how to answer behavioral interview questions when you don’t have good examples

A reader writes:

I recently interviewed at a not-for-profit for a client-facing role. To prepare, I read up on the organization, their programs, and the clients they serve. I also rehearsed answers to possible behavioral questions that would address my experience in this area (e.g., “tell me about a time you handled an angry client”).

I was blindsided when all of the behavioral questions were about coping with organizational change and inter-staff conflict. I answered as best as I could, but I genuinely couldn’t come up with answers to what sounded like unusually specific questions. (For example, “Tell us about a time you handled a sudden organizational shift. What were the results?”)

Perhaps the questions are a sign that I’m dodging a bullet (which is just as well, because I’ve definitely blown the interview). But now I’m worried about having to answer questions like this in future interviews. Am I supposed to have endured more bureaucratic drama at this stage of my career?

Nah. I mean, it’s not uncommon to be asked one or two questions about organizational politics, but having all the behavioral questions be about that is both weird and alarming. It’s not something I’d expect you to encounter again to the same degree.

Behavioral questions — those “tell me about a time when…” questions, for people who don’t know the term — should generally be a way to explore times in the past when you’ve needed to use the skills that are important to the job. The idea is to get away from hypotheticals (“how would you handle it if X happened?”), which are easy to BS your way through, and delve into how you really have operated. But they should focus mainly on the actual work you’d be doing.

I mean, sure, depending on the types of job you’re applying for, you also might need to be prepared to talk about things like:
* a time you had a conflict with a coworker and how you resolved it (this doesn’t have to be something really dramatic — it can just be something like differing perspectives on how to approach a project)
* a time you had to work with a difficult personality
* a time you had to motivate a coworker(s) to do something without having formal authority
* a time when you had to embrace a new system or idea even though it was a major change from your previous way of doing things

… but in general, good interviewers will use behavioral questions to get a better sense of your work.

Good interviewers will also be thoughtful about how they construct behavioral questions and won’t get overly specific with them, unless the job truly requires some sort of very specific past experience with no flexibility on that.

But if you genuinely don’t have an example from your past that fits the question you’re asked, it’s okay to say that and try to come up with something reasonably close. You can say:
* “I haven’t had anything exactly like that, but something close was X.”
* “I haven’t encountered that at work, but I had a similar situation at school/in a volunteer role.”
* “Honestly, it hasn’t come up yet for me, but my thoughts on how I’d approach it are…”

It’s helpful to think about what they’re trying to get at with the question — they’re looking to see how you’ve dealt with a particular type of challenge, and if you can find a way to get close to that, you should be fine.

Also, these questions can be pretty useful for you, because they contain valuable information about what you can expect the challenges of the job to be. In the case of the interview you’re asking about, they’re apparently having some serious issues with organizational change and staff conflict. In fact, when it was your turn for questions, it would have been fine for you to have asked, “I noticed you asked a lot about organizational change and staff conflict. Can you tell me what challenges you expect for this role in that regard?”

But I think you’re right to take it as a pretty concerning sign.

{ 118 comments… read them below }

  1. Dan*

    I was transitioning from a blue collar to white collar environment. I had a half day interview that included a technical skills test (a bunch of stuff in Excel) but the face-to-face portions were all behavioral questions. I didn’t get the job, nor did I want it — after that interview, I had no clue what the position actually did.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Just to clarify, behavioral questions don’t mean “talk about interpersonal behavior” (even though that’s what happened with this person). They refer to “tell me about a time when…” questions, so they can and should be quite relevant to the work you’d be doing (although it sounds like they weren’t in your case either). I’ll clarify that in the post.

      1. Dan*

        I spent well over an hour answering “tell me about a time when…” which were questions appropriate for previous experiences in a white-collar environment, not a blue collar one.

        I mean, so many questions were centered around your willingness to stay late and put in extra hours at the last minute. In a blue collar environment where most people are non-exempt, staying late equates to extra money at the rate of 1.5x normal pay. So my incentives are very different when I’m paid vs not paid, and also when I’m doing shift work vs working a traditional schedule. Hell, one of those jobs prohibited over-time and was non-exempt, so there was no such thing as staying late.

        My issue was that the interview was comprised primarily of those kinds of questions, and very little about the technical nature of the job, and how what I would be doing would influence the direction and/or profitability of the company.

        1. MommaTRex*

          In a situation like this, I think your best bet would be to reply honestly how this didn’t affect you in your previous job, but that if faced with it, you would do X. For example, for “Tell me about a time when you had to stay and put in extra time to meet a deadline” you could respond about how you were frustrated that it wasn’t possible in your shift work, but that you are looking forward to an environment where you can be in more control of your hours and that you are excited to be working on projects that you can finish without worrying about how you might get in trouble for working past a certain time on the clock.

          I am also suspicious that the previous hire was a whiner about ever putting in extra time and made sure to leave on the dot at five o’clock. And they’re overcompensating for that in their questions.

        2. Ask a Manager* Post author

          But my point is that they could have instead used behavioral questions that did get into the technical nature of the job (like “tell me about a time when you had to devise a technical solution to problem X and how you approached it”). They conducted the interview badly, but it’s not the fault of behavioral questions — it’s the fault of the interviewers who picked the wrong ones.

