Situational Interview Questions: Definition + How to Prepare

Written by Coursera Staff • Updated on

Situational interview questions let you discuss how you might face common workplace challenges. Find out how to answer them effectively and stand out from the other candidates for your ideal job.

[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 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. 

Situational vs. behavioural interview questions 

Despite sharing many similarities, situational and behavioural interview questions are different. 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. 

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

Despite these differences, you can often 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 refer to 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 had already created exit packages for everyone. Then, I met with each employee and informed them of their employment status. When it was over, I contacted those fired and suggested some of them to my contacts elsewhere. The result was that I could calm some of the bad feelings as we transitioned to a new team environment. It was challenging, but we recovered and could rehire some of the team later.”

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 familiarising 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 have to 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 demonstrating your value to the employer, their team, and their work environment. 

Situational interview questions test your understanding of the unique stakes that define different hypothetical work situations. 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 skills to determine why the employee is struggling and practise assertive communication to confidently direct them towards a solution that works for all parties. 

When answering this question, emphasise 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 organisational work problem. You can use this question to showcase your willingness to 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 hired, they are likely well qualified for the job. So, I would talk with them to figure out (1) the issue and (2) what we can do to support them and find a solution. 

If the problem is at home, such as normal parental stress, I would help them make a schedule that works for them. If the problem were in 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 criticised 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 challenging 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, 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 emphasise that you would see it as an opportunity to improve your idea or presentation. 

Example answer

“While many people find criticism difficult, I find it very helpful. If the team rejected my idea, I would 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 manoeuvre a fraught relationship with a co-worker when you need to work towards a deliverable goal. Interviewers ask this question to understand how you deal with interpersonal difficulties, especially when facing an impending deadline. 

When answering this question, highlight the proactive steps you would take to deal with interpersonal conflict calmly and strategically. Rather than emphasising 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 setting aside time to hash out our differences through a calm, measured conversation. But, if it felt like we couldn’t work productively together,  I would determine how 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 helpful guidance, and practising active listening. In particular, you should emphasise that you always maintain a positive attitude. 

Example answer

“I’ve encountered this situation many times in former roles. Usually, speaking calmly and measuredly while listening to the customer is best. Sometimes, when others are frustrated, they struggle to articulate themselves, 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 that they leave feeling helped and happy – much better than when they came to me!”

5. Imagine you are working on a project and realise that 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 the person who will brush them under the rug, own up to them, and find a real way to resolve them? 

When answering this question, highlight your ability to reflect on a problem and own up to any mistakes you have made. Rather than just ruminating on errors, this question encourages you to be accountable and describe your proactive steps. You’ll want to focus on how you would solve a problem and ensure all the relevant stakeholders have critical information, such as whether a deadline has changed or if you can find a way to meet it. 

Example answer

“If I realised I had made a mistake and it affected 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 me meet my deadline. That could mean 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 an exciting but long process. Prepare for your next job search or interview by taking a flexible online 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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