behaviour-descriptive questions so they can assess how you’ve coped with challenges in the past. Use the STARS technique, and you will be able to describe the positive results you’ve achieved concisely and convincingly.

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