          1. MommaTRex*

            So true, and I’d rather ask him about creative solutions to problems he’s achieved in Excel versus just a skills test! :)
            There is so much more you can learn about a person from a question like that.

            1. Dan*

              I don’t use Excel much, so I would have given the blank stare. The first part of this test was some really messy data that they wanted you to use Excel’s string functions to sort out. My resume clearly reflects a BS in Computer Science – the implication being I know how to code — in three languages that are all open source/don’t require the company to buy anything. If I were faced with messy data like that on the job, I’d use a more appropriate tool than excel to straighten it out.

              These are the times where you realize an interview is a two-way street — my first thought was, “if you need to test for that particular skill, and my data really does look that bad, this is not a job I want.”

              1. LQ*

                Giving a blank stare doesn’t make a lot of sense. You can say, “If I was given really messy data like this I think I’d try to use X tool instead. I’ve used it to do Y in the past.” If they push hard and say, “But if you had to use Excel?” You’ve learned a lot more than just blank stare. And if they go, “Ok great, tell me more about that.” You’ve learned more about them. It absolutely is a two way street, but sometimes you have to give a little information to learn about them. (Like suggesting another tool. I’ve certainly done that in interviews and it is incredibly informative about the company. I’ve seen people jump on it, push way way back, and wary interest.)

          2. Dan*

            Well sure. In that sense, all tools have their uses, but not every tool is the right tool for *this* job. I never said the questions themselves were bad, other than the claim they were not appropriate for my background.

            The interview came across as a rigid process that HR dictated they follow. I had a background very relevant to the job, and they probed that with… one question. It was funny, after an hour of TMAT questions, one of the interviews looks at my resume and says, “Oh! You have experience with our industry!” and proceeds to ask me ONE question. I had been seriously wondering when we were going to get to the part where I could talk about how my background would be helpful for the job, and we never did.

            It was almost as if that was round 1 of a multi-round interview, but this was an out of town interview (they paid) and in my field, one round of onsite half-day interviews is the norm. I can’t remember if they asked me if I had any questions or not, but I did want to ask when we were going to have the technical portion of the interview.

            But anyway, not every person is a fit for every job, and vice versa. As you said, they conducted the interview badly, and really gave me no reason to “rescue” it. The goal isn’t to just “get a job” but to find a job with the right fit.

    2. Tegdirb*

      The love corporate culture has for these questions is baffling. I can bullshit for days and do so convincingly so I can make up answers for these on the fly, and have, and have been hired.

      It’s harder to fake technical knowledge.

  2. The Other Dawn*

    “…all of the behavioral questions were about coping with organizational change and inter-staff conflict.”

    I picture coworkers having know-down-drag-out fights in the middle of the floor while the managers watch and take bets. And they likely have a lot of turnover.

    1. Audiophile*

      Yes, this.

      I think my second least favorite question is “tell me about a time when you’ve had difficulty with a superivosr or someone in a position of authority?”

      Well, do you want to hear about the time I argued for OT pay when it was being illegally withheld? Or the time when my hours were reduced and I was replaced by newbies and told I’d need to learn to budget within my newly assigned hours?

      Other than these few and thankfully infrequent instances, I haven’t had many issues with supervisors or coworkers.

      1. Gaia*

        I think they can be legitimately telling (and it is similar to a question I ask when hiring). I look for answers primarily that surround communication difficulties and how it was resolved, or priority differences and how it was resolved. It doesn’t have to be some dramatic fight for your rights story – and really I don’t even need that much detail. It could be as simple as “there was an issue with a policy that I advocated may have been illegal. Here is what I did to resolve the situation.”

        1. Audiophile*

          Except in that case, I wasn’t really able to resolve. So I can tell you that I advocated for the issue on behalf of coworkers and myself, I presented all the documentation needed to prove the error they were making but they still ultimately withheld the OT pay.

          Obviously, I’m not really going to use this example but it’s a question I’ve always struggled with in trying to answer it diplomatically. Usually the situations I mention are smaller than that: I was training someone and they wanted to circumvent the processes I’d set up (with the employer’s approval) to expedite the training session(s). In some cases, these were my own supervisors that I was training, which complicated things.

      2. WorkingMom*

        I can totally understand why an interviewer might ask those types of questions. Now that I’ve been a manager, had a couple bad hires (big lessons learned) and dealt with those direct reports; I can see the benefit in asking a few of those types of questions to get a feel for how the person responds. For example, if the interviewee responds to all of those types of questions in the “politely assigning blame to everyone but themselves” I might have concerns about this person. Now that I’ve managed people like that; always the victim, no personal accountability or responsibility, I’ll be asking those types of questions in the future to try to avoid that again!

        1. nofelix*

          This is what is so nerve-wracking about such questions! What if the interviewee just happens to have been blameless? Assuming there are always two sides to every story does a disservice to genuine victims, who are the most needing of our help.

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            She’s talking about a broad pattern, though, not the answer to a single question. And good candidates are going to be self-aware enough to realize that it’s problematic to present scenarios where they just happened to be the innocent victim every time.

          2. LQ*

            You get to pick the scenario though. You can pick whatever scenario you want. It doesn’t all have to be the biggest project ever. So you want to pick the scenarios where you had the ability to and did take a hand in it.

