Before we delve into what situational interview questions you should be asking prospective employees, we should talk about the different kinds of interview questions that are out there.
Just as there are many types of interviews — like phone interviews, second interviews, HR interviews, informational interviews, panel interviews, and group interviews — there are many types of interview questions. There are the more direct, basic types of questions that probe a candidate to talk about specific skills or experiences they have in a very straightforward manner. These answers are usually easy to prepare for.
Employers should be cautious to not only ask these types of questions, which tend to be the easiest to answer throughout the interview process because they prompt candidates to discuss experience and tasks they've already had and accomplished. These questions may be specific to skills learned or skills seen on a resume, sometimes serving to fact-check questions an employer needs the answers to. Yet even if they're open-ended questions, they're not necessarily very telling in terms of how a candidate thinks.
Another type of interview question is the behavioral interview question. These tend to be broader, and they ask interviewees about a time they had to act in a certain way or solve a certain problem. These are based on real-life experiences.
What is a situational interview?
Situational interview questions are similar to behavioral interview questions in some ways, but they can also go much deeper.
A situational interview question poses a hypothetical situation that the interviewee has to answer. Questions are often phrased like this: “How would you handle...” as opposed to a behavioral question, which begins something like this: “Tell me about a time you…”
These questions are so in-depth and intricate in that they force the interviewee to think on their feet and use their imaginations in a way that other questions don’t, which is important in a job interview. It’s harder to prepare for these kinds of questions as they tend to ask about weaknesses and problems that need to be overcome. These questions make it harder for a person to “fake it.” And if they can nail these questions, they’re that much more likely to rock the position they’re interviewing for.
But coming up with some of these hypothetical questions can be difficult when interviewing someone. That’s why we’ve compiled a few suggestions on what to ask.
6 sample situational interview questions
Here are six common situational interview questions. They can help interviewers find star employees — even if they can be intimidating to answer. Here's what's going on inside interviewers heads when they ask these questions.
1. How would you handle a stressful situation where you had to work with a difficult manager, supervisor, colleague or client?
This is an awesome, open-ended question that will force the interviewee to think back on examples of times they’ve been discouraged. They then have to think, from the interviewer’s perspective, on how it should be handled. The way they answer this question can help you to see how they handle conflict in high-stress situations. It also shows you how well they work with fellow team members.
2. How would you handle an instance of receiving criticism from a superior, and what would be your response?
This example shows you how the potential employee handles criticism. It also can tell you how they think about themselves. If they say they’ve never been criticized, this is most likely a lie and a definite red flag. They should have examples of past problems that they’ve worked to overcome. It’s also a good way to see, again, how an employee can handle the workplace environment.
3. Let’s say you began working on a project that was due on a tight deadline. You’ve made decent progress when you realize that you’ve made a detrimental mistake that will require you to start over. How do you fix it and what do you do about the deadline?
Everyone misses a deadline at some point — whether it was their fault or there were extenuating circumstances. If the interviewee can cop to these experiences, you know they’re trustworthy. It’s also important to see how they can think on their feet and problem-solve in a crunch. Business is very fast-paced, and if your company is going to hire someone, that person needs to be ready to switch tactics at a moment's notice and know how to do it efficiently.
4. How would you handle a situation where you were working on a team and a conflict arose? What would be the process you’d use to settle a conflict with a team member?
Another good question for seeing how a person deals with conflict, this question gives insights into a person’s social behavior and behavior in a work environment. Not everyone will like everyone, but it’s important that they know how to work through their differences and still accomplish a task to the best of their abilities without being distracted by a conflict. Especially for managerial positions, too, finding out if the candidate has effective conflict-resolution skills is vital in order to thrive.
5. If you were dissatisfied with an aspect of your job, how would you handle it? What is one instance where you would be dissatisfied?
Everyone has those days when they can’t stand their job or at least parts of it. If they say they don’t, they’re probably lying. This questions will help you better understand the kind of work environment they are looking for, and how well they handle dissatisfaction. Of course, there are going to be tasks that aren’t as invigorating as others, but if they can show that they have a positive outlook and attitude, they’re a keeper.
6. Describe a time you made a mistake with a colleague or client. How did you work through it?
As with question #3, this can help you gauge the candidates level of honesty in admitting she was wrong. Everyone makes mistakes, and sometimes these mistakes affect other people. Her willingness to own the mistake—both with her colleague or client and you—and ability to rectify the situation can help you see how she might be able to rise to the occasion in the future.
4 tips for answering situational interview questions
It can be challenging to answer situational interview questions as a job candidate. You should be honest, of course, but sometimes there's such thing as being too honest. Here are some tips for responding to the above questions and similar ones that might arise in your interview.
1. Give the lay of the land.
Take some time to describe the scenario in detail, including the key participants and what led to the situation arising. This will provide your interviewer with the necessary background information and serve as an indicator of why you made the decisions you did.
2. Explain your rationale.
If, for example, you're responding to question #3 about making a mistake that cost you time on a project, don't only explain what you did to rectify the situation, but also go into why you did it. Let's say you asked for an extension. You should explain why you thought this would be the best course of action and the pros and cons of that decision.
3. Don't be defensive.
Own your mistakes. That doesn't mean you should say "I really messed up" even if you did, but you shouldn't lay the blame on someone else or pretend something that was your fault wasn't. Instead, be honest and forthright, while emphasizing what you learned from the experience that will prevent you from making the same mistake twice.
4. Focus on lessons, rather than the consequences of the experience itself.
You'll need to talk about the situation, of course, but rather than dwelling on the costliness of a mistake or the difficulty of an experience, focus on the lessons you learned from it and how your work has evolved and improved because of it. It's much more important for your interviewer to know how you might handle a similar situation should it arise again than the particularities of that experience, which is in the past.
Situational interviews: the bottom line
If you're an interviewee, it's impossible to prepare for every single situational question that might arise. However, keeping in mind the types of responses to give and maintaining a generally agreeable demeanor will equip to answer any question the interviewer asks with confidence.
It's important for an interviewer to ask a range of different questions during a job interview. It’s obviously vital that the job candidate talk about their prior job experience and divulge information about themselves. And it’s important to hear first-hand accounts of specific projects they’ve worked on and clients they’ve worked with.
But introducing a few of these situational interview questions can really help hiring managers see behind the curtain of an employee’s mind and find out if they really would be a good fit for the job and the company culture. Situational interview questions test the competencies of a possible employee that requires them to rely not just on skills, but also on how they think and work as a whole. These questions shine a light on the decision-making process of the interviewee.