Google Guy: Ace the behavioral interview

By Jason Warner — I’ve been interviewing people for a very long time. Sometimes I think maybe too long. You have to go back to my very first recruiting job at Microsoft to understand. This was when Microsoft was The Place to Work in the Technology World, circa the mid 1990s.

In this well-defined and very measured job, my objective was to interview candidates 7 hours a day via the telephone. Sometimes it was 8 or 9 hours a day, but on average it was 35, one-hour phone interviews per week, for an average of 7 hours a day. Because of this experience, I’m pretty sure that the limit of human capabilities when it comes to interviewing is an average of 7 hours a day. Anything more is perhaps dangerous.

Now, most professional recruiters would call this phone-screen-Hell. I suspect many of the candidates may have felt that way also, come to think of it. In essence, I would sit at my computer, headset perched on one ear, and interview until late in the day at which point my brain began to melt, all while tapping furiously on my keyboard to take notes.

I did this job for approximately 18 months, which is pretty remarkable given how tedious it was. By my math, I did approximately two-thousand, six-hundred and twenty five interviews during this part of my career (and I’ve done probably half that many again since). That is a lot of interviews. So I got pretty good at it.

One of the things I learned during that time was to structure behaviour interview questions, so I could determine what a candidate’s competencies were. These competencies have names like “Interpersonal Savvy” and “Planning and Organizing” and “Drive for Results” and the theory is that they are supported by behavioural examples – times in a candidate’s life when they’ve demonstrated behaviors which reflect these competencies.

Lest I bore you with HR theory and practice, what I’m getting at is that knowing how interviews are done will make you a better candidate, and one of the keys to any interview is structuring your answers correctly. I’d say less than 3% of all candidates frame up their answers in this way, and the ones who do really stand out. That should be you.

Not every question will be best suited to this approach, but it works well on any of the questions that start with phrasing like, “Tell me about a time when…”. I know, you hate those questions. But here is how to answer them.

Many of the questions you are asked can be answered using a 4-part sequencing to your answer. An easy way to remember this is an acronym called SARI, and it stands for Situation, Action, Result, and Interesting Features. You can remember it by considering if you don’t learn this interview technique you may be SARI.

So, let’s say that the question is, “Tell me about a time that demonstrates your leadership capabilities…” You should structure your answer like this:

Situation: Explain the situation in a way that gives the interviewer context. Less detail is better, but give enough detail to paint the picture.

So, in our example, you might say, “I was transferred into a new department at work, and had to take on a whole new team. One of the key factors was that morale was really low because the department was not resourced properly and turnover had spiked.”

Action: Here is where you explain what you did. Note that I said you, not we. Referring to the action in terms of the intangible “we” is one of the most common interview mistakes I see. You are the one interviewing, so your answer should describe specific behaviors that you actually did.

In our example, you would say, “So the first thing I did was to schedule 1:1 meetings with everyone, to really understand what the issues were, and what was troubling with the team. I also asked them what they thought I should I do, and what the biggest challenge was that each of them faced. I then followed up with everyone as a group. And the most important step I took was I took action quickly against the issue that was causing the team the most grief…”

Result: Here’s where you share the net result to the business. You should quantify this with numbers or other business metrics, even if they are fudged or fuzzy. It probably goes without saying, but always try to pick an example where the net result was positive. (Hey, you wouldn’t believe the things I’ve heard.)

In our example, something like this, “The net result of my leadership actions was that morale was significantly improved after 60 days – you could just feel the energy in the department. Most importantly, we reduced turnover from 40% annualized to zero during the first 6 months…”

Interesting Features: This where you tell the interviewer something special and/or memorable about the story, so that they really remember it. If you can, tie it back to competencies to strengthen your answer.

“I think this example really demonstrates a servant-leader approach to generating business results. In fact, my team still talks about the turnaround today. I am proud of this example because I think it demonstrates strong leadership.”

So, by now you are probably thinking, “This is great, Jason, but there’s no way I am ever going to remember all this in the middle of an interview…” And you are right, unless you practice.