            The best part about these questions is they let you have 100% control over the scenario. Pick a new one if that one isn’t working for you. They can be giant or tiny. But you have complete agency in picking the scenario.

            1. TootsNYC*

              and part of what we”re looking for is whether you’ll CHOOSE to talk about how you weren’t at fault.

              How bitter are you–have you moved past it?

        2. Murphy*

          I’d also add to that that the more I interview, the more I realize that technical skill (at least in my line of work) is way less important than personal suitability. So long as there’s a base-level of technical skill I can teach the rest. I can’t change someone’s core personality.

          So when I’m asking about a time you had to deal with a change over which you had little control, I really want to know how you cope with random stuff coming and going and whether or not you’ve a) handled it before and b) have developed techniques/a certain amount of cynicism because that situation happens a lot in my field.

      3. nofelix*

        Yeah I feel like those can only be fruitfully answered if you have an example where neither party was actually at fault. Like maybe they asked you to work the weekend, but it was your cousin’s wedding so you showed how the work could be done by working late during the week.

    2. BethRA*

      Or, they had one bad experience with an employee, and they’re over-reacting in the interview process to make sure “THAT never happens again” (rather than, you know, just figuring out how to manage better)

      We once had an admin that misfiled things on a regular basis. Smart enough guy, he just thought filing was beneath him and didn’t pay attention to what he was doing when pressed to actually do it. When we were hiring his replacement, the colleague who most relied on his filing support, wanted to give all of our interviewees a test to see if they could put things in alphabetical order because “we’ve had problems…” Forget that the problem wasn’t really skills-based.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Yes — I always say that managers are haunted by their last bad hire, and then in their next hiring process they get overly focused on whatever the issue was, often at the expense of screening for other things.

        1. M-C*

          That does make perfect sense. But it also goes the other way, I know I’ve been guilty of looking hard for a manager who’s not going to do the same as the last one. As Mae West said “When I have to choose between two evils, I always like to try the one I haven’t tried before.”

      2. Florida*

        This reminds me of a nonprofit that I worked for 15 years ago. They were always looking for people to volunteer to help at registration for events. This one manager would send out these funny job descriptions for the positions. The requirements were things like rudimentary understanding of the alphabet, the ability to smile at people you don’t know, the ability to hold a drink and plate in your left hand while shaking hands with the right hand (if it was a reception type thing). Anyway, your alphabetizing thing just made me think of that.

      3. Jennifer*

        We have to go over filing by alphabetical order with our employees, because people get confused by the following:
        Double last names (like Jones Smith is the full last name, may go under “Jones” or “Smith”)
        Last names that have spaces in them, like Mc Space or di Whatever or Von Smithitude
        Having a middle name at all (“check if someone filed it by their middle name!”)

        I would normally laugh at this alphabetization thing, but…nope, some people need clarification.

          1. OfficePrincess*

            Around here, everything belongs in numerical order and it’s still a crapshoot when you’re looking for a file.

    3. Random Lurker*

      I once had an all day interview with 6 different interviewers at 1 hour each that asked variations on this question. I bombed because my internal filter went off after about hour 4. I think it was the best mistake I ever made. I can only imagine how toxic a company is where this is the only question they can think to ask for a highly skilled (20 years exp required) position.

        1. Random Lurker*

          It was, and should have been an indication of problems at that company before I even accepted it. Hindsight, and all….

    4. Biff*

      I interviewed a couple of months ago in which the behavioral questions also focused entirely on how I’d cope with a toxic environment. When I read this letter, my eyebrows went up and I imagined almost the very same thing. If they don’t ask about anything else, I think it’s pretty clear that all is not well.

  3. abankyteller*

    This sounds like a place where they’ve had a lot of internal issues and are trying to navigate through them by just hiring new people. I’m glad to hear you don’t want the job at this point, OP. Crazy red flags.

    1. Vanesa*

      Yes! I had an interview like this where they asked to give an example of a time I had a conflict with a coworker. I gave them a “light” simple example and they pressed me for more and wanted a “real” conflict example. Turned out they had some employees that had got into a huge fight in their department – I found that out from the recruiter.

      1. The Other Dawn*

        I’m a banker. We once had a teller (man) and a teller supervisor (woman) get into a physical altercation in the break room. Pushing, punching, chocking… Yeah. It was bad. Needless to say, both were fired. Neither one of them pressed charges.

        1. Florida*

          Recently in Florida, where crazy was invented, we had a judge punch a lawyer right outside of the courtroom. It’s pretty hard for a judge to get fired, but it happened in this case. If you google it, you can find video.

          1. PatPat*

            Florida only looks crazy because of our Sunshine laws that make most things public record. People are just as whackadoo in other states but the records aren’t as open.

            1. Florida*

              There is a lot of truth to that. We are also #3 in terms of population. The more people you have, the more likely some of them will be weirdos. Also, I think the media like to write headlines that say Florida Man. The headline says, “Florida Man attacked by pet kangaroo.” If the same thing happened in Connecticut, the headline would say, “Kangaroo escapes and attacks owner.”
              Plus, we have so many visitors. People act normal in their own state. Then they decide to come here for vacation and do crazy stuff.
              Oh well, I’ve just learned to embrace it.

            2. Tomato Frog*

              And the Spanish Flu was called that because only the Spanish press was actually reporting on it. Let this be a lesson to us all that openness and honesty is bad for your reputation.

