Knowing how to answer those unexpected situational interview questions can be vital for making the best possible impression and landing the job!
Have you ever had a hiring manager ask you one of those “what if” interview questions and struggled to think of a good answer? If so, then you're not alone. Those types of situational interview questions seem to be more popular than ever these days, and interviewers can sometimes catch candidates off guard with unexpected queries. To make sure that doesn't happen to you, it is important to be prepared to answer the most common situational interview questions to ensure that you make the best first impression you can.
In this post, we will explore situational interview questions, offer some key strategies you can use to field them, and then present the top 35 situational interview questions and how you can answer them the right way every time.
What are situational interview questions?
Situational interview questions are generally hypothetical in nature and focus on giving you an opportunity to explain how you will handle certain situations if they arise in the workplace. They differ from behavioral interview questions in one major way: while behavioral queries are focused on your past experiences, situational questions ask you to imagine some future situation. Behavioral questions are usually framed in a “tell me about a time” or “describe an instance where you” format, while situational questions adopt more of a “imagine if” or “what would you do” format.
The easiest way to differentiate them is to remember that behavioral questions are focused on the past. Meanwhile, situational interview questions are future-centric and more hypothetical in nature.
Why do interviewers ask these hypothetical questions anyway?
Situational interview questions can be a great way for a company to get to know you as a person and a professional. While your resume is an invaluable tool to help hiring managers understand your experiences and qualifications, they are still just dry documents without personality or flavor. Even the best and most compelling resumes only tell part of the story when it comes to figuring out what type of person you might be.
With situational questions, a good hiring manager can explore your thinking process, your values, and your priorities. These questions also provide an opportunity for them to see how well you communicate and sell yourself as a potential member of their team. Just as important, well-structured questions can usually involve hypothetical situations that have actually occurred at the workplace in the past. By asking you to respond to those situations, the company can determine how well you might fit into its overall culture and workplace environment.
Key tips you can use to prepare your responses to scenario questions
Obviously, you can never be 100% certain that you anticipate every hypothetical situational interview question that may get thrown your way. Fortunately, however, you do not need to have advanced knowledge to answer these types of questions effectively. You just need a sound strategy that you can apply to any question. These tips can help:
Never assume that you can just make up your answers as you go along. That type of approach is almost always doomed to failure. At best, you will stumble along with some rambling story that causes the interviewer to lose interest. At worst, you will oversell yourself and come across as disingenuous. To avoid either outcome, practice answering some of the questions we provide later in this piece, to ensure that you can comfortably talk about yourself, your values, and your approach to the workplace.
Do not be afraid to ask for a few moments to think about their question before answering. That will demonstrate thoughtfulness and might help you avoid going off-topic or rambling. If you need more time, you can always ask for more clarification while you consider your response.
Tailor your responses to fit the qualities that you know the company is looking for. Research the job description and the company culture before you come to the interview so that you can properly inject those traits and skills into all your answers.
Apply the STAR method to this process, so that every story you tell includes those key elements. That method enables you to tell a story that focuses on the Situation, Task, Action, and Result. Repeat the hypothetical situation in your own words, describe what you imagine your responsibility would be under those circumstances, explain the actions you would take to resolve the situation, and outline the results you expect from those actions.
35 Of the most common situational interview questions with responses
As you review the situational interview questions provided below, try to think about instances in your past where you have encountered similar situations. For each example, use the STAR method to think through how you responded and why. While it might take some time to ponder each question, that effort will help you to develop some readily available stories and quick responses that can be used to answer all of the most common situational questions you may encounter during any interview.
If possible, you may want to practice these questions and answers with a loved one or a friend. That can help to ensure that you feel more confident about addressing these types of questions, and better prepare you for a real-life interview setting.
1. If you found yourself with a difficult challenge at work, how would you handle the problem?
“I can't remember a job that didn't present challenges from time to time. Fortunately, I pride myself on always being open to seeking help when I need it. In my last job, one project involved a new software program that I had never encountered before. Thankfully, I was able to get some advice from a colleague to help me acclimate to the program. Months later, I was able to return the favor when she ran into an unexpected challenge.”
