The job interview: How to answer—and ask—behavioral questions at any stage in your career

By John Murphy, MDLinx
Published October 4, 2018

Key Takeaways

When financial investment managers give you investment advice, they’ll warn you that a stock’s past performance is no guarantee of future results. Employers and hiring managers believe the opposite about job candidates: a person’s past performance is the best indicator of future behavior. That’s the whole premise behind behavioral-based interviewing and questions, which can be tricky to answer.

Hospitals, health networks, and practices have adopted behavioral-based interviewing because they’ve found that it gives them the best chance of choosing physicians who fit well with their organization.

“The number one reason why organizations terminate a physician is not because of bad clinical skills, but because the physician doesn’t fit with the organization behaviorally,” explained Lynne Peterson, director, Physician Recruitment, Fairview Health Services, Minneapolis, MN.

Ms. Peterson offered examples of a few behavioral-based questions that she might ask a physician candidate:

  1. Have you ever been in a situation where you had a medical disagreement with a colleague or your medical leader?

  2. Can you give me an example of a time when you had to go through a change in protocol?

  3. Have you ever been called upon to do more than your clinical duties, such as serve on a committee?

  4. When have you had to work in a group?

  5. Tell me about a time when you were given negative feedback. What did you do with that feedback?

These questions aren’t asking for simple facts, as job interviewers used to do. These questions prompt you to describe an experience and how you managed it—how you tackled a challenge, dealt with a tough situation, or handled difficulty.

“The purpose behind these questions is to understand the perspective and thought processes of candidates,” Ms. Peterson said, because the ultimate goal of the interview is to get a feel for how you’d fit into the organization’s culture.

Past experience, future behavior

Take the first question, for example: Have you ever been in a situation where you had a medical disagreement with a colleague or your medical leader?

“The interviewer wants to know how you’ll handle situations where there’s going to be disagreement in matters of opinion—and can you do that in a constructive manner rather than in an antagonistic manner?” Ms. Peterson explained.

The second question, which deals with changes in protocol, is really asking if the candidate is flexible and can readily adapt to changes.

The third question, which asks about going above and beyond assigned duties, probes into the candidate’s “engagement” with the health organization or practice—how interested is the candidate in helping to further the organization?

The fourth question, about working in a group, delves into the candidate’s ability to act as part of a team. “The physician is often the team quarterback, but not always—and isn’t always the only quarterback,” Ms. Peterson said.

The fifth question on feedback is not only about how you react emotionally to negative criticism, but also whether you can learn from it and go on to improve. “Be prepared with an answer that you’ve reflected on that feedback and tried to understand it, and you’ve used it to the best of your ability in future interactions,” she explained.

  • For residents and new physicians: This might be the first job interview for a newer physician, so they may draw a blank or not know how to answer some of these questions. “They do themselves a disservice if they say they’ve never had a disagreement with faculty or colleagues, or ever experienced a failure before,” Ms. Peterson advised. “No one is perfect. What we want to know is how they handled situations and what they learned from it.”

    If you can’t think of a work-related challenge, it’s OK to describe a situation you encountered in your volunteer or life experiences. “You shouldn’t make up stuff that isn’t true,” she added. “Try to be as authentic as possible—that’s what every organization expects from you.”

  • For mid-career and later-career physicians: The biggest question that experienced physicians will face in the interview is, “Why are you making this change?” Interviewers will want to know if you’re having disagreements with your employer or conflicts with colleagues. “But again, it might mean there was simply a bad fit,” Ms. Peterson said. “And just because you had a bad fit with one organization doesn’t mean you’ll have a bad fit with every organization.”

The interview is a two-way street

Employers aren’t trying to trip you up with these questions; they’re trying to learn what makes you tick. By the same token, the interview is an opportunity for you to ask questions to determine if the organization is a good fit for you, not just whether you’re a good fit for the organization, Ms. Peterson reminded.

“It’s a two-way street,” she said. “It’s equally important for you to ask questions like, ‘If I have a disagreement with a colleague, what kind of support will I have?’ You too should be looking at the organization or practice from a behavioral standpoint.”

Make sure that you’ll be in an organization and among colleagues who you can trust and respect, and who will provide support. “If you feel you can be your true self and it’s a good fit, you’ll probably last forever in that practice,” Ms. Peterson said.

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