Situational Interview Questions: Definition + How to Prepare

Written by Coursera • Updated on

Situational interview questions give you the chance to describe how you face common workplace challenges. Find out how to answer them effectively.

[Featured image] A woman in grey jacket conducts a situational interview with a prospective employee.

Hiring managers use situational interview questions to ask potential employees to describe how they would face a common workplace challenge, such as being paired with a difficult co-worker or dealing with an unhappy customer.

Though some might find them daunting, situational interview questions can offer job seekers a valuable opportunity to showcase their thought processes and problem-solving skills in a job interview. 

In this article, you will learn how situational interview questions differ from other kinds of interview questions, how to answer them, and review five common situational interview questions. By the end of this piece, you could have a clear understanding of how to answer situational questions and make a good impression. 

Situational vs. behavioral interview questions 

Despite sharing many similarities, situational interview questions and behavioral interview questions are not the same. Situational interview questions ask interviewees to explain how they would react to hypothetical questions in the future, while behavioral interview questions ask interviewees to explain how they have dealt with actual situations in their past. 

As a result, situational interview questions will allow you to paint a picture of how you might deal with a hypothetical situation that you’ve never experienced, while a behavioral interview question will require you to reach into your past and present a real-world example. 

Despite these differences, you can answer a situational interview question with the same answer you might give to a behavioral question. For example, if an interviewer asks you how you would deal with a difficult customer, then you might describe how you dealt with one in a prior position. 

The following example highlights the differences between the two types of interview questions:

Situational interviewBehavioral interview
Example question“How would you go about communicating unpleasant news to your team?”“Describe a time when you effectively communicated unpleasant news or a difficult idea.”
Example answer“While my exact response would depend on the sensitivity of the subject, in most cases I would be as transparent as possible with the team in a group meeting. Before the meeting, I would prepare my remarks and answer any critical questions. I’d set a firm date in the future for us to talk about the topic again. I’ve found that being as honest and clear as possible is what keeps things stable during unstable moments.“In my last position, I had to inform the team that the company was making cutbacks. I got the team together and informed everyone that the company was having to layoff some team members. I knew it would be difficult, so we had created exit packages in advance for everyone. Then, I met with each employee and informed them of their employment status. When it was over, I made sure to keep in contact with those who had been fired and suggested some of them to my contacts elsewhere. The result was that I was able to calm some of the bad feelings as we transitioned to a new team environment. It was challenging, but we recovered and were able to rehire some of the team back later.”

Read: 21 Key Behavioral Interview Questions to Help You Prepare

How to answer situational interview questions

You can’t always predict what situational interview question you will be asked, but you can prepare for whatever is thrown your way by familiarizing yourself with the STAR interview method. 

STAR stands for situation, task, action, and result. The STAR interviewing method allows you to tell a story to your interviewer by focusing your answer on the steps you would take to address a specific situation and achieve a concrete outcome. 

Let's take a look at each part of the STAR method:  

  • Situation: the unique circumstances in which you find yourself in your job. In the work world, the situation is as much informed by the professional environment as the dynamic of the individuals involved, whether it be co-workers, customers, or management.  

  • Task: the central issue or problem that you need to face in the situation. The task is both your work goal and also the goal you have in the situation. For example, while the work goal might be to complete a project, the situational goal might be to find a way to work well with a difficult coworker. 

  • Action: the concrete steps you would take to solve the problems posed by the situation. The actions you undertake will influence the outcome of the situation and direct you toward your goal. 

  • Result: the projected outcome of your actions on both the situation and the task. The result should be a positive outcome that clearly demonstrates your value to the employer, their team, and their work environment. 

Situational interview questions test your ability to understand the unique stakes that define different hypothetical work situations. By using STAR, you will be able to keep your answers focused and impactful, while confidently showcasing your people and communication skills. 

5 common situational interview questions 

Hiring managers like situational interview questions because they show that you can quickly think on your feet when facing tricky work situations that have no clear-cut solution. Below you will find five common situational interview questions followed by sample answers to guide you as you practice answering them. 

1. How would you deal with an employee you are managing that is producing work that doesn’t meet expectations? 

This question is asking you to consider a common situation in which an employee you are managing isn’t producing work that’s up to standard. Here, you need to flex your interpersonal (“soft”) skills to figure out why the employee is struggling and practice assertive communication to confidently direct them toward a solution that works for all parties. 

When answering this question, emphasize your willingness to get to the root cause of the matter, rather than simply offering a one-size-fits-all approach. While in some cases the employee could just be ill-suited for their job, it is more likely that there is a deeper problem, such as a personal life issue or even an organizational work problem. Use this question as an opportunity to showcase your willingness to really step into a leadership role and offer sound guidance to one of your own employees. 