This is easy to practice. Simply have a friend or your significant other ask you a few “Tell me about a time when…” questions and then practice answering them using the 4-part sequence SARI.

After just a few questions, it will become second nature.

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27 comments on “Google Guy: Ace the behavioral interview
  1. Lee says:

    Jason reminds me of the recruiter at Dell that I had the displeasure of interviewing with, though the environment is the same at all big, beauracratic companies.

    What he’s describing is the typical HR interview questions, which anybody that’s read a book or article on interviewing will already have canned answers for.

    What does this tell you about the candidate? Not a damn thing. It absolves the interviewer from having to think – it gives him the standard checklist to basically cover his ass.

    This is to be expected; big companies have never been able to think outside the box – that’s why the creative and innovative people work at small companies where they can get things done.

    Interviews are a two-way street. My policy is to cut the interview short if the interviewer can’t talk to me like a person instead of a checklist for his canned questions.
    * * * * *

    Using a structured method to interview doesn’t absolve the interviewer from treating candidates well or ‘talking to them like a person’.  When done well, it actually improves the accuracy of the interview so that it is based on rational, pre-determined selection criteria  as opposed to simply shooting from the hip and asking semi-directed questions.  This is good for the candidate.  For example, if I were to interview a barista candidate at Starbucks, the competency “Customer Focus” would be important, so I’d better ask questions that were predictive of those behaviors.  The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior, hence the model.

    – Jason

     

  2. Greg says:

    “Note that I said you, not we.”

    So true! I remember at the end of one interview, after discussing and describing all I had accomplished at my previous job, I was told “I want to know what YOU did, not everyone else.” Unfortunately, I had nothing else to offer.

  3. Anastasia says:

    Ugh, thank God. I hate that type of question, because I have never known what is expected from the answer (yes, I am aware of my general ignorance). Thanks for being specific.

    * * * * *

    Apparently everyone hates those types of questions.  :)

    - Jason

  4. Rowan Manahan says:

    What I find fascinating as an interviewer is that while information on the thinking behind behavioural interview questions is freely available, only a tiny percentage of candidates actually take the time and trouble to formulate relevant, structured answers.

    I agree with Jason, there’s no point in reading books and learning off hackneyed answers. Any sing-song, parrotted approach to answering these questions will rapidly become apparent and a judicious follow-up probe will expose this approach for what it is.
    (My example from just last week – a marketing guy wasn’t ringing true as the interview unfolded. I asked him about meeting targets. He told me he had grown his product portfolio by 68% over 3 years. About 15 minutes later, I asked him what his start and finish numbers had been and, surprise, surprise … he was stumped.)

    My only addition to Jason’s excellent advice would be that if you can’t think of a relevant example from your past – either in your preparation or if you are hit with a question from left-field – then move quickly to a hypothetical approach:
    “Well, I’ve never actually had to decapitate anyone as a result of a conflictual situation at work. But if I did have to do it, I’d make sure I had identified the right person to behead, I’d make sure that I had a really sharp axe, I’d warm up my muscles, wear a big rubber apron and galoshes and…”

    Past performance/mindset/behaviour is a strong predictor for the future under the same headings. If you are looking to take a step up in your job, you may not have immediately relevant working experience of a particular competency. A combination of extra-curricular examples, supported by some explanation of your hypothetical approach may be sufficient to reassure the interviewer under that heading.

    * * * * *

    Rowan, this is a fantastic point.  You are correct, hardly anyone prepares for how they are going to answer questions.  I would argue that given the velocity of job changes (everyone job hopping) that the interview has been commoditized so that candidates don’t spend much time preparing in general.  Savvy job seekers can use this to their advantage by applying diligence to a preparation plan.  Thanks for the great comment.  Incidentally, I’m glad I don’t have to do what you do for a living (given your example).  :)
    - Jason

  5. laurence haughton says:

    Great advice, really … specific, knowledgeable, and actionable. Your SARI framework is also great preparation for the question, “Tell me a little about yourself…”

    If you picked three situations from your history and edited them down into 40 seconds each, you’d have a 2 minute introduction that I think would set you apart from every other applicant (who typically fumbles and is at a loss for words).

