By Mike Simpson
Please share this article!
When I say the words “Role Playing,” what are the first images that pop into your mind?
Right? (Lol maybe not, but you catch my drift) 🙂
But what if I told you that sometimes role playing creeps into the interview process as well?
Now, before you get all excited and break out your favorite 16-sided dice and dust off your robe and collection of elf ears, let me explain.
As we’ve gone over before, there are a multitude of different types of questions an interviewer can ask.
There are the usual Traditional Job Interview Questions (Why did you leave your last job? Explain the duties you had in your last position.), as well as the Behavioral Interview Questions (Give me an example of a time when you set a goal and were able to meet or achieve it.), and Second Interview Questions that tend to come up the further down the interview process you get.
But what about situational interview questions?
Situational interview questions are similar to behavioral questions, but instead of asking you to relay a past experience and tell how you handled yourself in that situation, you’re presented with a hypothetical situation.
Rather than being asked “Tell me about a time you…” the interviewer will start out with a more ambiguous prompt. “How would you handle..?”
In essence, you’re given a situation and then asked how you would behave in that situation…which as any good dungeon master knows…is the core of all role playing!
So why do interviewers ask situational questions?
Because they want to see how you really think…not just how well you memorize answers and spit them back on command!
Whereas traditional questions can have easily memorized answers and behavioral questions rely on experiences you’ve already had, situational questions demand that the interviewee utilize their analytical and problem-solving skills.
By giving a job seeker a hypothetical situation, the interviewer wants to see how they will react in the moment…with short notice and little preparation.
But how do I study for a test when I don’t even know what the test is going to be on?
Oh come on, you didn’t think we’d really send you in unprepared, right?!? Of course not! Notice we said little preparation…which means as a student of the Interview Guys…you should be more than prepared for anything, including situational questions!
As you can imagine, the nature of situational questions means that it can be easy to make mistakes…after all, when you don’t know which scenario is coming down the pipe it’s hard to ensure you are completely prepared.
You can ensure that you don’t trip up on a situational question by avoiding these common mistakes:
1) Winging It
A lot of job seekers think to themselves, “Well, if I have no idea what the scenario presented by the hiring manager is going to look like, there’s no way that I can prepare for this type of question. So I’m just going to fly by the seat of my pants and hope I nail it.”
Seems a little bird-brained, doesn’t it? Believe it or not, this is very common.
So what are you supposed to do?
Practice, of course. Later on in this article we will give you some example situational questions. Get a good feel for what makes a good answer and what makes a bad answer, and spend some time crafting your answers to emulate the good examples below.
2) Non-Tailored Responses
If you know anything about the Interview Guys, you know that we always emphasize the importance of tailoring your responses to the specific company and position you are interviewing for (if you aren’t familiar with our Tailoring Method, you absolutely need to read our blog article Job Interview Questions and Answers 101).
Basically, there are certain skills and abilities (which we like to call Qualities) that every company puts a lot of value in when it comes to the ideal candidate for the position being hired for.
You basically need to demonstrate that you have these Qualities in order to get the job. Infusing these Qualities into your answer allows you to “tailor” the answer to the company you are interviewing with.
Answering a situational interview question with a general, non-tailored response is a missed opportunity.
Think of it this way. You KNOW the Qualities that the company puts a lot of value it, so you have to use this opportunity to show you have the Quality within the framework of the situational question.
In other words, respond to the question literally but infuse the Quality into your answer and show how you would use or demonstrate it throughout the proposed scenario.
3) Getting Off Topic
This is the most common mistake that job seekers make, and it makes sense.
Situational interview questions have the potential to make the interviewee nervous, because as I said before, they are harder to anticipate. And nervous people tend to ramble, especially when they don’t immediately know how to answer the question.
Ramblers tend to change the subject and go off on tangents, often not answering the original question. This can be the kiss of death, mainly because the hiring manager wants to see that you can think on your feet and make quick, dynamic decisions.
So what to do?
Well, you can start by taking a deep breath.
It’s just a scenario. You’re not stupid. The answer to the question is often common sense.
However, one great way to break the ice and give yourself time to think is to ask questions.
Get more information…more specificity.
Not only will this give you time to cool down and prepare your answer, but it will also show the hiring manager that you are a critical thinker that methodically gathers information in order to make the correct decision (never a bad thing, unless of course, time is the most important variable in the question).
How To Answer Situational Interview Questions
Preparing for situational questions should be just like preparing for any other type of question that might be thrown at you during an interview…through practice! We’ve pulled together five sample questions for you to go over.
As you read these example questions, don’t just figure out how you would answer them…dig deep through your own work history and see if you’ve already encountered similar situations.
If you have, take a hard look at them and really analyze them. Look for problems you encountered and how you solved them as well as what you learned from the situation overall.
Being asked a situational question and having to come up with an answer on the fly can be intimidating to someone who hasn’t taken the time to practice their own answers…but for someone who has spent some time going through their past and analyzing potential problems and situations…it’s not just a snap, it might just even be considered (gasp) fun!