2. What would you do if you knew that your supervisor is completely wrong about something that could have a negative impact on the company?
“Obviously, I have a strong respect for the chain of command, so I would try to sit down and have a conversation about my concerns. Instead of just offering criticism, I would try to present an alternative solution that would achieve similar results without negative consequences. Above all else, I would focus on giving my boss options so that they could make the right decision.”
3. What would you do if you made a mistake but knew that no one else in the office had noticed?
“Mistakes do happen, but I know how important it is to correct them as soon as you can. Personally, I would just correct a minor error if I could. If the mistake were beyond my ability to correct, however, I would immediately let my supervisor know so that we can fix the problem before it causes bigger issues. My goal would be to resolve the issue without causing greater harm or disruption to the team or company.”
4. Tell me how you would manage a situation where we asked you to do something outside your comfort zone.
“To be honest, it wouldn't be the first time that happened. In a previous job, I was asked to deliver a major presentation at a conference after my direct supervisor fell ill. At the time, public speaking was a scary thing for me, but I spent several days with a coach to gain some confidence and ended up doing fine. That taught me that my comfort zone can always be expanded if I'm willing to seek out help when I need it.”
5. Describe what you would do if you disagreed with a co-worker about how to proceed on a project, and how you would resolve the difference of opinion.
“Different personalities and outlooks are almost inevitable in any company. In the past, I have always tried to look at every situation from my co-workers' perspectives and consider their opinions. In most instances, those types of disagreements can be resolved if you respect the other person's ideas and try to meet them somewhere in the middle.”
6. What would you do if you saw a co-worker breaking company policy?
“Adherence to company policies is important for maintaining order and cohesion. If it were something minor, I would try to pull them aside and address it one-on-one—suggesting that they respect the policy. At the same time, though, I would feel compelled to report any major breaches of policy, especially ones that posed a risk to safety or the company's overall success.”
7. If you found yourself struggling with a deadline, how would you deal with the challenge?
“I pride myself on an ability to meet deadlines consistently. Still, things happen sometimes, so it is important to be transparent with your team and management when deadlines seem too tight. In the past, I have never been afraid to seek assistance when needed or devote additional time to ensure that the client's needs are met in a timely manner.”
8. What would you do if you suddenly felt that you were dissatisfied with your position?
“Obviously, there have been times when I have been dissatisfied with certain roles. I think we have all experienced that at different points in our careers. My approach has always been to talk to my supervisors and explain my reasons for feeling dissatisfied and working with them to find solutions that help me feel like a more productive and valuable asset for the company.”
9. Say that we asked you to take on new responsibilities and you are not confident that you can manage the situation—what would you do?
“The first thing I would do is to be completely honest with you about my lack of confidence. Then, I hope that we would work together to figure out what new skills I needed to get to make me feel comfortable with those responsibilities.”
10. Tell me how you would interact with a hostile customer.
“Hostility from customers happens from time to time. Personally, I always hope that those situations can result in an even stronger bond between us and them—if we can properly resolve their underlying issues. I always try to remain calm, respectful, and understanding, in hopes that their hostility diminishes. If it persists and I cannot resolve their concerns, I will get help from a supervisor.”
11. What would you do if you felt like you were getting burned out at work?
“This has actually happened to me in a previous job. Fortunately, I recognized it early on and raised the subject with my supervisor. They suggested that I needed to do a better job separating my work life from my home life—and they were right. Since then, I have come to realize that finding the right home-work balance helps to minimize any chances of burnout while enabling me to be even more focused and productive during my working hours.”
12. How do you feel about going above and beyond for a customer, even though it might mean putting in far more effort than your job requires?
“My view is that the core job requirement in any position is meeting the customer's needs. Sometimes, that necessarily involves giving more effort than the job duties might suggest. As long as the effort I need to give is in line with the company's desired approach, I am fully on board with going as high above and as far beyond as the situation demands.”
13. How would you handle negative feedback from a co-worker?
“If I have learned anything during my career, it is that I am not always right. I can remember vividly one experience years ago when a colleague came into my office and delivered some hard truths that I had not expected to hear. While my initial reaction was defensive, I eventually realized that they were absolutely correct—even if I didn't appreciate the delivery. Since then, I have learned to give serious consideration to any feedback. Even the harshest criticism can sometimes teach valuable lessons.”
