Situational Job Interview Techniques

Situation interviews are designed to test competency. Questions range from past experience to hypothetical situations. The object is to assess an applicant’s skills in terms of practical responses to situations.

It’s a very common interview technique. Job applicants need to be aware of the methods, and deal with the questions through preparation.

Interview questions

Some questions are standard:

  • Describe a situation where your communication skills were important in dealing with the problem?
  • Describe a situation where you had to deal with a difficult customer?
  • Describe a situation where your mediation and conflict resolution skills solved a problem?

Obviously, these questions are targeting specific skills. There’s a variation on this approach, which is more generalized.

Some of the questions sound similar, but they’re not. Always listen to how a question is phrased.

  • Describe how you solved a difficult problem?
  • Describe what you did to deal with a customer complaint?
  • Tell us how you manage your workload?

Again this is competency based, but the questions are looking for a range of skills, not just one. They also target problem solving skills, in context with situations.

Situation testing is actually a good way of forming a picture of an applicant’s abilities, and testing their capacity to deal with specific issues.

Because the “problem solving” question itself deals with a situation, the applicant must first explain the situation, which requires communication, a description and of both the problem and the solution. It’s a actually a multiple question.

The “customer complaint” question relates to your client-handling skills, and how well you can demonstrate the necessary skills.

The “workload” question involves your organizational skills, how you prioritize work, and your understanding of competing priorities. It’s a fundamental situation in many jobs, so this particular question really does have a lot of applications.


IMPORTANT: Understand what the question is trying to achieve.

In a job where you’re very competent, the only real difficulty may be how you answer the question.

You may need to rehearse your answers, preferably with a friend, making sure you’re giving comprehensive, clear answers, and finding any gaping holes in your responses.

(There usually are a few gaps, so make sure you know what you’re not telling an interviewer.)

It’s possible to give sketchy answers, which do answer the question, but don’t actually supply enough information.

“How do you manage your workload?” is a fairly representative question.

Start from the beginning, and give a clear picture of your workload and where your work fits in the chain of processes.

“I work as a registry clerk. There are five of us. Work is received daily and distributed by our supervisor, for processing same day.

We check documents for information, and enter the completed documents on a database, and we issue a receipt for their fees and documents.

In addition we get customers at the counter lodging documents, which are supposed to be completed and entered on the database while the customer is present.”

As you can see, the process is now understood. Now you can describe how you handle the workload:

“There are thousands of documents per week. We have to maintain a high rate of processing. So we prioritize by date, usually, working on turnover times.

Sometimes a document has to be processed urgently, because of the laws relating to the documents, so those are taken out of the main workload and given to us for special processing.

It’s a pretty simple system, and we’re expected to deal with the workload as efficiently as possible, because of the volumes. Usually I process everything which can be done immediately, and separate documents which need more information. Those can’t be processed anyway, and we have to send letters or emails to the customers.

That means I can get moving all the documents which are ready to go, and then deal with the others, which use up more time because they all have different things which need to be addressed.

Really, it’s a time management issue, because I have to be sure I can deal with the applications that need further work, without holding up the processing of other work. This method means I can do both efficiently. Separating documents also means I can find and keep track of the ones with problems.”

There’s no room for doubt in that answer.

Everything about the work, the workload, and the processes involved, is described.

What you do, why you do it, and how you do it, are all clear.

This answer also simplifies answers to any related questions.

A very probable question in relation to the workload question would be “How do you deal with competing priorities?”

You’ve explained the workload, and how it works. The interviewer has a clear picture of your work.

You can now say,

“I have to deal with whatever level of priority is given to the work. My boss usually tells me what needs doing first, and tells me the order of priority. If I’m not sure, I have to ask, to make sure I’m doing the right thing.”

**** This is common sense, and the basic principle of situation interviews

What needs doing, Why it needs doing, and How it’s done,

applies to many situation interview questions. Somebody has to decide priorities. If it’s you, you explain why you give priorities, like “customer needs, statutory needs, account issues”, etc.

Situation interviews- Hypothetical questions

These are the same kind of questions and issues, but they deal more with your ability to think on your feet with any given situation.

“What would you do if a really angry customer demanded service, wasn’t happy with your service, and wanted to lodge a formal complaint about your work?”

This is a real “situation”, and happens regularly in customer service. It is highly relevant to any job in this field.

The object of the question is to see how well you understand the situation you’ve been given. That tests a lot of skills at once. It also involves your understanding of basic business practices for complaint resolution.

Don’t ever be scared by situation interviews.

They’re about things you do know, that’s why you got the interview.

The real objective, for applicants, is to explain their skills in terms of real situations.

Situation interviews can be a major asset to those with good job skills.

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