          2. Stranger than fiction*

            Ha, we have a segment on a morning radio show here called “Florida or anywhere else” where they tell a crazy story and then guess if it happened in Florida or anywhere else.

      2. CMT*

        I just haven’t had a lot of conflicts with coworkers because I’m not that far into my career and I think I’ve been pretty lucky. I’m always afraid my answer to this question will sound super lame because it’s more like, “Well, Wakeen wanted the teapots to be blue-green and I wanted them to be green-blue.”

    2. Florida*

      I don’t see these questions as any sort of red flags here. (There might be other red flags that led OP to her conclusion that weren’t mention in her letter.)

      I have never worked anywhere where everyone got along, so inter-staff conflict happens everywhere. I think it’s reasonable to ask how you deal with it. Also asking about a major organizational change is not necessarily a red flag. The company is about to merge with another. The company just got a new CEO, who is much better than the last one, but it is still an adjustment for everyone. The company is a taxi cab company and trying to adjust to the invention of Uber (or some other situation where they need to re-invent themselves.) None of those are indications that the place is a bad place to work.

      As I said, OP might have drawn that conclusion from other parts of the interview, but from the information in the letter, I would not call it crazy red flags.

        1. LQ*

          Yeah all of it is a problem. Any of it is good. A couple should be expected. But that’s the only question would make all my eyebrows raise.

        2. Turtle Candle*

          Yeah, exactly. One or two questions about interpersonal conflict or staff upheavals, sure. A dozen all on that topic? I’m going to wonder what kind of ship you’re running (and whether it’s about to hit a reef).

    3. zora.dee*

      Or a bunch of people just jumped ship because of the internal issues and they are trying to fill those spots.

      But either way, those flags be red, yo.

  4. Gwensoul*

    I use these questions to both find out how the person will handle at and to give them the heads up that these are issues. I really like letting people know what they are getting into so will often also offer up details they may be too polite to ask questions about including work life balance and if there are a lot of politics in the job.

    1. M-C*

      Thank you Gwensoul! It may be that in fact you can cope with whatever seems to be the problem, but it’s -really- good to know what you’re in for. Informed decisions are always better. I tend to pick the ones who’re being honest, if that can encourage you to carry on with these practices :-).

  5. nofelix*

    If the only example of a behaviour is of something that ended badly, even though I feel I did the right thing, what then? For example, I went above and beyond for a difficult client who was then ungrateful and complained?

    Would it better to say I don’t have that experience than to tell a story that ends negatively?

    1. NW Mossy*

      I don’t think you have to end it negatively – you can use it as a pivot point to a more positive statement. In your example, you could say something like “Ultimately, I wasn’t able to repair the relationship with that specific client, but I learned a lot about staying cool in a tough situation and continuing to maintain a positive attitude even when a relationship is rocky.” If you have one, you could also add a follow-up example of how you applied what you learned from the bad ending.

    2. Florida*

      It depends on why the story ended negatively. I used to use a story about a direct marketing campaign I launched on September 11, 2001. I couldn’t pull it. The campaign failed. Had I had a crystal ball, I would not have launched it. But the story is useful because I can tell you how I recovered from it.

      You can use your story to explain that some clients are not worth keeping. If the cost to service the client is repeatedly more than their order, maybe it’s better to cut your losses. (This may or may not work depending on the question. It’s just an example.)

    3. hbc*

      I actually like if the story doesn’t end positively. Of course, not every story should be “I tried and failed”, but a couple of those make your other stories more believable. I know things don’t always turn out well, so if that’s all you’re talking about, either you haven’t really been challenged or you’re cherry-picking lightweight examples–and I still don’t know how you’d deal with a *really* awful customer or mistake or whatever.

    4. Joseph*

      No, it’s not better. You tell the story and focus on the lesson learned.
      Honestly, I think a story that didn’t turn out great but taught a valuable lesson is actually a *very *good option to have in your back pocket for these questions. If you tell the story properly, it can show all sorts of positive things – you’re cool under pressure, you’re willing to learn from problems, you can correctly address concerns, you can adjust to life/clients throwing curveballs, etc. Just make sure you focus more on the lesson than on the failure aspect.

  6. Apparatchic*

    HUUUUUGE red flag. Sounds like an interview I had once that was advertised as a job but, they told me on the day, was actually an internship that paid below minimum wage. The interviewer spent most of their time explaining how they had “dynamics” in the office and asking me bizarrely specific questions about how I would handle certain situations, as though she was trying to get tips! I was offered the job but declined.

  7. Bad Candidate fka Gloria*

    I always get asked how I handle conflict with coworkers and I don’t ever have any. And really, rolling my eyes and telling my BFF and husband what an idiot that coworker is probably is not the answer they are looking for.

    1. Tomato Frog*

      I always answer these questions explaining why I haven’t had conflict with coworkers. For example, that coworker you think is an idiot — someone else feeling the same way you do might well have picked a fight or otherwise created tension between them and the coworker. Why haven’t you? Maybe you’re good at acting respectful even when you think an idea is moronic; maybe you redirect the conversation to mutual goals… that sort of thing.

