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How To Answer ‘Tell Me About A Time When’ Questions

Posted by | October 26, 2016 | Interviews

Via Forbes : How To Answer ‘Tell Me About A Time When’ Questions

Dear Liz,

I went on a job interview last week and was shocked to find that the interviewer asked me nothing but a long list of “Tell me about a time when…” questions.

Hasn’t that old-fashioned style of interviewing died out yet? I remember going to seminars to learn how to ask “Tell me about a time when…” questions back in the ’80s, when I was the supervisor of a department at a retail store.

Haven’t employers figured out by now that there is a better way to interview people than by asking those awful “Tell me about a time when…” questions? Why don’t employers modernize their interviewing practices?

I guess I did fine in that interview, because they scheduled me for a second interview with the hiring manager.

What should I do if I run into this again? Is it a bad sign that my possible next employer is still asking “Tell me about a time when…” interview questions in this day and age?



Dear Brianne,

Congratulations on sailing through your HR interview! “Tell me about a time when…” questions come from an archaic and pointless interviewing approach called Behavioral Interviewing.

It might be the worst possible way to interview a job-seeker and many companies have dropped the practice, but some are still hanging onto it. HR departments as you know tend to evolve slowly!

Like you, I went to workshops back in the 1980s to learn how to ask Behavioral Interviewing questions. I never did ask real candidates those questions, because I always found it easier, more fun and more effective to interview candidates by simply conversing with them instead.

The best and easiest way to interview candidates is to simply chat with them. You explain the position to them and answer their questions about it. You will learn a lot more about a candidate by listening to their questions than by listening to their answers to your questions.

However, Behavioral Interviewing is still going strong among employers who evidently do not get out much.

You did fine at your recent Behavioral Interview, so you already know the best way to answer “Tell me about a time when…” questions. The best way to answer them is to tell a quick story about a time when you confronted each of the hypothetical situations your interviewer throws at you.

Here are ten of the most common “Tell me about a time when…” scenarios.

Tell me about a time when…

1. You had to change on a dime at work to solve a problem.

2. You had to work with a difficult teammate.

3. You learned from a mistake.

4. You had to move ahead without the opportunity to check in with your supervisor.

5. You innovated or improved on a process.

6. You had to solve a tricky problem.

7. You had to work on a team.

8. You had to calm down an angry customer.

9. You had to learn how to do something on your own.

10. You made a difference at work.

Here’s how you might answer the first scenario.

“I remember a time at Acme Explosives when we had been shipping our modular stick dynamite packages via UPS but then a change in shipping regulations meant that all of the modular stick dynamite had to ship out a different way. My boss was on vacation when we got the news.

“I had to work with Production and Shipping to find out where every piece of stick dynamite was in our warehouse so I could re-pack, re-label and re-route those orders so that they shipped correctly and reached our customers on time. I spent four days on that project and only two of the orders arrived a day late — out of over 400 orders.”

You have to tell a specific story to answer a “Tell me about a time when…” question. You can’t say “Oh, I dealt with that situation a million times.” The particular story is the key!

In your upcoming interview with your hiring manager, there is a strong possibility that you won’t get hit with another list of tedious “Tell me about a time when…” questions, because the manager has a real problem to solve — otherwise he or she wouldn’t have gotten approval to hire anyone new.

When a manager is facing a real problem, he or she has a good reason to talk to you about the job instead of asking goofy Behavioral Interviewing questions.

Even if you should run into a second Behavioral Interview, you may be able to get your hiring manager off the Behavioral Interviewing script, like this:

Manager: So Brianne, can you tell me about a time when you had to deal with a difficult customer?

You: For sure! I had one gentleman that I dealt with a lot in my last job — a sweet fellow when he was in a good mood, but he got rattled easily and that’s when his temper would fray. In one of our calls, he said “If you can’t help me, I’ll talk to your company president!” and I knew he was at his wit’s end. I said “I understand completely how frustrating this is for you. I’d be upset if I were you, too!” That calmed him down and from then on the conversation went perfectly.

By the way — how would I be interacting with customers in this job?

Manager: Great question! In this job you’d be servicing our education accounts. You’d be dealing with school administrators. Can you tell me about your experience with schools and school personnel?

You: Yes! I just finished volunteering for my local preschool as a matter of fact. My granddaughter is a student there. I had to stop volunteering because my job search is taking up all my time, but it was absolutely fantastic volunteering and I loved it. I worked with the front office staff as well as the kids and the faculty. I know that budgets are a big concern and of course they don’t have on-site IT staff in many schools. They have to figure things out themselves. Is that an issue for you?

Manager: It’s one of our biggest issues! We have to talk them through how to use our software. Can you tell me about a time when you did that?

The fictional manager in our script is very tied into the “Tell me about a time when…” mentality. That’s okay, because you are adept at responding to those questions with a short answer and a new question of your own.

Any time you can insert a question about the role — and particularly a question about the problem the hiring manager is trying to solve by hiring a new staff member — do it! The more you can learn about your manager’s Business Pain during the interview, the better.

In our script, you learned that a big pain point is the lack of technical expertise on the part of your future customers — staff members at schools, that is — and the need to teach them step-by-step how to use your company’s software over the phone.

That’s child’s play for you!

You asked whether you should be concerned about the fact that your possible next employer is stuck in the past when it comes to their recruiting practices. Sadly, many if not most employers have the same problem. What’s more important than the interviewing style your next employer employs is the character of your next boss.

Pay close attention to your hiring manager’s thought processes, his or her sense of humor (or lack thereof), the manager’s consideration for your time during the interview (if they answer their phone or check their email, for instance, that’s a bad sign!) and the way you feel when you are with that person.

Your hiring manager is the most important person in the organization you will end up working for. Don’t take his or her personality, brains, heart and ethics for granted!

All the best in your job search Brianne –



Liz Ryan is CEO/founder of Human Workplace and author of Reinvention Roadmap. Follow her on Twitter and read Forbes columns.

Source : FORBES | How To Answer ‘Tell Me About A Time When’ Questions

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