14. Let's say that you finish a project and find that you are dissatisfied with your own results. What would you do?
“I am usually my own harshest critic, so I would have to share that dissatisfaction with my supervisor. At the same time, I would ask for feedback and advice that might help us to improve my work product. While I know that I always try to do my best, I am well aware that I sometimes fall short of my own expectations. Fortunately, I know that your company has the type of team atmosphere that can ensure that our mutual efforts are always up to par.”
15. If you knew a colleague was divulging the company's secrets, how would you handle the situation?
“Given that those secrets are company property and important for long-term success, I would have to view that as a serious security breach. Of course, if the breach were due to carelessness, I would first try to resolve it with that colleague, and then we could address it with management together. If it looked intentional, though, I would have to report it to my superior as soon as possible.”
16. How would you deal with a customer who is unhappy with you, even if you know that they are at fault?
“In my experience, the best option is to apologize even if I know that I am in the right because there is a big difference between a customer who is unhappy with the company and one who is unhappy with me. If I am unable to resolve the matter, though, I will contact my supervisor.”
17. How do you handle negative feedback from a manager or other supervisor?
“Negative feedback happens, and it is important not to internalize the negativity. Instead, I try to focus on the reality of the criticism and take it as constructively as possible. All feedback can be good if you know how to deal with it and take it as a lesson rather than a condemnation.”
18. If you saw your manager verbally abusing a co-worker or customer, what would you do?
“It would depend upon the severity of the abuse, I imagine. If it were just a poor choice of words, I would try to talk to them in private. If it were outright hostility and severe, I would likely feel compelled to report the incident to their supervisor. I would also try to talk to the customer and apologize for the incident as soon as possible.”
19. If you were given a complicated project with multiple sub-projects and a tight deadline, how would you proceed?
“First, I would have to analyze the project and deadline to determine whether I can finish everything without outside help. If not, then I would be honest about that and ask for more time or additional assistance to complete everything. I would not want to create problems by taking on something that could not be accomplished in that timeframe.”
20. How would you react if you offered a reliable suggestion for fixing a problem, and your colleagues ignored your input?
“If I made my case as compellingly as possible and they chose to go in a different direction, then I would have to accept that outcome. It may just be that their solution can work just as well as the one I propose. However, I would be ready to reintroduce my idea if theirs met with limited or no success, since resolving the problem is the goal that we are all focused on achieving.”
21. How would you react if you found out that one of your co-workers or a manager was taking credit for your contributions to the company?
“That's a good question. Hopefully, that would never occur, since I like to think that we all share credit as a team. At the same time, however, I recognize that things like that can happen, either intentionally or inadvertently. That is why I always strive to document my efforts, both to hold myself accountable and to always ensure that I am meeting the company's value expectation.”
22. What would you do if you had to work in concert with a difficult colleague?
“I have had experience dealing with difficult co-workers in the past and believe that I am adept at working with all different kinds of personalities. The important thing is to try to find common ground so that you can build a working relationship that benefits you, them, and the company.”
23. What would you do if you were in leadership and one of your subordinates couldn't meet company expectations?
“I have had that experience in the past, and always tried to figure out how I could help that individual grow as an employee. Usually, that joint effort can get them up to speed. When that doesn't happen, though, it is important to be open to helping them find another career path. Ultimately, the company and the customers have to come first.”
24. How would you proceed if you had to redo a large portion of a project due to an unexpected change in the parameters?
“First, I would evaluate the project's needs and estimate the amount of effort needed to redo it while still meeting the deadline. If my team did not have the resources to accomplish the goal, I would meet with management to see about getting additional help.”
25. What would you do if a co-worker asked you for input on their project and you noticed significant problems with their results?
“Tact matters, so I would address that issue with them in private, explaining what I noticed and offering solutions that could resolve the problem. I would avoid any negative criticism and instead focus on that solution as a way to correct any project flaws that I identified.”
