Main Content

Taking the Mystery out of Hiring

Bert Troughton, MSW, Director, SFSPCA / ASPCA Strategic Alliance


Taking the Mystery out of Hiring

Seasoned managers and human resource professionals – if they’re being honest – will acknowledge that hiring is one of the scariest tasks of a manager. Most of us have made as many poor hiring decisions as excellent ones. A process known as “Behavioral Interviewing” can take some of the guess work out of your hiring, markedly increasing your success at good hiring decisions.

I distinctly remember being asked in my interview for an Executive Director position over ten years ago if I could handle euthanasia. I wanted the job, so I of course answered to the affirmative. The truth is, I’m still wondering what it means to “handle” euthanasia – but luckily I had enough of the skills which that organization really needed in an Executive Director that things worked out OK. Luck, however, isn’t the best way to make hiring decisions.

Behavioral interviewing is based on the premise that the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. Rather than asking hypothetical questions (“how would you handle…?”) to determine if a person is a good fit for your position, you will ask the candidate to describe a time when s/he has encountered a similar situation and how s/he handled it.

Instead of the Guess Work Method Try a Behavioral Question
“How would you handle…?” “Give me an example of a time when…”
“How would you feel if…?” “How did you feel when…, and what did you do about it?”
“Are you good at (customer service)?” “Tell me a story about one of your most challenging customers and how you handled it?”
“What are your strengths?” “Describe a job (or other responsibility) you’ve had that utilized your strengths and how.”
“What do you like in a supervisor?” “Thinking back to your best relationship with a supervisor -give me examples of things your supervisor did that really brought out your best.” and/or “How about your least successful relationship with a supervisor…give me examples of things that you and s/he did that didn’t work. What have you learned from this?”

Note that traditional interview questions are posed in the present or future tense,
while behavioral questions are all posed in the past tense.

To use the Behavioral Interview method:

1. Examine:

  • the job description (and/or walk through a few hours of the actual job),
  • the culture (values, attitudes, motivation, atmosphere) of the organization, and
  • your current and future initiatives
    to get a sense of what skills, knowledge, qualities, attitudes, and motivation you’re looking for in the perfect candidate. These are known as “competencies”.

2. Identify behaviors that demonstrate those competencies. Here are a few examples:

Competence Some of the related Behaviors
Communication listening, repeating back, writing, articulating, speaking one to one, speaking in front of a group, verifying understanding between parties
Creativity brainstorming, artistic flair, thinking “out of the box”, trying multiple and/or new approaches, writing
Planning & Organizing using a calendar, filing, mapping, creating & completing check lists, creating time lines, meeting deadlines, communicating (see above)

3. Develop a set of questions framed in the past tense to get the candidates to tell you stories about real events and their behaviors which demonstrate those competencies. Click here for sample questions developed by a group of humane society professionals at AHA’s “The Conference 1999”.

4. Conduct the interviews. (You will only be talking about 10% of the time; the candidate fills the bulk of the time describing her/his work/life experiences in behavioral terms.) Listen for the candidate to identify situations, actions taken, and results/outcomes. Keep notes of these, to help you review the results of all interviews and identify the candidate who most closely meets your competence requirements. (Ideally, two or three interviewers ask different but related questions in separate interviews, and then compare notes.)

Some tips for successful behavioral interviewing:

  • Think about your culture (values, attitudes, motivation, atmosphere) ahead of time and consciously listen for “fit” with culture when meeting with candidates
  • Focus on past behavior – it’s not, “how would you…?” but “how did you…?”
  • This is not a test!!! When you schedule the interview, give the candidate information about how behavioral interviewing works – you want to hear about life experiences, not measure how well they perform when anxious and confused.
  • In one hour, it’s a lot to get through three behavioral questions (and their follow up questions). The best practice is to have at least two different interviewers and two different interviews. This enables you to ask additional questions for clarification, and to compare notes on situations, actions, and outcomes the candidate consistently demonstrates.
  • Less experienced and/or younger candidates may have a harder time with this style of interviewing. Comparable situations do not necessarily have to be from work history – how a candidate has handled school, community responsibilities, and family situations all involve behavior, too.
For other articles on behavioral interviewing, visit: or

Sample Behavioral Interview questions developed by Humane
Society professionals at AHA’s “The Conference” 1999:

Adoption Counselor

Able to work under pressure:

1) Describe a situation you were involved in that was stressful and how you handled it.

2) Tell me about a situation where you felt you were under pressure in a prior job.

Decision Making:

3) Tell me about a difficult choice you were faced with and how you made the decision. How did people impacted by the decision respond? How did you feel? How long did it take to make the choice and did you involve others in your decision?

4) What process do you use to make a decision? What prompts you to make decisions?

Cooperation & Teamwork:

5) How have you helped a co-worker in a prior job?

6) Describe some of the people you have liked to work with? What did they do that brought out your strengths? Give an example of a time when you lead these people in something and an example of a time when you followed their lead.

7) How have you addressed a situation when you’ve disagreed with another co-worker’s decision?


8) How have you dealt with someone who was angry?