    I used to work with account managers in media and I helped hundreds of them after hours to write what was called “points of difference.” This SARI framework would have been perfect for that too. The results were very good. This would have made them better.

  6. Recruiting Animal says:

    Readers, I’m a headhunter and what “Cuppa J” Jason Warner says is very true. If you know how to answer a question, you’ll seem a lot smarter to me. I’m a fairly sympathetic guy (my opinion) but if I have to struggle to get information from you, I begin to suspect that you’re not the person I want.

    Recent anecdote. I had to ask candidates recently if they had ever been reponsible for putting together an XYZ plan. Everyone said yes, of course. But only one guy knew what I meant and gave me the answers I needed without me having to lead him step by step. I thought he was great. And I’m not the only one.

    On the other hand, I had to ask someone else if she had ever worked in a project-driven environment. She didn’t understand the question and although I tried to explain what I meant, it was like pulling teeth to get an answer. And I never did. But she had a great resume and the recruiter I was working with sent her out to the client. Lo and behold, she told the interviewers there that she didn’t know what the job entailed. Did my friend give her enough detail? Maybe not. But after my experience with her, I wasn’t surprised by this outcome at all.

    Some people are fast on their feet and think naturally in a clear, organized manner. I’m not one of them. But I believe that this can, to some extent, be learned. Not overnight however and, since most job hunters are oriented towards the short term, real development in this direction has to be very rare. (To really get it, you’ve got to spend hours like Jason did, doing it again and again and again. And no one is going to do that unless he’s subject to an outside force.)

    * * * * *

    Cuppa J = an old blogosphere nickname from the days I worked at Starbucks.  Another extremely common error that candidates make is rambling on (lack of brevity in their answers).  Using the interview methods I describe helps with that also.  People who say more with less words seem smarter.  Penelope has a whole chapter on this topic in her book and it’s something I’m trying to get better at as well.  Using a structured response in an interview lends itself to brevity.

    - Jason

  7. Chris Yeh says:

    In the end, SARI is all about telling a good story. What was the problem? What did you do about it? What were the results? What have we learned?

    If you get tired of SARI exercises, just try telling stories to others. I guarantee that you’ll start to internalize Cuppa J’s lessons.

  8. interview answers says:

    Jason –

    I like your “S.A.R.I” … it kind of expand on the S.T.A.R. statement forumula that I teach for interview answers in my classes in and my interview guide.

    I would add that in your SARI/STAR statements you try to make your story, er, “interesting features” as relevant to the job at hand as possible.

    You can check out my Interview Guide at http://www.interviewanswers.net … I have written hundreds of answers to behavioral interview questions.

    Thanks for the great article. I can’t believe you did that many interviews!

  9. Dale says:

    Penny,

    Thanks for introducing us to knowledgable individuals like Jason. This is another reason I like your blog. You aren’t afraid to share your turf/glory with other experts. This is a very real example of how to move ahead in our careers. Be a good team player, do what is best for the customer, ensure that the team has the same work values as you do, and share the credit for the positive outcomes with the team.
    Thanks much.
    Oh, and great practical advice Jason:)

    * * * * *

    Why thank you.  :)

    - Jason

  10. Lea says:

    SARI sounds much like what I’ve been taught to do for resume writing: PAR, or Problem-Action-Result. I’ve used this formula to structure my interview answers and focus my “story,” and I feel that it’s been very effective.

    Question: Can you recommend some techniques for keeping these answers short? I do well with experienced interviewers, who have a question ready for me when I stop talking. But when I have an interviewer who just stares at me when I stop talking, I tend to keep going until I give that person something that stops the blank stare. Which means that I’m talking too much in about one-third of my interviews. Any suggestions?

