Situational interview questions, by design, mirror common issues at a workplace. As a result, employers use these questions to gauge how prospective employees would react to office-specific challenges and circumstances. The depth of your answers will demonstrate how well you'll overcome certain professional, or even personal, obstacles in helping your potential employers meet their objectives.
In this article, we discuss some helpful background information – as well as five common situational interview questions and example answers – to assist you with your interview prep.
Overview of situational interview questions
A well-rounded interview in any industry will combine both traditional and situational interview questions. Also, because each industry and role offers a different set of challenges, situational interview questions allow employers to assess how prospective employees will handle themselves in various real-life workplace situations. Depending on their perceived outcome of the situational approach, interviewers can then be fairly certain that their prospective employees will excel in their role, even in challenging situations.
As the name suggests, situational interview questions often involve presenting the interviewee with a difficult situation and then discussing their solution. Situational interview questions focus on real-life scenarios that may occur in a specific workplace, and employers prefer if you discuss how you've handled similar situations in the past.
Also, situational interview questions allow employers to predict your future work performance and evaluate your problem-solving, self-management and communication skills, which are crucial to an employee's success in any industry. They expect your answers to highlight your professional experience and – most importantly – your ability to overcome challenges and ultimately meet their company goals.
Preparing for a situational interview using the STAR technique
A great way to prepare for these hypothetical questions is to use the STAR method to develop thoughtful and thorough answers. This interview response technique allows you to fully address the question by highlighting an obstacle in your past employment and the results of your proposed solution.
In your interview preparation, identify some specific challenges you faced in your previous, or current, places of employment. If this is your first interview, draw examples from school or extracurricular activities, such as your participation in team sports or volunteering. To paint a more powerful picture of you overcoming each of these challenges, try to briefly outline the:
- Situation: Explain the real-life situation or task you faced. Example: 'In my previous retail manager role, my team and I were often overwhelmed with queries during Christmas, but we didn't have the budget to hire seasonal help.'
- Task: Discuss your role in this specific situation. Example: 'I was responsible for ensuring the customer service team resolve customer queries quickly and effectively so that they're fully satisfied with their experience.'
- Action: Discuss the action you took to overcome the challenge you faced in the situation. Example: 'To ease the workload, I created a brief phone script and several email templates to allow my team to address customer needs more efficiently.'
- Result: Share the result you achieved through your actions. It's best to be specific and draw on quantifiable data whenever possible. Example: 'By creating these resources, I was able to increase response time by 60 per cent and customer satisfaction by over 25 per cent.'
Five situational interview questions and example answers
While it's difficult to prepare for specific questions before your interview, you can expect employers to ask the five situational interview questions listed below – they're popular with hiring managers. Read through the provided example answers for guidance on how to prepare your own responses based on your past work experiences. Also, practise your answers beforehand to ensure they emphasise your experience in overcoming challenges in the workplace as well as highlight your most promising professional accomplishments and abilities. Remember, common skills employers watch out for in your answers include teamwork, adaptability, critical thinking, time management, self-motivation, leadership and conflict resolution.
1. What would you do if you made a mistake that went unnoticed? Would you risk slowing things down by addressing the error or ignore the mistake to ensure the project continues moving forward?
This question is one of the most popular situational interview questions employers ask, as it assesses your integrity but also allows them to determine whether your beliefs and ethics reflect those of the company. Use your answer as an opportunity to share your commitment to honest and quality work.
Example: 'I have always found it best to take responsibility for my mistakes, learn from them and work to correct these errors. In my role as a barista, a customer ordered a soy latte and I mistakenly made it with whole milk. I knew this blunder might affect their experience and wellbeing if there was an allergy involved. I told my manager immediately, remade the drink and apologised to the customer for the delay. The customer was satisfied, as was my manager for promptly owning up to my mistake. Following this incident, I paid special attention to drink ingredients.'
2. What would you do if you were asked to perform a task you've never done before?
In your new position, you may be ordered to complete duties beyond your current level of experience. Employers often ask this question to assess your problem-solving skills and ability to learn something new. Ensure your answer detail your methods for developing a new skill.
Example: 'In my previous role as a marketing coordinator, I was tasked with building and launching a digital ad campaign, which I had never done before. I explained to my manager that I had no experience leading this type of project but volunteered to do the work if a more experienced colleague could offer guidance. After meeting with several experienced employees and studying the best practices, I successfully launched the campaign. The hands-on learning experience allowed me to eventually become the team expert on digital advertising.'
Related: Top Interview Questions and Answers
3. Tell me about a time you failed. How did you deal with the experience?
Employers ask this question to determine your ability to overcome obstacles, recover from failures and learn from your errors. It's best to use your answer to demonstrate your flexibility and share how you transformed a specific negative experience into a positive outcome.
Example: 'In my first month as an account manager, I had hoped to impress a top client, prompting me to overpromise on a project timeline. Unfortunately, the team didn't have the resources to deliver by the promised timeline, and we lost the client as a result. Afterwards, I personally reached out to them and took full responsibility. Fortunately, they gave us another chance. This experience taught me to set realistic expectations and to never guarantee more than can be reasonably delivered.'
4. What professional accomplishment are you most proud of, and how did you achieve it?
Many employers ask this question to identify the type of work you find fulfilling and to determine the steps you take to meet specific goals. Your response should include a career highlight that's relevant to the role you're interviewing for.
Example: 'In my previous IT administrator role, I was doing my regular maintenance rounds when I discovered a security vulnerability. I could have simply patched the error, but I decided to instead look into the network records, where I discovered a virus had recently compromised several files. I notified the team, and we quickly isolated the infected files and prevented the virus from spreading, which inevitably saved the company millions of dollars. This experience ignited my passion for preventing cybercrime and is what ultimately drove me to apply for your cybersecurity manager position.'
5. What would you do if an angry and dissatisfied customer confronted you, and how would you resolve their concern?
This is another one of the most popular situational interview questions as it's relevant to most industries, including hospitality, business and retail. Usually, employers ask this question to assess your conflict resolution and communication skills. As a result, let your response reflect your empathy and your talent for addressing unexpected challenges.
Example: 'In my previous receptionist role at an auto mechanic, a phone customer was angry because their vehicle wasn't finished by the specified time. I listened to their concerns and used phrases like, "I completely understand your frustrations." After promising to return their call, I spoke to the technician working on their car, who explained that the problem was worse than anticipated and could take several days to fix. I coordinated a loaner vehicle for the customer before calling them back. They appreciated the extra mile I went to ensure their convenience – so much so they publicly thanked us on social media.