Situational interview questions present the candidate with a hypothetical scenario and ask them how they would react/ handle it: “What would you do if…”

An interview is the first time you get face time with the candidate, and you have the opportunity to really understand who they are and what they are capable of. Asking the right questions can be the difference between uncovering dimensions of their personalities and getting to know them at surface level.

Many interviewers assume that it is the candidate's responsibility to come out of their shell and talk about why they're a good fit for the role. While the candidate needs to show some initiative in this regard, it is up to the interviewer to take the lead by making them comfortable and asking the right questions.

Situational interviews are quite similar to behavioural interview questions, except they are focused on the hypothetical future scenarios, whereas behavioural interview questions dig into past experience.

The advantages of asking situational interview questions

  • Situational questions force candidates to think about what potential challenges they could face in the role, and how they would handle them.
  • Interviewers can put all candidates in the same hypothetical scenario to compare their answers objectively.
  • It also forces candidates who have prepped answers to common interview questions to go off-script and think on their feet.
  • Some of these questions also give an insight into their value system.

What skills can be assessed using situational questions

  • Conflict resolution skills
  • Managerial skills
  • Decision making ability
  • Problem solving skills
  • Prioritisation skills

What would you do if you made a mistake but no one noticed?

This is one question to assess a candidate's integrity, and decide whether they would be a good fit culturally. While most candidates would know what the "correct" answer to the question is, their response to how they would go about the situation can tell you a lot about who they are and how they think.

If you don't know the answer to a client’s question, what would you do?

Are they humble? Would they give an incorrect answer? In client facing roles like sales or customer support, it is important that employees be humble to have a long lasting relationship with the client, while still being smart enough to handle unfamiliar situations.

How you would deal with an upset customer?

Their answer to this question tells you about their communication and conflict resolution skills. If you want to take this a bit further, you can also role-play this situation, and dig deeper into how they handle stressful situations.

If a competitor of ours releases a new product, what would you recommendation be?

The answer to this question can reveal whether they have the mindset to act or to react. While a reactive person can win in the short term, winning in the long term requires a bigger vision, and a long term mindset.

What would do you do if you have a disagreement with a co-worker/ manager?

The ability to work with other people is crucial for most roles. Being able to navigate everyday situations like working with people who have different opinions is important. Their response to this question gives you an insight into whether they can work well with other people in a collaborative environment.

You're working on a key project that you can't complete because you're waiting on work from a colleague. What do you do?

This question challenges the candidates to demonstrate empathy, and cope with situations beyond their control.

Other interesting situation interview questions

  • You came across this copycat company, that is building a clone of our company. How would you react?
  • How would you handle the situation if a team member resisted a new idea you introduced?
  • One of your direct reports is underperforming despite a previous intervention. How would you handle the situation?
  • Let’s say you have multiple projects from different stakeholders/ managers, and the work load is beyond what you can handle. How would you resolve the situation?

Things to keep in mind when asking situational interview questions

  • The point of these questions is not to stump them with trick questions, with no good answers. Make sure the questions are realistic, and you don't come across as trying to defeat them.
  • There is often no "right answer". What you should be looking for is how they think, what their values are, how creative they are and if there are red flags.
  • Make sure you have a list of things you want to test for, which are important for the role, so you know what questions would be the most relevanty, and what to look for in their answers.
  • Depending on the candidate's answer you might want to dig deeper, in which case you can do a quick role-play or add new elements to the scenario to see how they adapt their answer in light of the new circumstances.

Red flags to watch out for

  • Canned/ ideal answers: If the candidate is overly focused on giving the correct answer, it becomes difficult to understand their thought process. They might have prepared the answer beforehand, or they might not be very comfortable in the interview setting.
  • Irrelevant answers: If you put them in uncomfortable situations, candidates might often not be willing to share answers they might not think of as being "correct". To avoid that, they might go off-topic or try to avoid the real issue. If that happens, make sure to gently bring them back to the original discussion.
  • Lack of empathy: Often candidates who look great on paper lack on soft skills, which can limit their ability to work with others in a collaborative way. Asking conflict resolutions questions can help uncover any such issues.