      1. NW Mossy*

        As a sidebar to this, if you’re good at helping others resolve conflict, the “how do you handle conflict?” question can give you a natural entry point to talk about that skill. It can be a real selling point for a candidate to be both gifted at navigating conflict themselves and able to guide others to do the same, particularly if the team the candidate would join has a prickly pear in it.

      2. Bad Candidate fka Gloria*

        I generally say that I try to see things from their POV and make sure I understand where they are coming from. I’ve found that often people are sometimes angry about something just because they feel like they aren’t being heard, and listening to them can diffuse a situation.

    2. EddieSherbert*

      I think Alison makes a good point when she says “conflict” doesn’t have to mean an actual conflict… it can be that you presented a different viewpoint on something, it went over well or not, and what you learned from that.

      My example I like to use is when a coworker and I had different ideas for how to do something, manager chose my way, and I quickly incorporated her into it in a meaningful way so it wouldn’t turn into a conflict (if she was upset about it – I don’t actually know if it would have been a problem).

      1. LQ*

        Yeah, I’d be a little worried if someone had never had an opinion different from anyone they were working with. That seems odd to me.

        You can say that you worked through it and presented your side and they won you over or vice versa. But conflict can simply be a difference of opinion. And you should have those in most jobs, and you should be able to handle them. If you haven’t ever had that then I’m not sure you’ll be able to handle it in the future.

      2. Bad Candidate fka Gloria*

        In my current role, it really doesn’t come up. I don’t have a need to talk to my coworkers too often for work purposes. There’s no different ideas because we do what management tells us. It’s a low level job, so there’s really no room for argument or discord. I do have coworkers that I think don’t do their jobs well, I was out on leave for several weeks and came back to find a lot of errors in my files, but that’s not really conflict because I can’t really confront them about it.

    3. Stranger than fiction*

      “If i dont like you, i answer all your emails and handle all your requests last” (would be my honest answer id never really give)

  8. Anonsie*

    I’m suddenly reminded of the first time I encountered the “tell me about a time you had a conflict with a co-worker” question in an interview, and I was so at a loss for good examples that I blurted out the whole story of the time I was harassed by a creepy co-worker. (Not sexual harassment, but really weird, creepy stuff like pulling up an old poster of a missing teenage girl on his phone, and insisting it was me.)

    There wasn’t much to how I handled the conflict; I went to my boss, told him the situation, and he took care of it. In retrospect, it was almost certainly not what they were looking for since it doesn’t really say anything about how I would navigate normal, day to day disagreements or personality conflicts with co-workers, but at the time, I really hadn’t experienced much “normal” conflict with co-workers. I still got the job, but I still cringe when I remember hemming and hawing and dragging that story out.

  9. Phedre*

    The fact that they’re asking lots of questions about conflict, organizational change, etc. can be a red flag, but not always. When I interviewed for my current job they asked tons of questions about handling conflict, interpersonal relationships, getting along with coworkers, how I work collaboratively. Turns out my predecessor was VERY difficult to work with and caused lots of conflict, was rude, and also quite incompetent. They were determined never to hire someone like that again and to make sure there was a good culture fit. My organization is super collaborative and her combative style was so not a good fit. Ultimately I’m so glad I took this job. I love it and my coworkers!

    As Alison suggested, it’s totally ok to inquire why they’re asking those specific questions. A good organization won’t be bothered that you asked.

  10. MegaMoose, Esq.*

    These are by far my least favorite kind of interview questions and the kind I feel like I have the hardest time preparing for. It makes sense in theory when you lay it out: the employer wants to hear about concrete examples of you dealing with things that will be important to your performance in the job. But when it comes down to actually answering the damn things, it seems like my carefully thought-out answers aren’t on-point or I get nervous and feel like I need to exaggerate during the follow-up or whatever. Hate hate hate.

    And it doesn’t help that my work history is all scattered since going to law school back in ’09. Most of my jobs since then have been term limited clerkships where I wasn’t really a part of the office culture and didn’t really get pulled into things that weren’t directly my job. Plus, I’m an introvert and I like to be left alone to do my job. I always end up using examples from before law school, which feels wrong too. Blech.

  11. Rusty Shackelford*

    My employer mandates the use of these questions. When I’m on an interview team, we’ve always accepted non-work answers as well as scenarios that happened on the job. Workplace experiences are best, but like you say, not everybody has those experiences on the job. So if you could have answered about organizational change at school, or conflict with your peers on the intramural football team, we would have accepted those. (Of course, that doesn’t address the fact that the questions were weirdly specific and pointed toward a chaotic workplace…)

  12. LQ*

    Ok I’m going to own up to this. I love these kinds of interview questions. Tell me about a time you…
    I get to tell a little story using actual things that happened and show what I did. I get to talk for a while and showcase my skills and then sit and listen. I don’t feel like they are trick questions because they are as much about me showcasing what I want to showcase as they are about the employer finding out things.

    If I talk about the time I had to do something under a serious time crunch and I bring up the learning very un-user friendly website in a weekend well enough to train other people on it (including the guy who was the salesman for it) and then pushing suggestions back to them on how to fix it and building a site of my own (just a couple pages but still) to help others navigate it and they don’t like that story? I don’t think I want to work there.

    It really lets me say, these are the skills that I’m excellent at, and then the employer gets to listen and sometimes they go ooooh! I didn’t even know I wanted that! And sometimes they go, whoa, no, super no. And both are ok.