As we said above, the hiring managers are looking to see if you possess a number of skills when they ask you situational questions.
They want to see if you can be analytical about the situation and how you apply your own past experiences and problem solving skills to the questions.
That means there are both right and wrong ways to answer these questions.
Below are five examples of potential situational questions. We’ve gone through and given you two answers for each, the incorrect answer and the correct answer.
Keep in mind that these are just examples, and they are currently not tailored to a specific company or position. When preparing your own answers (using what we taught you about tailoring in Job Interview Questions and Answers 101), make sure to highlight a Quality that the company puts a lot of value in.
You’re working on a project with a tight deadline but you find that you’re unable to complete your section because your coworkers and your supervisor are unavailable to answer a few key questions. How do you deal with the situation?
“Hey, if they’re not there, there’s nothing I can do about it. If I’m responsible enough to be working on the project with the idea that I’m holding up my end to get us to deadline on time, then I would expect them to do the same.
If I can’t reach them and they can’t help me in the way that they are supposed to help me, then forget them!
Guess that means an early night for me! I’ve been meaning to go to the local comic book shop on my way home and pick up some new “Alchemy, the Congregating” for ages and now that the rest of my team is off slacking…this is my chance!”
Whoa! Slow your (multi-sided dice) roll there!
Interviewers ask situational questions like these because the interviewer wants to know how you would handle a problem that might actually arise if you’re hired for the job.
Most of their questions are based off potentially real situations and the last thing you want to do is give them a reason to fire you before they even hire you!
If your response includes any sort of passing off the task to another individual in order to absolve yourself of responsibility or as an excuse to cut out early from work…well, good luck.
“This is a tough one. The first thing I would do is really sit back for a moment and assess the situation. I would look at the project overall and see if there was a way for me to perhaps redirect my focus onto other areas I could work on by myself without their assistance and postpone the parts I need help on until they were again available. If that isn’t a possibility, then I would make sure to exhaust every avenue I have at my disposal to try to get in contact with them.
I actually ran into a similar situation on a project a few years ago where I needed to get some specific answers to a problem before I was able to move forward to the next step. Unfortunately my co-worker who had the answers was in an area where I was unable to reach him in time. I managed to continue working on sections that didn’t require his input and by the time I was done with those, he was back in range and able to answer my questions.
Not only did we make our deadline, but by getting the other sections done first, we were able to focus all our attention on the final segment and really bring it together in a way that exceeded our clients expectations. It was a real win! Staying calm and focused and making sure I was doing everything within my power to make the project a success gave me the ability to figure out how to work around the situation successfully.”
You’ve been assigned a major project and are halfway through when you realize that you’ve made a mistake that requires you to go back to the beginning to fix it. How do you handle that while still trying to make your deadline?
“First off I don’t make mistakes, so I have no idea why you’re even asking me this question. Secondly, if there’s a mistake…it must have come from whoever gave me the task in the first place…so I’d start there. If they’re not willing to double check their work, why should I have to do it? As for deadlines…it wasn’t my mistake, so it’s not my problem. You want me, you can wait for me.”
Nobody is perfect. If you put yourself in the hero role in every scenario and make it sound as though you were the reason that things were ever done correctly in your past jobs and that you expect that to continue in all your future situational scenarios, it’s going to ring some warning bells.
Part of a situational scenario question is analyzing the problem and coming up with solutions, but that also means applying what you’ve learned from the past…and that means what you’ve learned from past mistakes. Like I said, nobody’s perfect. Not to mention answering the question this way (and yes, we made it extreme to prove a point) just makes you look like an ass.
“The first thing I would do is stop whatever I am doing on the project and really investigate the mistake. Is it small enough that I can correct it without losing time? If so, I make sure that I rectify the situation immediately and move forward.
If it’s a mistake that requires a full reworking of the problem and the solution is going to force me to come close or even miss my deadline, I would make sure to immediately inform my supervisors and let them know what is going on. Ideally it would be a situation where I could adjust my work accordingly and, if needed, put in the extra time to make the deadline without compromising the rest of the project.
If the mistake is a result of my work, as painful as it might be, I have to come clean. If nothing else, it can provide a learning opportunity for any other people I might be working with who are in similar situations or dealing with similar scenarios.
I was actually working one of my first jobs just out of college and ran into a situation just like this…”
You’re a team leader. What would you do if the work of one of your subordinate team members was not up to expectations?
“I don’t tolerate dead weight. If someone isn’t pulling their fair share, then it’s not right they take up my valuable time or my team’s time. If it’s not something we can fix easily, then maybe it’s time that person look for another team to drag down. I’m a winner and I only work with winner.”
Do you know who Machiavelli is?
IF yes, then +10 to you. If not, here is a crash course: Machiavelli was a famous Italian philosopher who wrote the book on how to be a leader. Unfortunately his tactics were a little less than gentle and some of his solutions to leadership problems were brutal.
If all your answers are centered around ways you’d dismantle the company and take over leadership positions through intimidation, torture and execution…you might try switching your job search circles from blue collar to mercenary.