9) Describe a situation where listening to someone helped resolve a problem and how did it help?

10) How did listening skills help you perform your last job?

Oral Communication:

11) Describe what you do when you’re at a party and you don’t know anyone.

12) Give an example of a time you told someone something you thought they didn’t want to hear.

Problem Solving:

13) Tell me about a problem you had to solve (in your last job or at school) and how you did it?

14) Describe a new idea or a solution you came up with at work and how you arrived at it.

Open Minded:

15) Tell me about a time you’ve changed your mind when presented with a different viewpoint.

16) Describe the most difficult person you ever worked with and what you did to make your working relationship work.



1) When was the last time you missed work and why?

2) How did you handle a situation when you couldn’t make a delivery on time (related to past work experience on resume). Explain why you chose to handle it in the way you did.

Problem Solving Skills:

3) Describe the most difficult situation you’ve been in as a security guard and what did you do?

Oral Communication:

(Oral Communication skills should be apparent in his/her ability to answer all the questions in the interview.)

4) As a karate instructor, how do you deal with women students differently than men? With children differently than adults?

Creative & Innovative:

5) As a member of the local kennel club, how have you handled aggressive dogs and their difficult owners?

6) Are there kids in your karate classes and, if so, how have you formulated your lesson plans for them?

Ability to Work Under Pressure:

7) What is the most stressful situation you’ve ever been in? What made it stressful? How did you handle the situation and why did you choose to handle it in that way?

8) How have you dealt with your emotions when you’ve been in stressful situations – give examples.

Communications Director


1) What is the best project you’ve ever been involved with? Why?

2) Describe your greatest achievement.


3) What is the farthest you’ve ever had to bend your standards? What was the outcome and what do you wish you did differently?

4) Tell about a time when a boss or supervisor made a decision (and asked you to follow it through) that was contrary to your ethical standards. What did you do and why?

Problem Solving Skills:

5) Tell about a time when you’ve identified a problem then developed and implemented a policy or procedure to correct it.

6) Tell about a time you had a conflict with a superior and how you solved it.


7) In your last position, how did you make a difference (above and beyond your position description)?

8) Describe your most creative moment.

Work Under Pressure:

9) Tell about a time you were especially stressed and how you dealt with it.

Humane Educator

Creativity & Innovation:

1) Describe your most challenging audience and how you dealt with them? What made them challenging for you? Why do you think what you came up with worked?

2) Tell me about your favorite project and what was special about it.


3) Give me an example of a time when a student was unable to understand what you were teaching and how you helped him/her understand.

4) Tell me about a negative experience you had as a student that has impacted the way you teach.

Listening Skills:

(Note: a good indicator of listening skills is if the candidate is able to answer the questions you ask or if s/he responds with information that is not directly related to the questions. You would also be looking for behaviors such as repeating questions back to the interviewer to make sure they heard the question correctly, and or asking questions to clarify what the interviewer is looking for.)

5) Describe an experience you’ve had with another person when it seemed as though the communication was not going well. How did you know (specifically what were your cues?) things were not going well and how did you improve the communication?

6) Part of being a good educator is being a good listener. Can you recount for me the things I’ve already shared with you in this interview about our mission and the role of the Humane Educator?

Planning & Organizing:

7) In your past experience teaching for XYZ organization, how did you fit everything you wanted to teach your students in the time you had with them (both on a class by class basis and for the year or duration of the program)?

8) What does a typical work day in your current job look like for you? How do you get everything you need to accomplished by the end of the day?

Tolerates Frustration:

9) Tell me about a situation you were in where you didn’t understand what you were supposed to do. How did you deal with it?

10) Describe a situation in which you’ve felt misunderstood and how you corrected the situation.

Shelter Manager


1) Give me an example of a problem you were responsible for solving with a group of people. How did you talk about the problem and the solution with the group? How did you get people to fulfill their roles? What was the outcome?

2) What do you think are the most important tools of a leader and give me an example of how you’ve used each of these at a job or avocation in the past.

Integrity & Honesty:

3) Tell me about a time when you’ve disagreed with a policy or procedure – either as a student, a customer, or an employee – and how you handled it.

4) What is an example of a time when you think your honesty was extremely difficult but the right and best thing to do.


5) Describe a difficult choice you had to make, what you decided, how and why.

6) Tell me about a time when you had more things to do than time to do them and what you did.

Planning & Organizing:

7) How do you structure routine tasks such as grocery shopping, paying the bills, car repairs, cleaning the house? What are the benefits and drawbacks to how you structure these tasks?

8) Tell me about a project you were in charge of – how did you plan the project and organize the work? Were there other people involved and how did you manage them? What were the outcomes?

Motivation & Initiative:

9) Describe a time when it seemed like a program or project you were working on was not going to succeed. What did you do, why, and how did it turn out?

10) Who was the most inspirational person you ever worked with and what did s/he do that inspired you? How did you respond?


© 2001 Bert Troughton
Re-prints with permission. Contact Bert at

Courtesy of

Share this Article

Recently Viewed Pets