    1. Tomato Frog*

      Ha! I agree. I’m proud of my work and normally only my mom wants to hear this sort of stuff.

      It’s also a really helpful exercise because it helps me reflect on how I actually work and what I’m actually good at — rather than just the stuff I think I do or think I’m good at. I suspect preparing to answer behavioral questions has actually made me better at my work in some ways, because it forces me to bring a critical eye to my day-to-day actions.

  13. Rocky*

    For a management position, I wouldn’t think it was weird to get a bunch of questions about managing change or conflict. It’s one of the hardest things managers do, I think, and a lot of managers are terrible at it. If the questions were ALL about that stuff, I probably would reflect it back to the interviewer in the way Alison suggested.

    From a hiring perspective, I have mixed feelings about behavioral questions, because I find that candidates usually either fumble them, or give an over-prepared, canned-sounding answer. But they can be a good way to suss out how deep and diverse someone’s experience has been. If I ask a bunch of behavioral questions and the candidate keeps saying, “I haven’t encountered that situation but…” or referring to the same scenario for different questions, it’s a good indication that they might not be as seasoned as I’d like.

  14. Grey*

    The idea is to get away from hypotheticals (“how would you handle it if X happened?”), which are easy to BS your way through, and delve into how you really have operated.

    I don’t know. For me, behavioral questions = story time. It’s difficult to rewind 20 years of experience in your head to find that one perfect example. Plus, the way you handle one situation might not be a good indicator of how you’d handle another.

    I’ve become good at taking the hypothetical and framing it as a story. Interviewers don’t check to see if these events actually happened, so why not? It gets them the information they need.

    Will I trigger your BS detector? Maybe, but probably not. Besides, I think it’s better to sound confident and professional than to sound nervous and hesitant as I try to recall a specific example along with all its details.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Well, the idea isn’t just to let the candidate tell the story and then move on to the next question. You’ve got to ask follow-up questions — how did you handle X, why did you do it that way, what about Y, etc. Someone could theoretically lie about the whole thing, but I think in a rigorous interview it’ll be clear something isn’t sitting quite right.

      1. Grey*

        That’s a good point. But personally, these types of questions catch me off-guard and have me feeling a little panicked while my brain thinks, “Quick! When did that time ever happen? Now! Hurry! She’s waiting for my answer.”

        I’m better off staying calm and just winging it all the way through. But like you said, it’s risky so I wouldn’t give this advice to anyone else.

        1. LQ*

          I always mentally prepare about a half dozen anecdotes ahead of time. Refresh myself on what happened. Think through what I learned from different parts. I’m not trying to pull a story from my entire work history. I’m trying to pull up the correct one of that set. I’ve almost always had something from that set that is appropriate for good behavior interview questions. (If they asked a half dozen questions about different conflicts I’d have a hard time, but each of my anecdotes has some elements of a lot of different parts so they work for a range of questions.)

          1. Tomato Frog*

            Yeah, this is what I do and I’ve also found that my anecdotes will work for questions I didn’t anticipate.

    2. MegaMoose, Esq.*

      This is always the temptation for me, especially on follow-up questions. I might have come up with a decent anecdote initially, but the follow-up questions always make me nervous and it’s so tempting to try and answer with something that really fits what I think they might be going for rather than sit there trying to remember exactly what happened and whether it was relevant or not.

      Ug, these questions.

  15. Althea*

    These are my favorite questions to ask in an interview. And can I just say, if you ever answer “Tell me about a time when…” questions with “Well, I generally do X,” and when I follow up asking for ONE SPECIFIC example, and you still talk in generalities…

    No. I’m not hiring you. I have know idea if you’ve ever done X, and now I know for sure that you don’t listen and/or communicate very well.

    Practice answering this type of question, y’all!

    1. OhNo*

      I don’t know if I would immediately jump to thinking the candidate doesn’t listen/communicate well, but I do agree that it makes me give them a serious second look, and I probably wouldn’t be jumping to hire them. If nothing else, I end up thinking they didn’t prepare for the interview very well, since they didn’t even plan ahead to discuss a situation or two for the most common behavioral questions.

      But then that might just be my preferences talking. A standard part of my interview prep is thinking of good examples for the most common “tell me about a time when…” questions, so I always find it weird when others are thrown by those same questions.

    2. Murphy*

      Or it you continue to answer the question in terms of what your “team” did (say when I ask about a piece of policy work you’ve been involved in and ask for your role). I don’t care what your team did, I need to know about your role specifically.

    3. Tegdirb*

      Maybe they haven’t ever done X but are trying to answer the question to show gumption and a willingness to comply with what you’re demanding they answer despite the obvious fact they cannot?

      I’m not sure I’d want to work for someone who can’t communicate, lacks imagination, and then blames others for both.

      1. Althea*

        In what context does it “show gumption” to answer a question with dishonesty? If they haven’t even once done X, then the answer is, “I haven’t encountered that situation before. Something similar might be Y.” Not pretending that they have done it a bunch of times, but can’t mention any specifics.

        And if they HAVE done X, then they need to listen to the question I am asking – to talk about “a time” or “one example,” not what they “usually” or “generally” do – and answer it with a reasonable amount of clarity.