    * * * * *

    I can’t stress this enough…brevity is your invisible ally in getting hired.  If I had to pick the one error that candidates do most frequently, it would be that they talk too much.  Aside from practicing SARI, which will lead to shorter answers (practice and you’ll see what I mean), I recommend three things: 

    1.)  Stop and think about the question before answering, and actually consider your answer as if you had to write it down in permanent ink (which it kind of is, as you only get one shot at it).  90% or more of candidates I’ve interviewed launch immediately into their answer, which is an error in strategy.   Instead, buy time by saying, “That’s an excellent question, let me think about that for a minute.”  When you practice SARI, practice saying this after each question.  This will serve three purposes, it will make you seem smarter and more thoughtful, it will buy you some time, and it will make your answers more robust and thoughtful.  Get comfortable with silence.

    2.) Bring a notepad, and write SARI down the left hand side of the first couple pages (you should always bring a notepad and pen anyways).  As you get a question, look at the notepad, and consider taking bulleted notes before answering.  This should take less than 1 minute.  In our example, you could quickly write down:

    S – leadership change, bad morale, bad turnover

    A – 1:1s, listened, took action

    R – turnover down, morale up

    I –  Team is still talking about it.

    And then answer the question.  You will appear brilliant compared to Rambling Rose who is shooting from the hip.

    3.)  Less is more:  The interviewer doesn’t need that much context to understand the situation, or the results.  Spend a little more time on the actions you took and be specific.  If the interviewer wants more, they will ask, but they are mainly concerned about the behaviors you exhibited so they can tie those back to competencies.  In our example, it doesn’t even matter what department it was, how many direct reports, etc, just that morale was low and turnover had spiked.

    - Jason

  11. laurence haughton says:

    Lea, Did you know that leaving an uncomfortable silence after a question is answered is a tactic of journalists like Mike Wallace (of CBS)? They use it to get more info and maybe something you’d rather not tell them. Negotiators use the tactic too (it’s called FSQS or friendly silent questioning stare).

    I realize they may no be doing this on purpose but giving them the FSQS back is how negotiators handle that tactic.

  12. Lea says:

    Laurence — As a former journalist with over a decade of experience working for daily newspapers, yes, I’ve used that trick myself. I was concerned that doing the same thing back could come across as rude, unfriendly, or some other adjective that translates to “undesirable hire.” No one who has used that tactic on me has gotten me to say anything that I didn’t plan to say; it has just made my answers longwinded.

  13. laurence haughton says:

    As you know better than me from all your experience, you have to be careful when using the FSQS (and I emphasize “friendly”). I worry that sometimes I might look like an idiot with all my smiling and head shifting.

    (I also agree the worst thing is to drone on.) Another way I keep answers short and still fill uncomfortable silences is to ask some questions. The most pleasing sound for many people is the sound of their own voice.

  14. Rowan Manahan says:

    Lea – I agree with most of what Laurnece is saying, and I look ofrward to seeing Jason’s thoughts on this.

    90 seconds to three minutes MAX is your range for an answer to a behavioural question. I typically recommend spending 10-20% of your answer time on describing the situation. Keep this really tight as it is the least important element. In your practice, cut out all unnecessary verbage and pull right back to the news headlines. Spend about 20-30% of your time on talking about the outcome and the middle block (50-70%) on your mindset/approach/process – because this is the bit they are really interested in. (My model is SPOUT – situation, process, outcome)

    If they play the silence and inquisitive expression game on you, recognise it for what it is and politely ask, “Is there anything further you want me to expand upon?” which neatly forces them to open their mouths again – either to ask for more detail on a specific aspect of the topic or to move on to the next line of questioning.

    * * * * *

    Well stated.  If you use SARI and have structured your answers, there won’t be much silence on the interviewer’s part, as they will have received a well-structured answer that really addresses the components they are looking for.  The other benefit is that you’ll be able to answer more questions during the interview as each question will be answered efficiently and productively.  This means they’ll have way more information and examples from you than from Rambling Rose, which strengthens your candidacy.
    - Jason

  15. Joe Flood says:

    How about some questions that candidates can ask interviewers? How would I, as a candidate, ask SARI-type questions to learn more about the culture and behavior of the company that I’m interviewing at? It’s tough to find out the internal dramas and problems of a company during the interview process.

