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Not Your Old Fashioned Interview: How to Prepare for Situational and Behavioral Interviews

Job interviews can be relatively mundane. You research the company and rehearse answers to such questions as "Tell me about yourself" and "Where do you see yourself in five years?" On the day of the interview, you stride in, brimming with confidence. 
After the initial greetings, you get ready to relate your experience. However, before you have a chance to do so, the interviewer begins asking such questions as "Tell me about a time when a project you worked on didn’t turn out as planned. What went wrong? How did you salvage the project? What did you learn from your mistakes?" 

Or you are peppered by something like "Suppose you work for a medical device company that recently launched a highly anticipated product. Now you discover there might be something wrong and a recall is likely. How would you handle it?" 
Traditional questions aren’t. Instead the first is an example of what would be asked during a behavioral interview (what action was taken in a particular situation) and the second demonstrates a situational interview (what action would be taken in a hypothetical situation). 

While these types of questions may be challenging, they also offer you a chance to shine. Behavioral interviews "are great opportunities to present clear and specific facts on what you’re able to do," says Héctor Cariño, a human resources manager at EngenderHealth. "You can demonstrate in just one response how you’re able to deal with difficult people, timelines and projects." 

Potential employers find these interviews valuable because "you get to see the candidate thinking, solving and acting in real-time in person," notes Joseph A. Torres, RCDD, an independent consultant in telecommunications infrastructure who also makes hiring decisions. "This is more like a working situation and is grandly telling of how someone might treat a real-world work situation." 

Behavioral Interviews: Backing Up Your Words with Examples 
The theory behind a behavioral interview is that a candidate’s past experience is a good barometer of future success. Employers believe that asking job candidates to discuss specific challenges they’ve faced at their job is more telling and realistic of a candidate’s qualifications than rehearsed replies. 

The questions tend to be open-ended and start with "Tell me about…" or "Describe a situation where…." Here is a chance for you to highlight your strengths and attributes more strongly than with generic statements like "I’m a good problem solver." 

How best to prepare yourself for such an interview? HR experts recommend the following steps: 

  • Go beyond the words on your résumé. You may be able to recite your résumé word for word, but are you prepared to explain how you got things done? Go into the interview armed with stories of your past accomplishments, especially those that reveal leadership and problem-solving skills. "Know exactly how you did your tasks, the resources you used to complete them, what worked and what didn’t," advises Cariño. "Many job candidates trip on such simple questions."

  • Avoid the temptation to fib. Questions asked during a behavioral interview are probing and require in-depth responses, and you can easily trip yourself up if you’re not truthful.

  • Keep in mind the STAR method—just in case.Be prepared to describe a situation or task, the action you took and the result. You want examples with positive outcomes, but you can also impress by relating a potentially negative experience and how you were able to turn things around.

Situational Interviews: Backing Up Your Words with Action  
Situational interviews are based on hypothetical settings. You are asked to show what you will do in a given situation. For example, you may be asked to role-play and pretend you are a salesperson trying to sell your interviewer a product. This demonstrates your interpersonal skills and ability to handle similar situations. 

Another example is the "in-basket" approach. Here, you are presented with an in-basket containing assorted memos, phone messages and other papers that a manager would encounter on a typical day. The prospective employer wants to observe how you process, plan and prioritize what’s ahead of you. 

Here are some tips on how to handle a situational interview: 

  • Envision yourself actually doing the job you’re asked to do. "Approach the task from the point of view of seeing yourself in that job," Cariño suggests. "If it works, I will go there with you." Remember, you’re putting on a performance that will prove you’re up for the job—here, action really does speak louder than words.

  • Keep in mind what the interviewer is looking for; you’re not being asked to perform a mindless exercise. "Candidates should focus on higher-end values, judgment and logic rather than the minutiae of the particular job for which they are being interviewed," Torres points out.

  • Study up on your prospective employer. Avoid conflicting comments and behaviors by knowing the company’s policies and management philosophies, which can be gleaned from the company’s Web site. Or ask when you’re called for an interview. If you’ve truly done your homework, have learned about the company and the job itself, you should be able to convey what you have to do.

When In Doubt, Just Ask! 
When faced with such open-ended questions, you may launch immediately into a reply, thinking any pauses would show ignorance. In fact, according to Cariño and other HR experts, asking for time to think through the questions reveals an assured job candidate. "It’s great to have someone say, ‘Let me have a minute to think about this,’" says Cariño. "Many times, people stumble, get very nervous and they keep talking, which makes it worse. Someone who says, ‘Let me think about that’ shows confidence and maturity." 

Another tip is to ask what type of interview you’ll be having. Not all companies will divulge this information, but some will. It can’t hurt to ask, and at the very least, you show that you’re taking the interview seriously enough to be as prepared as possible. 

How FPC Can Help 
And speaking of being as prepared as possible…in today’s competitive and challenging job market, FPC strongly urges job candidates to brush up on their job-hunting skills. In addition to helping you with situational and behavioral interviews, when you work with an FPC recruiter, they can conduct mock interviews with you, provide solid guidance on résumé writing and show you how to expand your networking circles. FPC’s award-winning Web site also offers job search information and assistance. This is all part of FPC’s mission to provide the most current advice and information to job candidates and client companies alike.

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