26. How would you react if you were collaborating with a co-worker, and they insisted on doing everything their way?
“I would have to evaluate their approach to see if it was workable. If so, then I could set my ego aside and adapt to that approach. If not, I would explain that to them and suggest that we examine alternative options.”
27. If you could only do something perfectly well but slow or just do an adequate job and do it fast, which would you opt for—and why?
“Excellence matters, so I would hope that I would focus on getting it right as quickly as possible. Ultimately, though, it would depend on what management and the customer needs. If time matters more than perfection, then I can set aside my desire for perfection and do what is needed.”
28. What do you do when you have completed all your tasks at work and find yourself with free time? What do you do with that time?
“I have never honestly believed that there is such a thing as “free time” at work, with the exception of planned breaks. After all, I am being paid to do a job, and my job can include things outside of my job description when necessary. If I had time with no assigned tasks, I would see what other work needed to be done to help the rest of the team.”
29. We all have times when we fail. How do you deal with failure?
“When I fail to meet expectations, I try to remember what my first employer told me many years ago: every failure is a new opportunity to learn a lesson, reorient your mind, and get back on the path to success. As he said, Edison never failed at making a lightbulb, but he did find thousands of ways not to make one.”
30. Imagine that you are relying on communication from a manager or other co-worker to get a project done, and they are not responding in a timely manner. What is your response?
“That has happened to me at a previous employer's company. The back-and-forth needed to get my part of the project done was not happening, and I was in danger of falling behind. Instead of getting frustrated, I made a point of reaching out in person to that person to follow up and get the information I need. Sometimes, you need to be more proactive to keep the teamwork actually working.”
31. If the workplace went through a major change, how would you adapt?
“Change can be difficult, but it is also an opportunity for a fresh start. I remember a time when the company I worked for completely changed its computer systems while I was away on vacation. I came back and every system and process had been altered. At first, I was tempted to panic, until I realized that I just needed to focus on educating myself to get up to speed on the new way of doing things. It only took me part of a day to research and learn what I needed to know to get back on track. In the end, I came away with new skills and a better appreciation for my own flexibility.”
32. Can you tell me how you plan to assist in your own onboarding to ensure that you get up to speed as quickly as possible?
“I am a fast learner with a keen interest in developing my skills and knowledge base, so I am certain that onboarding will be a fairly smooth process for me. I have always approached new roles with the attitude that I have the primary responsibility for ensuring my own success. On the first day, I will come prepared to listen, take notes, and ask questions if I don't understand anything. Of course, if you have resources that I can review prior to that first day, that will help me to really hit the ground running!”
33. What process do you use to set your own work goals, and how do you meet those goals?
“Good question. I start by thinking about what I want to achieve and then write down all of the steps needed to make that happen. Each of those steps becomes a micro goal that helps me move toward that larger objective. I then create a timeline that helps me estimate when I can expect to achieve that major goal, and continually reevaluate and reassess the plan until my objective is met.”
34. Can you tell me how you would define success in this role?
“Success can be difficult to define, but I like to think that I am successful at my job when I am providing satisfaction for clients, meeting my team's needs, and contributing real value to the company that employs me. In my role at this company, I will know that I am successful when I can consistently meet that bar.”
35. What would you do if a client asked you to do something that you knew would cause their project to suffer?
“Since my primary responsibility to any client's project is to do everything possible to help it succeed, I would have to explain the negative ramifications associated with the request. I know the old saying about how the customer is always right, but I also know that slogans are no substitute for the sound advice every client is paying for when they contract with us. If that client still insisted on doing the wrong thing, I would bring in my superiors to try to convince them to change their approach.”
As you can see, situational interview questions can take many forms, but they all have one thing in common: they are a way for potential employers to explore your thought processes, attitudes, and values. The good news is that choosing the right answers to these questions doesn't need to be a complicated endeavor. With a little preparation and a proper understanding of the most common questions you're likely to encounter, you should have no problem providing answers that show you're the best candidate for the job.
While you are learning how to respond to common situational interview questions, don't forget to polish up your resume too! Give it a professional checkup with our free resume review today to ensure that your resume presents the compelling message you need to land interviews and secure a great job.