    * * * * * *

    Joe, this is a good question. I think interviewers are in a very tough spot in terms of answering questions about company culture. They are paid by the company and have some obligation to not say bad things about the company when representing the company in an interview. You are better off asking former employees of the company what it’s like to work there.

    One way to find former employees of a given company is via LinkedIn — you can search by company.

    –Penelope

    Another way is to turn the tables on the interviewer and ask them behavioral interview questions.  For example:  “Tell me about a time that company leadership did something that really exemplifies the culture of the organization”? or to a potential new boss, “Tell me about a time that really showcases your ability to develop people.”    Then probe them for what the situation was, what actions they took, and what the result was.  A little foresight and planning around these questions will make them most productive.  I will write a post on this topic.

    Jason 

  16. Leesa says:

    The insights and advice contained within this article and subsequent comments are very useful and affirming to me. I have been going through the arduous interview process of a large company and after two successful phone interviews followed by the in-person behavioral interviews I came away somewhat perplexed. The behavioral interviews were two-part; One hour with one interviewer after which I was escorted back to the lobby to wait for the second interviewer.

    The first interviewer told me a little about herself and her role within the company and the questions were related entirely to my previous job performance. At the end she complimented me for having been so well prepared with answers and stated that she appreciated that she didn’t have to probe and that it “wasn’t like pulling teeth” as in many other interviews. Throughout the interview I had noticed that she was writing notes in three separate columns, seemed genuinely interested in my responses and afforded me the opportunity to think for a moment before answering each question. At one point she even brought up answers that I had given during my phone interviews that she wanted me to expound upon. Before escorting me back to the lobby to await the second interview she stated that she had no idea who would be interviewing me next.

    The second interviewer arrived twenty minutes later and I felt as though I had suddenly been transported to another company. She seemed rushed to get through the hour and did little more than read questions from a checklist. The questions were HR in nature and were geared more towards interpersonal relations and past conflict with co-workers, supervisors and management. Throughout the entire hour with her I felt as if nothing I said was right. She made very little eye-contact and at times made borderline rude comments. When I attempted to ask for clarification or indicated that I had not encountered certain scenarios her tone would become condescending as though I had said something wrong or not answered the question adequately. She even minimized my current position as a representative for a government entity. I was stunned but kept my composure and answered the questions to the best of my ability. But I have never been interviewed by someone who showed such a disinterest in their subject or displayed such a negative attitude.

    Everything that you all have posted in this article helps me to better understand what I experienced today and so I thank you.

  17. Maureen says:

    Do you have a book with questions and possible answers to behavioral questions are often asked on interviews. I hate these questions but I realize they are using this technique quite often on interviews.

    I have an interview schedule in less than two weeks and I need help in this regard.

    Maureen

  18. Greg Paskill says:

    It’s troubling to see how behavioral interview questions have caught on so big in hiring today. It’s very demoralizing for those who want to contribute to modern products and challenges to be greeted by questions that focus on the very things one wants to escape when pursuing a job change, as passive or active candidate.

    Furthermore, many elements of behavioral interviews can be falsified, fabricated, slanted, highlighted, or embellished, just like with resumes. The one thing that is very hard to fake, though, is actual job competence.

    Reality is not every employer has actually studied what it takes to do today’s jobs. So they ask behavioral interview questions building on the homework of past employers.

    This too incidentally, is why some candidates don’t bother researching companies before applying. Far away from the overly choreographed world of interviews, some state, “I’m sick and tired of researching companies that I think I’d be interested in joining, only to have to sit through behavioral interview after behavioral interview. When do we get to talk about some real work?”

