Situational Interview Questions: Definition + How to Prepare

Written by Coursera Staff • 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 a 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. 

Learn how situational interview questions differ from other interview questions and how to answer them. Plus, review five common situational interview questions to help you clearly understand how to answer them and make a good impression. 

Situational vs. behavioural interview questions 

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

As a result, situational interview questions will allow you to paint a picture of how you might deal with a hypothetical situation you’ve never experienced, while a behavioural 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 behavioural question. For example, if an interviewer asks how you would deal with a difficult customer, 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 interviewBehavioural 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 subject’s sensitivity, 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 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 had to lay off some team members. I knew it would be difficult, so we 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 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.”

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 you must face in the situation. The task is both your work goal and your goal 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 co-worker. 

  • Action: the concrete steps you would take to solve the situation's problems.  Your actions will influence the situation’s outcome and direct you toward your goal. 

  • Result: the projected outcome of your actions on 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 can 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 with no clear-cut solution. Below are 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 manage producing work that doesn’t meet expectations? 

This question asks you to consider a common situation in which an employee you manage isn’t producing work up to standard. Here, you need to flex your interpersonal (“soft”) skills to determine 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 rather than simply offering a one-size-fits-all approach. While the employee could be ill-suited for their job in some cases, there is more likely a deeper problem, such as a personal life issue or organizational work problem. Use this question to showcase your willingness to really step into a leadership role and offer sound guidance to one of your 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 happening. If they were hired, then they likely would be 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, I would help them make a schedule that works for them. If the problem were 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 the team criticized and rejected a solution you worked on? 

This question asks you to reflect on the feedback you received in the workplace. While it can sometimes be difficult to deal with criticism, it is also necessary for many jobs. As a result, hiring managers ask this question to gain insight into how you would deal with criticism directed at your 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 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 improve your idea or presentation. 

Example answer:

“While many people find criticism difficult, I actually find it very helpful. If the team rejected my idea, the first thing I would do 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, it might mean changing something about my project or how I present it. Ultimately, whatever I do would benefit our overall objectives.” 

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

This question asks you to reflect on how you would maneuver a fraught relationship with a co-worker when working towards a deliverable goal. Interviewers ask this question to understand how you deal with interpersonal difficulties, especially when simultaneously confronted with an impending deadline. 

When answering this question, highlight the proactive steps you would take to deal with interpersonal conflict calmly and strategically. Rather than emphasizing the failing of your hypothetical co-worker, keep your tone positive and focus on the actions you would take to diffuse tension. 

Example answer:

“If I had to work with a difficult co-worker, I would focus on the long-term goal and find a way to work together. Sometimes, 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, I would determine a way for us to work separately and 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 asks 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 company's public face 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 calmly and measuredly while also listening to the customer. Sometimes, when others are frustrated, they struggle to articulate, so I practice active listening to understand their need for help. Then, I direct them to the best place to get help if I can’t give it myself. This ensures they leave feeling helped and happy—much better than when they came to me!”

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

This question asks you to describe how you rectify your mistakes when working on a project. Are you a person who will hide it 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 you have made. Rather than just ruminating on mistakes, this question encourages you to describe the proactive steps 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, I would immediately tell all those potentially impacted by it. The first step to readjusting is ensuring 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 meet my deadline. Maybe that means asking for help from a colleague or changing my approach to the project. Ultimately, I’d do whatever was necessary to ensure my mistakes didn’t impact others.

Get ready for your next interview.

The job search can be exciting, but can also be a long process. Prepare for your next job search or interview by taking a flexible online course on 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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