Remember, a situational scenario question is an opportunity to again demonstrate good teamwork skills and leadership qualities that don’t devolve into small dictatorships, no matter how tempting all that power can be.
“As a team leader, it’s my responsibility to keep the team moving forward and progressing through our tasks. If I have a member who is not living up to expectations, I would first try to investigate why the individual is having a problem and whether it is something I can help solve.
The first step is to determine if the problem is personal or professional. If it’s professional, then it’s my job as the leader to try to help the individual get the assistance they need to bring them up to the level the rest of the team is delivering at and expecting.
If it’s a personal problem, I would keep an eye on that person and make sure that it doesn’t continue to affect the professional work they’re doing. If it is a situation which requires time away and the company can afford to let them go for a while, I would encourage them to deal with the problem and then come back ready to rejoin the team.
If it’s a situation where they need to take more time than the company can allow, I would try to suggest that the individual solve the problem on their own in such a way that it doesn’t continue to affect the rest of the team.
I encountered a similar situation with a co-worker at my last job when…”
You have reason to believe that a co-worker is preparing to divulge company secrets to a rival corporation. These secrets have the potential to really damage the company. How would you deal with this situation?
“I gotta get concrete proof, baby! This is an amazing opportunity to monetize my position and I’m taking full advantage of it! If my co-worker is selling secrets I want in on that action…but only if the amount they’re getting paid is more than the amount I can collect as a bounty from the company for turning them in. Either way, I’m covering my own butt and making sure my information goes to the highest bidder. I wonder if I could leverage this into a new corner office or a serious bonus?”
Uh wow. For the first time I’m actually speechless at our own scenario. I don’t think I need to tell you just how wrong this answer is. Wow.
“The first thing I need to do is stop and really look at the situation. Are my suspicions based on actual proof or are these unsubstantiated allegations? If I don’t have actual proof or hard evidence and am relying on suspicion, then I would approach my co-worker privately with my concerns. There are times when personal emotions cloud people’s minds and can lead them to say things that they might not actually mean and which might be misconstrued as something more than just venting.
I would approach the conversation as a dialogue rather than a lecture and make sure I hear from them exactly what is going on. I would much rather confront the individual one-on-one and discuss the situation in private with them than run to superiors with nothing more than suspicions. Crying wolf in a situation like this could potentially ruin not only my co-worker’s career but my own as well.
If I have hard proof of my co-worker’s intent to divulge information, then it’s absolutely imperative that I make sure my supervisor is aware of what is going on. As uncomfortable and difficult as it might be to turn in a co-worker, professional ethics are very important to me. If I don’t let the company know, I could be guilty of withholding information, which could have long term ramifications for me both professionally and legally.
At my last job we actually had an employee who would joke about just this thing…”
How would you handle a customer who isn’t happy with your service even though you’ve done nothing wrong and they’re actually the ones who have made the mistake?
“Whoever said the customer is always right should be taken out into the street and kicked repeatedly with soccer cleats! The customer is hardly ever right and most of the time they’re so wrong, it’s funny!”
Even if the customer is wrong in the scenario, it’s not your job to tell the hiring manager that. They don’t want to hear you go on and on about unrealistic customer expectations, rather, they want to hear how you’re going to solve the problem.
The hiring manager wants to know you’re up to the task of handling a situation like this should it arise. They want to know that you’re level headed and can handle the customer with professional grace, even if that customer becomes rude, arrogant, or demanding. And remember, you’re not going to win every customer over…
“No matter what they’re unhappy about, it’s my job to make sure that they’re treated with respect, and the best way to demonstrate that respect is to listen attentively to their concerns. Ideally I’d like to make sure that I’m addressing the problem in such a way that I’m not missing any opportunities to turn what has started out as a negative experience for our customer into a positive experience.
My goal is to ensure customer satisfaction, but I am also aware that there are individuals who will never be satisfied. If it’s a situation where I have tried my absolute best and done everything in my power to solve the situation in a way that maintains both my integrity and the integrity of the company, and I’m still not having any success with the client, I would then involve my superior as a last resort.
I encountered a situation just like this when I worked retail one summer. We had a customer who was notorious for being difficult…”
So there you have it. Five solid questions for you to practice your own situational answers on.
Of course, these are just example answers and you should build on them using your own words. And yes, the point of the wrong answers is to get you to laugh a little bit…but more than that, we want you to really sit down and think about how you would handle each scenario and turn that into your own answer.
As you can see, we’ve left the prompt for the second part unfinished (except for the first one…we threw you a bone on that one!) because we want you to take that opportunity to fill in your own blanks.
The prompts are a way for you to take each situational scenario and expand on it by including a little bit of your own real world experience as a solid example of just how you’ve already faced a similar situation and how you handled it.
By taking these questions, practicing answering them and applying your own real world experiences at the end as solid examples, you’ll be better prepared for that moment when your hiring manger looks at you across the table and says to you, “So, ready for a little role play exercise?”
No dice needed!