    I, for one, do not waste time asking behavioral interview questions. As a manager, interview time is extremely valuable to me and even moreso to my guests, the candidates. What you did for someone else 5 years ago will never matter as much as what you can do for me now.

  19. Milton Waddams says:

    It might help to remember what you’re really trying to do:

    impress ‘the Bobs’ from “Office Space,”

    with your “SARI” or “PAR” about how you identified the problem with people not putting cover letters on the TPS Reports, took action, (got everyone another copy of the TPS Reports cover letter memo), and now have an interesting story to tell about it.

    yeahhhhhhhh, that’d be grrrreat…

  20. Milton Waddams says:

    After all, how do you think Bill Lumbergh got his job?

    Some HR genius was really impressed with Lumbergh’s ‘SARI’

    Every Bill Lumbergh waking around every office with a coffee cup is a product of “Behavioral Interviewing.”

    Did your technique predict THAT future behavior?

  21. Andrew C. Czyszczon says:

    Hi, thank you guys for being pioneers and helping lead the way to freedom and much much more than your imagination imagines it can imagine.

  22. Brett Atencio says:

    I just came back from a nurse job fair in Burbank where there was a speaker on what employers are looking for in nursing candidates. Now I know why in the last 3 job interviews I was asked the most inane/moronic questions I have ever herd in an interview. They were using behavioral interview fad style questions. I could not believe my ears when this CNO speaker of an magnet hospital system was in essence telling me that you must present a good performance of “super nurse” and do what makes the interviewer feel comfortable enough to hire you. This is the most sadist/laziest way to try and figure out who is a good candidate for a job that I have ever heard of. Past performance absolutely does not predict future performance as people do not stay stagnant and always do the same thing, as the situation is always different with uncountable variables producing a unique outcome. The entire premise that this method of interviewing uses is completely flawed. The only way to determine a good match is to ask someone who has first hand knowledge of how the candidate is at work. You can not determine if someone is a good fit using this interview process due to the conflict of interest of both parties, as they are both trying to look good to the other. The most successful interviews I have had have always been based on determination of how others perceive me at work, either through asking me to honestly tell them or the interviewer actually doing there job and spending the time to ask someone who knows how I am at work.

  23. Carl says:

    I think perhaps some replying here are missing the point of Jason’s article and all the other great points that others have contributed. It’s NOT how to pick the best candidate by using the behavioral interviewing technique. It’s how to be the one that got selected by separating yourself when the interviewing method involves behavioral examples. I found this article to be tremendously helpful and have shared it with many others who feel the same way. Argue the merits of behavioral interviewing all you want (and I do believe that in many circumstances it IS the best method for selecting candidates), but when you’re the one answering the questions – I believe you’d do well to study the advice shared here and apply it. Great job Jason, Penny and everyone else…!

  24. Nilname says:

    I really liked Jason’s article and additions by Penelope and others. I have a forthcoming competency based behavioral interview scheduled over phone. Isn’t any interview competency based? Else, is this “competency based” approach a variation of the behavioral interview? If so, how is it different?

    I have another issue. The job is a development job so not so much product oriented but program development, strategic planning, and impact. Given that how do I prepare an exhaustive list of competencies/skills that the interviewer will question me about – so that I can perhaps prepare a bit for SARI approach?

    I realize that the last mail in this thread was posted last year. I am hopeful may be Jason, Penny are still available? Any response will be most helpful

  25. Me says:

    So glad i found this article. I am an attorney and I have a two hour behavioral interview tomorrow. There will be five questions. The articles states the candidate should be brief (for the most part). Is there a disadvantage with the situation describe above…5 questions…2 hours?

  26. hamburg114 says:

    Hi

    I read this post 2 times. It is very useful.

    Pls try to keep posting.

    Let me show other source that may be good for community.

    Source: Behavioral interview questions

    Best regards
    Jonathan.

  27. varun says:

    Really the article is too good,in my previous interview i was not selected ,after reading this article i came to know where i have done mistake and i started following the SARI process from here onwards while attending the interviews

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