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Answering Behavioral Interview Questions: Work Ethic

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The latest in our continuing series on how to answer the most common behavioral interview questions.

Are You a Hard Worker?

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Every hiring manager loves a hard worker. No matter the job or the industry or the experience level, they want to hire someone with a strong work ethic and a commitment to getting the job done.

Many have been burned by candidates who talked a good game in the interview and then slacked off when hired.

This is because any candidate with a brain will claim to have a strong work ethic in a job interview. Also, the term “hard worker” can be defined in different ways for different people. Some candidates consider it hard work to just show up at the office (begrudgingly and 20 minutes late).

But is there a reliable way for hiring managers to get a sense of your work ethic in an interview?

The most reliable way (though certainly not perfect) is through asking behavioral interview questions.

For those who are new to Big Interview, let me do a quick overview of the concept here: Behavioral interview questions are the ones that ask you for specific examples of past work experiences. The ones that start with “Tell me about a time when you…” or “Give me an example of…”

The idea is to learn more about the candidate’s past job performance in order to predict how they might behave if hired. A good interviewer will then probe to understand more and determine if the example seems authentic.

Behavioral questions can be used to test a candidate in any competency area (a few examples: communication skills, time management, creativity).

NOTE: This is Lesson 10 from the Big Interview interview training system. Take a quick look here if you want to learn more about it.

Read our Behavioral Interview Questions 101 Guide for more.

With work ethic, it can be challenging to come up with a perfect, story-ready example. If you’re a hard worker, you probably work hard every day and most daily job tasks don’t make for memorable stories.

Don’t worry. We can help you demonstrate your work ethic in your next interview and stand out from the crowd of generic “hard workers.”

What Do They Mean By Work Ethic?

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For the purposes of a job interview, having a “strong work ethic” means you value hard work and take personal pride in putting in your best effort. Dictionary definitions link moral character and virtue to work ethic, but interviewers are mostly interested in your behavior on the job.

It’s not just about diligence or being a “hard worker.” There are many other competency areas that are frequently associated with a strong work ethic:

• Initiative — You look for opportunities to solve problems and make a difference.

• Reliability – You show up when you say you’re going to show up and you deliver what you promise.

• Determination — You are persistent in the face of obstacles.

• Team Orientation – You are willing to go the extra mile for the good of the team/company.

The job description will likely give you some clues about which aspects of work ethic are most important for a particular role at a particular company. As always, a thorough review of the job description (including reading between the lines if you can) will help you pick the examples most likely to wow your interviewer (read on for more on how to do that).

Why Interviewers Ask About Work Ethic

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Hiring managers ask behavioral questions about work ethic to better understand how candidates approach their work.

For most jobs, “work ethic” is not the #1 competency listed in the description. Hiring managers first narrow down the list of candidates based on experience and technical skills.

If you make it to the interview, however, that means you have the basic qualifications. In the interview, it’s a matter of showing how you stand out from all of the other candidates who are also qualified.

A lot of the final decision has to do with “fit.” Your work ethic is a big part of whether you’ll be a good fit for the job and a good fit for the team and company culture.

To demonstrate your fit for a job that requires a strong work ethic, it’s important to be able to talk about a proven track record of putting in extra effort to achieve impressive results.

Behavioral Questions About Work Ethic

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Here are some popular behavioral interview questions related to work ethic:

• Tell me about a time that you went above and beyond the call of duty to get things done. (Also relates to Initiative)

• When have you worked the hardest?

• Describe a time when you had to overcome a significant obstacle on an important project. (Also relates to Problem Solving)

• Tell me about a time when you had to juggle multiple important projects. (Also relates to Time Management)

• What is your proudest accomplishment? (Looking for accomplishments that required significant effort and/or dedication. Also can relate to many other competencies.)

You’ll hear other variations as well (please share your favorites and/or least favorites in the comments).

