You’re 10 minutes into a job interview. You’ve had a bit of small talk and run over the basics of your resume. Then the interviewer leans back and asks a question that begins the dreaded phrase: “Tell me about a time when…” Who knows what will follow? “When you overcame a professional challenge.” “When you managed workplace conflict.” “When you slew a wild unicorn.”
Behavioral questions like these are among hiring managers’ favorite interview tactics. They’re meant to offer unique insight into a potential employee’s personality and how a person might fit into company culture. But according to Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist, professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, and author of the book Originals, these ubiquitous questions are unfair to job applicants—and ineffective to boot.
“Tell me about a time when”
In the August edition of “Wondering,” Grant’s monthly feature in which he answers reader emails, Grant takes issue with the phrasing of behavioral questions.
“When you ask questions about the past—’tell me about a time when you…’—interviewees with less experience in that situation are at a disadvantage,” Grant tells Quartz. The more jobs you have, the more you navigate professional conflict and success, and the more workplace anecdotes you accumulate. Meanwhile, even competitive younger candidates haven’t had enough professional exposure to narrate an equally nuanced story.
A job applicant’s “story” often isn’t particularly revealing. “What you really want to know is how the candidate will handle the challenges in this job at your organization—not how they approached another job in a different organization,” says Grant.
Moreover, Grant argues, when you ask a traditional “tell me a time when” question, you put people in “recall mode,” forcing them to retrieve a memory rather than engaging in the present. “Alternatively, asking about the future puts people in problem-solving mode: they’re thinking in real-time about what they would do,” says Grant. When you hire a new employee, their real-time critical thinking skills will prove essential. Their ability to frantically recall relevant anecdotes will not.
Lastly, behavioral questions are easy to game: “You end up hiring the candidate who’s the best talker, not the best contributor,” Grant writes in “Wondering.” If improvisational storytelling is key to the job you’re hiring for, then that works out fine. If not, it’s time for hiring managers to switch their strategy.
The power of hypotheticals
According to Grant, a better alternative to behavioral questions are situational judgment questions—the kind that begin, “What would you do if…”
“Instead of asking candidates to describe how they handled a unique situation in a previous job or organization, it’s more fruitful to describe consistent situations that candidates could face in this job or organization, and ask them what they would do—or how they would reason,” Grant writes on LinkedIn. Situational judgment questions are especially effective in assessing leadership and interpersonal skills, as they require on-the-spot, innovative conflict management.
For example, to assess persuasive skill, Grant often asks candidates how they would sell a rotten apple. And to spot original thinkers, he likes to ask them how they would improve his interview process. “You pick the challenges that are core to the job or key to the organization,” he writes. “Everyone gets the same scenario. You can even create a scoring key by collecting responses from your existing employees, and looking at what your stars do differently.”
And for companies looking to do a better job of sorting candidates before in-person interviews, another advantage of situational judgment questions is that they can easily be asked and answered online. “Researchers have validated situational tests to assess applicant characteristics as diverse as integrity, personal initiative, emotional intelligence, and aggression,” he writes. Using these questions to differentiate between candidates can help employers ensure that they’re hiring the person who is truly the best fit.