        Also, I don’t particularly appreciate what appears to be a passive-aggressive dig at me for commenting on a problem I’ve commonly encountered. Was that really necessary?

    4. DDJ*

      The first interview I ever did, I was really impressed with the candidate. Very well-spoken, answered all the questions. Then we did the debrief. I gave my initial impression, and my boss said “Alright, so what did they actually SAY when you asked this question?” And it turns out that they spent a whole lot of time talking without actually saying a whole lot. It was a really good learning experience, and I’m glad that I had support during the interview because it’s really helped me ask those follow-up questions to get to specifics.

  16. MollyG*

    For an entry level job after grad school, I was asked “Tell us about a time where you lead an interdisciplinary team.” I had no way of answering that. That question may be ok for someone with management experience, but not for a first job out of grad school. It was clear from that question and others that they put zero thought into the interview process.

  17. Mica*

    It took me *so long* to understand what exactly was meant by “conflict” in behavioural interview questions. I always thought that a “conflict” was like some sort of huuuuuuge argument or disagreement that had to be solved. It was such a relief when I realized a “conflict” could just be a simple disagreement between coworkers or something similar, versus like a gigantic fight that had to be solved.

  18. WhichSister*

    There are also other things to look for in behavioral interviewing. I interviewed a potential TA once; he had great detail in his examples. He had an impressive resume, and good team experience. The nature of the position meant we focused quite a bit on problem solving, critical thinking, team work and conflict management. Every single example he gave ended with some version of “everyone else was wrong and I was right.” He wouldn’t have lasted 2 days in the role. My team would have killed him.

    1. Aca-Believe It*

      Yikes. Yeah, we use our behavioural interview process to gauge things like self-awareness and reflective practice.

  19. Fluke Skywalker*

    I remember interviewing for a job right out of grad school where the behavioral questions were all so obviously about one specific employee. I already knew the situation (I had good friends working there), but it was still pretty yikes. “What would you do in x situation with an employee who is a troublemaker?” stuff like that. Like ten questions. The person they were referring to was never going to be fired for bad behavior (it was an academic setting, so, tenure), so they were trying to make sure whoever they hired could put up with it without caving under the stress… Which is what had happened to the previous person in the job.

    1. OhNo*

      Good on them for doing their best to warn you, I guess? Yikes. I wonder if this troublemaker ever sat in on interviews, or if they ever heard about the questions being asked, and recognized it as being about them.

      1. Fluke Skywalker*

        The troublemaker was in a different department, but one that frequently collaborated with the one I was interviewing for. So they weren’t in the interviews, but I have no doubt they knew what was being asked. I think they might have been a little proud of it, actually? It was a pretty dysfunctional place. The ED finally retired, which caused troublemaker and some others to retire as well, but they’ve been through a few interim directors in the years since and can’t seem to keep people. The department I interviewed with restructured, and if I’d gotten that job, I would have been eliminated two years later anyway. So. Yeah.

  20. wellywell*

    “all of the behavioral questions were about coping with organizational change and inter-staff conflict”
    Oh, you *definitely* dodged a bullet.

  21. Stonkle*

    My last interview had super weird questions like this. Like you, I was also taken by surprise. One of the questions was, “tell me about a time that you had an argument about policy with a co-worker. How did you win the argument?” I said that I fortunately had never had an argument with a co-worker about policy, but I had discussed and researched policy with co-workers in the past when one of us wanted clarification or further information. One of the panel members continually rolled her eyes at me and also sighed loudly when I began to answer each question, so I just chalked the weird questions up to a hostile and inept interviewing committee and moved on.

  22. Anonz*

    Currently at least fifty percent of the interviews I’ve had in the last four months have been focused on these questions. Call me naive but all it does is signal to me the workplace is problematic and Managers aren’t managing, if there is that much emphasis on coworker conflicts. Unfortunately the first thing that comes mind is asking my interviewer about the company culture and what they think has lead to this being such an issue? Depending on their answer I decide very quickly if it’s time to wrap up and move on. Safe to say while I know it’s another bullet dodged, it’s probably not the best interview tactic. Fortunately I’m looking for a less toxic workplace so this weeds out bad fits fast. YMMV

    1. SueBdo*

      The good side of those kinds of questions is when you are going into a flat hierarchy company and they need to know how well you do on purely-coworker-level cooperation. If the company culture seeks consensus-before-action then the cultural fit would be all about behavioral questions. Can you get along and compromise? Can you give good professional feedback and not constantly pull in the boss to solve team issues?

  23. Not A Grad*

    Is it appropriate to respond to a prompt like “tell me about a time you resolved a conflict with a coworker” with an example of a time you failed to resolve a conflict/resolved it poorly, but with reflection of how you could have handled it better? I had a particularly bad relationship with a coworker stemming from a particular (metaphorical) toe-stepping-on situation, and I think a lot about how I could have improved on that/would improve on my response now.

  24. SueBdo*

    We use a couple of behavioral questions that have worked out really well such as “tell me about the time you had to resolve a time vs money problem on a project” or (for managers) “How do you handle a situation where team is headed X and one person really wants to go Y.” These relate directly to their work abilities and can actually illustrate where an applicant has problems with gender-bias or boundaries or just can’t manage the last 10% of a given project.

