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Table of Contents

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Wondering about the difference between situational and behavioral interviews? Read on to learn more about situational interviews and how they can elevate your interview process.

What Is a Situational Interview?

Situational interviews are a powerful way to remove bias from the interview process while objectively and fairly measuring candidates’ problem solving abilities.

There are two common types of interview questions in human resources and recruiting: situational interview questions and behavioral interview questions. This article will focus on situational interviews. However, it will be helpful to briefly define the two and understand how they are different.

Situational Interviews

Situational interview questions are generally hypothetical questions. They are similar to behavioral questions but focus on the future. A situational interview question gauges how someone would respond in a situation, not how they already have responded in a situation. An additional way to remember the difference is to note that situational interview questions focus on the future, whereas behavioral interview questions focus on the past. Since situational interview questions focus on hypothetical situations, it is easy to create challenging questions that involve difficult work circumstances that require a great deal of problem solving.

Behavioral Interviews

Behavioral interview questions ask a candidate how they have responded in a real world situation. Behavioral interview questions are typically answered using the STAR method (situation, task, action, result). What was the situation? What was the challenge or task that needed to be accomplished? What actions were taken? What was the result? Behavioral interview questions are an excellent method for tapping into a candidate’s knowledge, skills and abilities by learning about their previous experience.

Now that we understand the difference between these two types of interview questions, we can summarize that situational interviews are structured around situational interview questions.

How Is a Situational Interview Beneficial to Employers?

Situational interviews are beneficial to employers because they make it possible for hiring teams to take a controlled and intentional approach to the interview process.

  • Understand the baseline. Situational interviews benefit from a controlled environment. If interviews were a scientific experiment, situational interview questions are the control variable. They create a standard baseline for your interview. Every candidate will be placed in the same hypothetical scenario and asked to solve the same problem. You are not directly measuring their past experience, but understanding how they would respond to situations that are important to your role.
  • Problem solving. These hypothetical questions can be realistic and relevant or whimsical and impossible in a real world situation. Situational interview questions can be something like, “What would you do if you were shrunk to three inches tall and thrown into a blender?” or “What would you do if you woke up one morning and discovered you had been turned into a penguin?” The purpose of these sometimes ridiculous questions is to understand how people react in given situations and how they solve problems. Sometimes bizarre questions are an additional step to remove bias. By creating a hypothetical situation no one will have been in, you can be sure that everyone has an equal chance to show their problem solving skills.
  • Transferable skills. An age-old catch-22 in recruiting and hiring is that organizations want to hire people with previous experience for a given role solving the problems that they will face, but at some point, everyone has to gain experience for the first time. For example, a management job description often requires five years of management experience. But in order to gain five years of management experience, one needs a job as a manager, but to get the job as a manager, they need the experience of having that job. Adaptable hiring teams look not only at direct experience, but for transferable skills. Maybe a candidate does not have five years of management experience, but they do have equivalent transferable experience accomplishing similar goals and problem solving. Situational questions empower you by broadening your talent pool to include candidates that may not fit the traditional candidate profile. Situational questions can place someone in a situation they may encounter in a role and give them the opportunity to solve the challenge, even if they have never been in that specific situation before.

Tips for Running a Successful Situational Interview

Situational interviews are effective when they are planned ahead of time and questions are designed to determine the best fit for a given job opening to your organization.

Tip 1: Choose Questions That Are Relevant to the Role

When you utilize questions that are relevant to your role, even though the question itself is hypothetical, you get a sneak peek into how a candidate would handle real world situations they will face in your role. If you use the same question in a structured interview guide with all of your candidates, you will have a baseline of how your candidates will respond to the same situation.

As mentioned earlier, some organizations use non-relevant or unrealistic questions to get a hard baseline of candidates’ problem solving skills without disadvantaging people who do not have previous experience. There is merit to this approach because even a candidate without direct experience can work through the hypothetical problem.

Tip 2: Look for Problem Solving

Situational interview questions look for a different type of answer than behavioral interview questions. In behavioral interview questions, you are asking someone what they have done or how they have responded in a specific situation to measure their direct experience. In a situational question, you don’t care how much direct experience they have in the hypothetical situation or if they have experience at all; you are looking to understand their problem solving approach and if they have the right critical thinking skills to handle the types of situations they may encounter in your organization.

Tip 3: Standardize Your Process

Situational interviews add value because of the structure they bring to your hiring process. Situational interviews create an intentional structure to your interviews. When you standardize your process and build out a structured interview guide to use repeatedly with all of your candidates, you can truly compare, contrast and understand which candidate will be the best fit for your open role. Standardized interviews are a step in the right direction toward quantifying candidate performance and comparison with data.

The effectiveness of your situational interview will be limited if your process is not standardized or if you are not using the same questions in the same format with each candidate.

Examples of Situational Interview Questions

Here are a few examples of situational interview questions. These examples could be used for many types of roles. The concept again behind situational interview questions is to place a candidate into a hypothetical scenario and ask them what they would do or how they would respond.

Explaining a Topic

“How would you explain a complex topic to someone who has limited knowledge in that subject?”

This question gives a candidate the opportunity to display their communication skills. Even if the candidate does not have background in the topic you are asking about, you can still understand how they go about breaking down complex topics and explaining them in a simplified manner.

Working Together

“Several teams are working together on a project, but nobody seems to be on the same page. How would you approach this situation?”

This situation can be broadly applied as every team will run into this situation at some point. This question gives the candidate the opportunity to break down their east/west communication and problem solving skills.

Responding to a New Task

“How would you respond if you were given a task or an assignment that you have never done before?”

This question could be turned into a behavioral question by asking for an example of a specific time someone had been in this situation. Utilizing the situational approach gives you insight into how a candidate approaches this situation in general. They may give you a specific example of having been in this situation in the past. They also might break down their general approach to how they expand their skillset and the tools and resources they turn to when they need support.

Preparing for a Meeting

“You have an upcoming meeting with your stakeholders to discuss a project that your team has missed a deadline on. How would you prepare for this meeting?”

With this question, you are giving the candidate the opportunity to show how they take accountability and ownership of loss. This question helps you determine how they handle adversity and stress, and how they view setbacks.

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Questions You’ve Asked Us About Situational Interviews

The goal of a situational interview is to understand the problem solving abilities and critical thinking skills of a candidate in reference to the role that they would be filling. The amount of time a situational interview should take is determined by how long it will take to do this. There is no right or wrong answer, Some situational interviews will be thirty minutes and some will be sixty minutes. When you are designing the length of a situational interview, standardize it to make it the same for everyone. This does not mean that every interview will take the exact amount of time, but have a target in mind when you are designing it.

Behavioral interviews are designed to determine the amount of direct experience a candidate has for your role and the scope of responsibility they will have in that role. Behavioral interview questions look like, “Tell me about a time when you…” Situational interview questions are hypothetical. Instead of asking about a specific experience, they give the candidate the opportunity to explore how they would approach a situation in the future. Situational interview questions look like, “What would you do if you were in this situation…?”

Tyler empowers Talent Acquisition professionals, HR business leaders, and key stake holders to develop and execute talent management strategies. He is igniting the talent acquisition process through: team building, accurate time to fill forecasting, driving creative talent sourcing, and fine-tuning recruiting team effectiveness.

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