Inside Big Interview, our complete training system for job interviews, we give you video lessons, sample answers, and an interactive practice tool for all of these different versions of “What is your greatest weakness?” Watch this brief video to learn a little more about Big Interview, and then take a quick look at the step-by-step system we’ve developed to get you ready for your interview.

How to Answer Behavioral Questions About Work Ethic

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If you are a truly hard-working candidate (and I know you are if you’re reading this to be the best you can be in your interviews), you demonstrate work ethic every single day. If you haven’t prepared in advance, this type of behavioral question can throw you because it can be hard to pull up a strong and memorable example (and all of the relevant details) on the fly (especially in a nerve-wracking interview situation).

As a result, a lot of people end up blurting out generalities. Something like: “I’m a really hard worker. I believe in the value of hard work. I’ve always been someone who works hard.” This is not the best way to really sell your strengths in this area.

I highly recommend preparing at least one interview story that highlights your strong work ethic.

In terms of preparing for behavioral interview questions, I’m a big believer in starting with your “greatest hits” stories – examples of your most impressive and relevant accomplishments. One of these stories is very likely to involve hard work, initiative, and/or determination.

The great thing about “greatest hits” stories is that each one can be used for multiple types of behavioral questions. That story about your big client presentation can demonstrate work ethic, communication skills, attention to detail, leadership, and calm under pressure. You can adapt it to emphasize different competencies for different questions.

Think of the most impressive work challenges that you’ve overcome, the toughest projects you’ve managed, and the situations that have tested your endurance.

If you’re a student or new grad, you can use examples from school, internships, or extracurricular activities if your job experience is limited.

Here are a few examples of types of examples that can highlight work ethic:

1) To meet a tight deadline, you put in heroic effort (stayed late, took on additional tasks, learned a new skill, fixed someone else’s mistakes, etc.)

2) You volunteered to take on additional responsibilities to help the team succeed.

3) You put in extra time and effort to make something better instead of settling for “good enough.”

4) You powered through when the odds were against you and it would have been easy to give up.

As always, I highly recommend the handy dandy STAR format as a framework for your story. The STAR format will help you focus on the key details so you can tell a story that’s authentic, memorable, and concise.

Keep in mind that I’m not suggesting that you write and memorize a scripted story. With STAR, the idea is to jot down a few bullet points for each of the key aspects of your story (Situation/Task, Approach, and Results). This allows you to identify and remember your key themes while always delivering in a natural way.

Note: Big Interview has more information on structuring powerful STAR stories — and our Answer Builder tool will walk you through the process quickly and easily.

Sample Answer

“Tell me about a time that you went above and beyond what was required”

Here’s an example that shows how the STAR format can be used to tell a story about strong work ethic.

S/T (Situation/Task)

This section should give a brief overview of the project and/or situation. Keep it concise and provide only enough background to provide context and help your interviewer understand the difficulty and importance.

Example Situation/Task Bullets

• Last year, my manager put me in charge of running our monthly reports on the key performance indicators for the group.

• It’s a lot of data and a pretty time-consuming process to gather and validate all of the data and package it into the reports that we need for ourselves and for sharing with senior management.

• They had been following the same process for years and I saw an opportunity to not just manage the process more efficiently, but to reinvent it.

Why We Like Them

This is a pretty concise overview of the situation and the candidate’s role. There’s no time wasted on unnecessary details, but the candidate still conveys that it was a challenging project.

Even better, the candidate makes it clear that he was selected by his manager for this leadership responsibility (shows trust of manager). He also manages to convey excitement about not just managing the process, but improving it.

A (Approach)

Once you’ve outlined the situation, it’s time to walk through your key actions and how you demonstrated strong work ethic.

Example Approach Bullets

• I spoke with my manager and my colleagues and senior managers about what they wanted from these reports, what was working, what was inefficient.

• Then I taught myself advanced database and spreadsheet skills so that I could make the improvements we needed – including automating some processes and making the final output more reader-friendly.