  25. stevenz*

    I hate behavioral interviews. I wish they would ask questions that require actual thought rather than reminiscing about history that may or may not be relevant to the job at hand. Good questions would include some basics like “what is your understanding of this job?”, “how would you approach this job?”,but also more probing questions like “what perspective do you bring to this job that is truly unique, and how is it relevant?”, “what challenges might you encounter that could affect the success of this job?”, “how do you see the role of this company in the overall market for (our product/service)?”, “what would you change about one of our products if you could?, etc etc.

    There are no right or wrong answers, they just make a person think about the context of the work they would be doing, and their thought process for approaching them, and maybe identify a really thoughtful, creative candidate that didn’t make nice with a coworker sometime in the past. It just seems like uncovering the warts is more important than assessing the ability to do the actual job. And I think it would just be a more interesting way to spend an hour for everybody.

    1. DDJ*

      In a good interview, the behavioural questions will be relevant to the job. Some interviewers can be lazy about it, they’ll take whatever canned questions they get from HR and ask them and write down answers without getting to what they actually want.

      I asked our recruiter if I could modify questions for clarity and remove questions that were irrelevant, since we do have an extensive bank of questions. It turns out that not a lot of people actually put that much thought into it. I’ve found that a lot of times, a particularly strong candidate can manage to give me an example of a situation that covers multiple questions and satisfies what I’m actually looking for, and at that point I’ll start striking questions off the list. I’ve learned to rephrase questions if I get an answer that leads me to believe the candidate misunderstood the question, or if I didn’t get quite what I was looking for.

      You hear a lot of advice to job candidates about how to give answers that show your skills, but you don’t see as much advice to interviewers saying “figure out what you’re trying to learn, and phrase the question in a way that you’re most likely to get the information you need.” It’s not about tricking someone into getting the answer you want, it’s about asking the right question in the first place.

      We do ask quite a few of those “what’s your understanding of the job” and “what perspective do you bring that will bring value to the role.”

  26. Pennalynn Lott*

    Am I the only one who, when asked in an interview, “Tell me about a time when you. . .” has their brain not just go blank, but go supernova?

    Like in a sci-fi movie when a star (or spaceship) explodes, and the there are visible shock waves radiating out from the center, pulsing across the universe. My mind starts grasping for SOMETHING, ANYTHING to please, dear gods, be the right answer. . . and inevitably comes up with NOTHING.

    I always feel like I’ve been put on the spot, in a life-or-death situation, and I just. . . freeze. Only worse. As in, you could ask me to give you my pets’ names right after the behavioral question and I wouldn’t even grasp what you were asking. (“Pets? What are pets? Do they have names? Why is this thing called ‘names’ important?”)

    Sooooo awkward.

    1. Stonkle*

      I have. If I haven’t thought of the question in advance and had time to probe my memory banks, chances are I won’t be able to immediately recall a specific instance on the spot. I’m not sure if this is uncommon or not? I’m on medication that has an effect on some aspects of my memory (not work impacting) and I’ve always had incredibly busy, high pressure jobs.

  27. Old Crow*

    “I genuinely couldn’t come up with answers to what sounded like unusually specific questions. (For example, ‘Tell us about a time you handled a sudden organizational shift. What were the results?’)”

    In my opinion, that example is a rather broad question, not a specific one. A “sudden organizational shift” could include being bought by another company, merging with another division/group, splitting into different divisions/groups, being assigned to a different division/group/manager, your division/group/manager disappearing suddenly, your management being replaced with little notice, or any number of other scenarios I’m not thinking of at the moment (or any combination thereof).

    In my case, I could tell about the time my work group was dissolved on little notice and those of us in the group had basically three choices: find other work internally, find another job, or retire. Thankfully, I had an “in” with multiple groups I had worked with (good performances, good working relationships) and was able to find a new internal job within a couple of days.

    1. SueBdo*

      I agree with that Old Crow. We’re a small company that is constantly shifting to find the right balance as we expand. We’re successful and our workforce is about 1/2 long-term and 1/2 medium (less than 5 years) but the last 3-4 years have meant a lot of changed procedures and re-arranged work teams in order to match the market and certifications (Think ISO requirements). Plus we train ’em and then a richer company steals them. (sigh) so it’s turnover adjustments. There are lots of ways organizational shifts can happen.

  28. UKEMS*

    The field I work in (EMS) usually uses these sorts of questions but known as ‘Competency based questions’ and they work really well for the field. I’ve had a handful of interviews where they used them recently and I found knowing that was the structure helped me be more relaxed approaching the interview. (And even the first time I encountered them, they were easier to answer than the traditional questions I’ve had in the past.) I struggled with a couple in my last interview (especially ‘an occasion where a colleague has told you you needed to stop or change what you were doing’, I’m not perfect by any means but they way I work minimises the opportunity for mistakes. I still get plenty of advice on different and better ways to do things.) I still got the job though so I can’t have answered them too badly!

  29. Askingforafriend*

    What if you recently finished grad school (i.e. working on PhD mostly on my own), were a freelancer, or were at home raising kids? It is very hard to come up with answers to behavioural interview questions about teams, getting along with coworkers, or organizational hierarchy when you have mostly worked alone or not been in the work force recently. Many of my answers I can think of (i.e. about working on a team, or having a conflict with a coworker) were from 10+ years ago. Any tips?

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