How to shine in structured recruitment interviews

Structured interview questions — sometimes called behavioural interview questions — are the primary interview tool of government recruiters but are widely used outside government. Whenever they crop up in a recruitment interview, answering them effectively is an essential step towards getting hired. So what are structured interview questions, and how can you best address them?

Here’s an example of a simple structured-interview question: “Describe a time when you missed a deadline. Why did you miss it? What did you do to make sure you wouldn’t miss deadlines in the future? What lessons did you learn from the experience?” And here’s a sticky question: “Tell us about a time when you encountered an ethical challenge in your workplace? How did you resolve the problem?”

In both of these examples I’ve included follow-up questions. Some interviewers will ask you the main question as well as the follow-ups all in one go. Some will ask the main question first and then follow up your answer with further questions. And others will ask only the main question, and leave it up to you to flesh out your answer by implicitly addressing the logical follow-ups.

Seek out example questions relevant to the competencies listed in the position description, e.g., google “structured interview questions customer service” or “behavioural interview questions accountability”.

Follow a STAR approach in answering the questions. STAR stands for Situation, Task, Action(s), Result. Start by describing a work situation you encountered in enough detail for the interview panel to make sense of the incident, and include a description of the task or challenge you faced.

Then outline your action(s), spelling out all the steps you took that were relevant to the result. Don’t assume you can omit one of the steps because you feel it’s too obvious to be worth mentioning. The panel may have a set of tick-boxes to complete on each answer, and if you omit a key step, you’ve automatically lost points.

When you describe the results, start with the immediate results — sometimes referred to as outputs — and then talk about the long-term results, that is, the outcomes, both for other people and for you personally.

Wherever possible, look for incidents that portray you in a good light. Gather together a series of vignettes, that is, narratives of work incidents, each of which can be used to answer a number of different questions. To accumulate vignettes, use the accomplishments you’ve listed on your CV plus those that weren’t strong enough to make it into your CV.

Aim for 2-minute answers and make eye contact with every panel member at least once during each answer. Make sure you fully grasp the question before starting to answering it. There’s nothing worse than answering a different question. If necessary, or if you’re initially stuck for an answer, try repeating the question out loud, followed by something like “Let’s see now”.

Stay positive: If the incident involves other people, and if one or more of them didn’t behave well, don’t slag them off. Talk about their part in the incident in factual, non-judgemental language.

Recruiters will be assessing your values as well as your competencies, and will sometimes ask questions specifically geared to eliciting your values, e.g., “Give me an example of a situation where you found it difficult to work with someone from a different ethnic background”.

An effective answer to such questions will depend on the values sought by the recruiter. For example, indicating a respect for ethnic diversity will go down well virtually everywhere in New Zealand, but in a Trump stronghold in the USA, or in nationalistic segments of European society, it’s going to go down like a lead balloon.

Practice your answers with a colleague, friend or consultant. Practice as much as possible but don’t forget that there are umpteen possible questions, so however well prepared you might be, you’ll need to wing it for at least some of your answers.

Finally, don’t believe any websites that claim they’ll tell you how to answer the “top 10” behavioural interview questions, or the “top 30”. Don’t forget that recruiters read too. And if I was recruiting, I’d make sure that I didn’t ask any of these “top” questions, wouldn’t you?

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