Example answer

“Problems can show up for many reasons, so my first step would be to simply have an honest conversation with the employee and see what is going on. If they were hired, then they likely are well qualified for the job, so I would talk with them to figure out (1) what’s the issue and (2) what we can do to support them and find a solution. 

If the problem is something at home, such as normal parental stress, then I would help them make a schedule that worked for them. If the problem was the work environment, I would create the structure they need to be productive. 

Happy and supported employees create a productive work environment.”

2. What would you do if a solution you worked on was criticized and rejected by the team?

This question is asking you to reflect on feedback you received in the workplace. While it can sometimes be difficult to deal with criticism, it is also a necessary part of many jobs. As a result, hiring managers ask this question to gain insight into how you would deal with criticism directed at your own work. Would you push back, simply say nothing, or take a more proactive approach that incorporates feedback? 

In most cases, it’s likely best to simply take feedback in stride and accept it when it comes your way. Rather than seeing criticism as a setback, use this answer to emphasize that you would see it as an opportunity to really improve either your idea or your presentation of it. 

Example answer

“While many people find criticism difficult, I actually find it very helpful. The first thing I would do if the team rejected my idea would be to reflect on their feedback and take it on board. That’s the first step to improving anything. In some cases that might mean putting it aside and moving on. In others, though, it might mean changing something about my project or how I present it. Ultimately, whatever I do would be for the benefit of our overall objectives.” 

3. You’re assigned an important project but have to work on it with a difficult team member. What do you do?

This question is asking you to reflect on how you would maneuver a fraught relationship with a coworker when you need to work toward a deliverable goal at work. Interviewers ask this question because they want to get an understanding of how you deal with interpersonal difficulties, especially when simultaneously confronted by an impending deadline. 

When answering this question, highlight the proactive steps you would take to deal with interpersonal conflict in a calm and strategic manner. Rather than emphasizing the failing of your hypothetical coworker, keep your tone positive and focus on the actions you would take to diffuse tension. 

Example answer

“In the event I had to work with a difficult coworker, I would keep my attention on the long-term goal and find a way for us to work together. In some cases, that might mean me setting aside time to hash out our differences through a calm, measured conversation. But, if it really felt like we couldn’t work productively together, then I would determine a way for us to work separately and then combine our work at different stages. I’ve found that being clear with each other and creating space is an effective way to accommodate different personality types while meeting team goals.” 

4. How would you deal with an upset or angry customer? 

This question is asking you to consider how you would handle one of the most common customer service scenarios: an upset customer dealing with a problem. Interviewers ask this question because they want to know if you have the temperament to be the public face of the company to their core clientele. 

When answering this question, highlight your ability to diffuse tense situations by speaking calmly to others, offering useful guidance, and practicing active listening. In particular, you should emphasize that you always maintain a positive attitude and never descend into frustration. 

Example answer

“I’ve encountered this situation many times in former roles. Usually, I find that the best approach is to speak in a calm and measured manner, while also making sure to really listen to the customer. Sometimes, when others are frustrated, they have difficulty articulating themselves, so I practice active listening to really understand what they need help with. Then, I direct them to the best place to get help, if I can’t give it myself. This ensures that they leave feeling helped and happy – much better than when they came to me!”

5. Imagine you are working on a project and realize that a mistake was made early on that will impact your ability to meet the deadline. What would you do? 

This question is asking you to describe how you go about rectifying mistakes you have made when working on a project. Are you the kind of person who will brush it under the rug or own up to it and find a real way to resolve it? 

When answering this question, you should highlight your ability to self-reflect on a problem and own up to any mistakes that you have made. Rather than just ruminating on mistakes, though, this question encourages you to describe the proactive steps you would take to solve a problem and ensure all the relevant stakeholders have key information, such as whether a deadline has changed or if you can find a way to meet it. 

Example answer

“If I realized I had made a mistake and it impacted an important deadline, then I would immediately tell all those potentially impacted by it. The first step to readjusting is to make sure everyone is on the same page – I don’t want the team to be caught off guard by my mistake. 

The next step I would take is to see if I could change anything to help me meet my deadline. Maybe that means asking for help from a colleague or changing my own personal approach to the project. Ultimately, I’d do whatever was necessary to make sure others weren’t impacted by my own mistakes.“

Get ready for your next interview

The job search can be an exciting, but long, process. Get ready for your next job search or interview by taking an online flexible course through Coursera. Big Interview’s The Art of the Job Interview teaches proven techniques to help you turn your interviews into job offers in just 19 hours of online instruction. 

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