One of the most common job interview questions you’re likely to be asked by a hiring manager is something along the lines of “Tell me how you handled a difficult situation.” Other variations on this question include:
- “What have you done in the past when faced with a problem on the job?”
- “Describe a difficult situation you encountered in a previous job, and how you resolved it.”
- “Tell me about a problem you had to solve in a previous position.”
- “Describe a difficult task, and how you handled it.”
- “Can you provide an example of a time when you (made a mistake at work, under-performed on a task, etc.) and how you overcame this.”
Why Do Employers Ask This?
“Tell me how you handled a difficult situation at work” one of the better interview questions asked, both for you and the interviewer, and here are the reasons why (from the interviewer’s standpoint; we’ll get to you soon):
- It’s a solid, basic, open-ended question that an interviewer can ask any candidate.
- When asked properly, the question can surprise candidates, as opposed to other questions which are easier to anticipate and prepare answers for.
- It allows the interviewer to get a handle on how a candidate responds in a situation that doesn’t have a clear, easy, yes-or-no answer.
- When an interviewer gets a handle on this, they then know how a candidate will most likely respond to unforeseen challenges and difficult situations in the role they’re interviewing for.
And for You, the Candidate . . .
An interview question like “Tell me how you handled a difficult situation at work” can really allow you to shine.
- They allow you to flex your storytelling muscles.
- They’re a good overall test of your person-to-person communications abilities.
- Since it’s about recalling an actual experience (as opposed to imaginatively working through a presented scenario), they should be less stressful to answer.
A Chance to Show Off Your Personality
Finally, questions like this lets you show off your personality, and allow you to be a real human being (as opposed to the perfect, error-free interviewing machine you’re aiming to be). Everyone has had to deal with a difficult situation at work—when you talk about yours in an interview, you show a vulnerable, human side of yourself. Just be sure that the story you tell has an ending in which you overcome the difficult situation, and learn an important lesson about yourself (which you should of course let your interviewer know about).
Smart Interviewers Take It a Step Forward
If you have thought about the difficult situation interview question ahead of time and prepared a response, know this: smart interviewers have a simple trick that they can use to catch you off guard by qualifying the question further. For example: Tell me how you handled a difficult situation where . . .
- you needed to cover for a supervisor.
- you had a tight deadline to meet, and needed to act quickly.
- you could have handled things better, looking back on it now.
How to Get the Best Results
For best results, the angle an interviewer puts on the question should be related to any issues of concern they may have about you. For example, Tell me how you handled a difficult situation . . .
- where you felt that you didn’t have enough experience to properly respond (for a student applying for an entry-level position).
- with a colleague who is constantly bringing up a sensitive issue for you (for an ex-con).
- where you had to deal with a much younger supervisor who was clearly in over their head (for an older jobseeker).
The Best Way to Respond
One straightforward way to respond to interview questions like “Tell me how you handled a difficult situation at work” is to use the STAR technique.
- Situation/Task: Describe the challenging situation/task that you needed to deal with.
- Action: What action(s) did you take to remedy things? Be specific.
- Results: What were the results of your action(s)? What would have happened if you hadn’t reacted that way?
The Formula in Action
While following this simple formula, you’ll also want to focus on aspects related to your reasoning, integrity, or initiative, or your ability to reach out to superiors when you don’t know the answer. For example:
- Talking about an ethical dilemma in which you chose to act with integrity
- Discussing your initiative in tackling a difficult situation to a positive end
- Discussing how you worked through a dilemma and found a solution
Mistakes You Should Avoid
If you haven’t thought this question through ahead of time (and you really should), there’s a good chance that you may not be able to think of something off the top of your head. Here are some things to avoid speaking about when answering this question.
- Don’t speak poorly of former or current companies or co-workers.
- Don’t be self-focused to the point of discussing yourself in a superior light.
- Avoid discussing your own shortcomings . . . unless you also mention your growth.
- Don’t choose a situation that isn’t job-related unless you have no work experience.
Your potential employer wants to know that you can effectively work through a difficult situation on the job, so be sure to avoid a self-deprecating attitude. While people love self-deprecating humor in real life, the short time span of a job interview really isn’t the time for it. Take the question seriously, and answer it seriously. If the interviewer asks about a situation you’ve never had to deal with, it’s okay to say so, but they can then easily change the question to “How WOULD you deal with a difficult situation like that?” In other words, they can switch from the historical to the hypothetical, which makes the question a lot harder all of a sudden.With that in mind, the best follow-up response would be to say “That’s never happened to me, but if that kind of situation did come up, here’s how I would handle it . . . .” And from there, you apply the STAR technique.
“During a summer session I had a student who was writing rude, offensive notes on student papers during peer grading assignments. I arranged a meeting with the student, and had my principal attend too, as a witness. I calmly yet firmly informed the student that the types of comments she was providing weren’t helpful—that they were in fact detrimental. From there, the three of us had a fruitful discussion on the types of comments that work best on student papers. In the end, the student walked away with a solid understanding of how to provide constructive, non-offensive feedback to other students.”
“Late one Friday afternoon at my last job, a client called with an urgent question about the project we were working on for them. My boss usually handles all client contact directly, but he had already left for the weekend. I explained the situation to the client, and said that although I might not know the exact answer to the question, that I was also working on the project and might be able to help. That was good enough for the client, and while it was true that I didn’t have the answer immediately, we were able to work through it together fairly quickly, and the client got off the call assured that they wouldn’t need to worry about the issue over the weekend. I also left a note for my boss about the call, so that he could check with the client on his return on Monday morning.”
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