Why We Like Them

This approach shows that the candidate took a thoughtful and thorough approach to revamping the process instead of just continuing with business as usual. He got input from the rest of the team (team player! communication skills!) and analyzed the process (analytical skills!).

Then the work ethic really came into play when he took the time to teach himself new skills that would benefit the company (fast learner!). See from my obnoxious parentheticals how a story can highlight multiple competencies at once?

R (Results)

Finally, it’s critical that a good STAR interview story always features a happy ending. The last part of your answer should describe the positive outcome(s) of your approach. Concrete results are always especially impressive (increased sales by 32%, cut the budget in half), but anecdotal results can also be powerful

For example: My client was thrilled. My manager gave me a glowing performance review.

Example Results Bullets

• When I unveiled the new and improved reporting to my manager, he was so impressed he was speechless.

• I also got great feedback from senior management…

• And this was a major factor in my selection for the Future Leaders development program at the company.

Why We Like Them

This is a happy ending indeed and it works even though it is totally anecdotal. Any time you can cite positive feedback, especially from managers or clients, it will go a long way toward helping the interviewer imagine that you will someday delight her as well.

More Tips for Handling Behavioral Questions About Work Ethic

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1) Take the Time to Find a Strong Example

Pick an example that really shows your work ethic – and maybe a bit of your personality as well. If you can, choose examples that are relevant for the job description. For example, if you’re interviewing for a fast-paced start-up, go with an example that shows you can adapt and grow.

2) Be Specific

Don’t try to get by with generic fluff like, “I consider myself a very hard worker so, uh, I always work hard.” You’re not answering the question. Pick an example to illustrate your point.

To really be memorable, you need to provide enough detail to give a sense of who you are and how you approach your work. Don’t rush through and leave out the most interesting details.

Remember that good stories give you an opportunity to connect with your interviewer. Give them some details that they can relate to.

3) Be Concise

Of course, you also want to keep your story concise. It is easy to ramble if you haven’t prepared your stories in advance. The goal is to find a nice balance between interesting detail and conciseness. The beauty of the STAR format is that it keeps you focused.

4) Practice

Don’t skim this one! Yes, you’ve read it before. I’ve certainly given this advice many times and will continue to repeat it.

You know that practicing is a good idea, but most people just don’t do it. Okay, interview practice isn’t entertaining but it WORKS. I have seen the magic firsthand with my coaching clients and Big Interview users especially when it comes to behavioral questions.

Bonus: Funny vid of Dwight of “The Office” demonstrating his own work ethic.

Are You a Hard Worker?

OK, so what’s your story about work ethic? Have any additional thoughts or questions? Leave a comment below.

Written by

Pamela Skillings

Pamela Skillings is co-founder of Big Interview. As an interview coach, she has helped her clients land dream jobs at companies including Google, Microsoft, Goldman Sachs, and JP Morgan Chase. She also has more than 15 years of experience training and advising managers at organizations from American Express to the City of New York. She is an adjunct professor at New York University and an instructor at the American Management Association.

3 Comment to Answering Behavioral Interview Questions: Work Ethic

  • Success means many things to many people. During the interview process it is important to understand what motivates a candidate and if that motivation is something you as a manager, and your company can match.

  • Brad

    I’ve just finished a job interview and been unsuccessful, although I know all of the above. I can first hand confirm all of Pamela’s insights as accurate and truthful. My truth is I was prepared for behavioral questions but not given any. Then I failed to weave in my stories effectively. I failed to highlight key skills and definitely work ethic.
    Practice, practice,practice. My pet hate question is whats your worst attribute.

  • Hi Brad, don’t beat yourself up too much. You’re in a “dance” with the interviewer and sometimes a little leading is useful. One way to interject a story -if you’re not being prompted) might be to say something like: “You know Bob, while looking over the job description, it seems like the ability to communicate effectively is a key part of this role, and when I read that it reminded me of a time when… [insert amazing story about your communication skills]