10 Great Situational Interview Questions to Identify the Best Job Candidate

Shakespeare once wrote, "What's past is prologue," and situational interview questions are based on the same idea: the way job candidates behaved in the past is the single best predictor of the way they'll behave in the future. A situational question allows interviewers to get their subjects away from canned generalities and prepackaged answers, forcing job candidates to offer specific examples of how they used job-related skills to solve real-life problems in the past. They offer the interviewer a fuller picture of the candidate's capabilities and experience far beyond the sweeping abstractions of a typical résumé.

Ask the right questions to find out what you need to know from a job candidate during an interview.

In formulating situational interview questions, the interviewer should focus on the job description and make a list of the required skills and responsibilities. Next, the interviewer should write questions that explore exactly how job candidates have demonstrated those particular skills in past situations. Good candidates will offer success stories from their careers that connect directly with the new job, while a bad candidate will continue offering vague generalities and empty words.

Use situational questions to probe candidate's skills in the following areas:

  • People skills (especially handling difficult coworkers, clients, or customers)
  • Organizing workflow (especially when under a deadline and/or having to juggle competing priorities)
  • Communication and persuasion
  • Problem solving (all companies want good problem solvers)

Superior candidates will respond to situational questions by highlighting and illustrating their strengths, and a good success story can paint a picture of how a candidate has used skills in the past to overcome a problem.

Here are 10 common situational interview questions, in no particular order, and some suggestions for evaluating responses to them:

1. Describe a situation where you had to collaborate with a difficult colleague.

A superior candidate will demonstrate professionalism in attitude and communication style when dealing with others. Problem-solving and conflict-resolution skills are key. Good candidates don't need to like everybody, but they must be capable of working with everybody. Solid candidates will show that they achieved a workable outcome in the face of any coworker-related difficulties. Bad candidates will blame others and shirk accountability.

2. Describe a situation where you had to work with a difficult manager or important client/customer.

The answer can reveal a candidate's behavior toward authority, communication, and problem solving. The person you want to hire will not allow personal feelings or disagreements to get in the way of working relationships inside the company. A good candidate should demonstrate emotional maturity and professionalism above all else.

3. Describe a situation where you needed to persuade someone to accept your point of view or convince them to change something.

This is another situational question exploring soft skills such as communication and relationship building. A candidate should demonstrate empathy and listening skills that allow him or her to understand the other side of a situation but also help bring about a change of opinion. Candidates should show how they negotiate and generally develop and strengthen relationships with others.

4. Describe a difficult problem you faced and how you approached it.

Don't just look for what candidates did; ask for the thought process behind their actions and how they like to approach problems in general. Being collaborative is one strength you might look for here. Did the candidate seek out feedback from others in understanding the problem, developing possible solutions, and implementing a workable solution?

5. Describe a mistake you've made professionally.

We're all human, and candidates should be able to admit that they've made mistakes at certain times. This situational question is really more about finding out how a candidate learns, reflects upon mistakes, and takes lessons learned into the future. If a candidate refuses to admit to any past mistakes, then it's a sign that he or she isn't willing or able to learn anything from difficult situations.

6. Describe a situation where you worked under a tight deadline.

Here, you are asking interviewees to tell a success story that demonstrates how they organized their workflow, dealt with pressure, and navigated through competing priorities. It's a good opportunity to hear a candidate's planning process, how they communicate with others, and how they collaborate with colleagues toward a common goal. Did the candidate try to extend the deadline if possible? Did the candidate ask for additional help? Most importantly, did they fully commit their own time to meeting the deadline and ask others to commit, too?

7. Describe a time when you received criticism.

Like the mistake question, this illustrates a candidate's ability to learn. While being open to feedback is never easy, the best candidates will take it in, analyze it, and potentially make changes based upon the criticism. Of course, good candidates never take criticism personally. A good answer will show emotional maturity, adaptability, and leadership potential.

8. Describe a situation when you needed to take initiative.

A good answer should show off the applicant's proactivity. The situation should be a case where the candidate recognized a problem that nobody else was resolving and took initiative to attack the issue. The action should show a willingness to go above and beyond the call of duty when required. Proactivity and problem solving are rare traits that firms should be looking for; this question can go a long way toward revealing these attributes in a candidate.

9. Describe a situation when you've come onto a new team or a new working environment.

You are trying to gauge how a candidate adapts to change, especially when working with new people. This is obviously relevant for all new hires, who need to fit in to a company climate and hit the ground running. Top candidates will show that they are adaptable and open to change, that they'll focus on building relationships inside the company, that they know how to seek help when necessary, and that they don't judge people or processes too fast before knowing all the relevant facts.

10. Describe a situation where you needed to work with a client or customer who was very different from you.

Similar to the last question, this one asks candidates to demonstrate how adaptable they are when interacting with various personalities. Explore whether candidates can change up their style of communication for different people. This question allows you to evaluate emotional intelligence and people skills.

What is the most important skill or attribute that companies should be looking for from applicants? Let us know what you think by commenting below.

Boston-based Chuck Leddy is an NCMM contributor and a freelance reporter who contributes regularly to The Boston Globe and Harvard Gazette. He also trains Fortune 500 executives in business-communication skills as an instructor for EF Education. Circle him on Google+.