One of the most common expressions that you learn in “Interviewing 101” is that past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior. Start your interview questions with “tell me about a time when…” and the rest will take care of itself. This interview technique is better known as “Behavioral-Based Interviewing.” Note: although I’m Canadian, I’m using the American spelling for this post. Sorry eh. 

Behavioral Based Interviewing (BBI) certainly has its merits. I’m a proponent for including behavioral questions in every interview. But somewhere along the way, the pendulum has swung too far to one side. With an overemphasis on behavioral questioning, we’re no longer achieving the goal of getting a well-rounded perspective on how a candidate will respond to a job-specific work scenario.

Enter the Situational Interview Question (SIQ). During the same period where BBI rose to fame, situational questions disappeared at an alarming rate. Interviewers were quick to cite that “candidates will just tell you what you want to hear,” and in turn, situational questions vanished from their list of go-to questions and interview templates.

Situational questions, when used correctly, will provide insight into how a candidate thinks through complex scenarios in real-time. They provide perspective on their inherent beliefs, and they will give you another data point into how a candidates’ working style will complement or contradict your mission, vision, and values.  

In short – it’s time to add Situational Interview Questions back into the mix

Aren't Behavioral and Situational Questions Pretty Much the Same Thing?

No. It’s important to draw a clear distinction between behavioral and situational questions. Behavioral questions help identify patterns in a candidate’s behavior and actions, with the expectation that the candidate will explain their answer using the STAR method (Situation, Task, Action, and Result). From here, the interviewer may ask probing questions to clarify the candidates’ role compared to their coworkers or to inquire about lessons learned if they were ever to face a similar challenge again.

Situational questions, as the name suggests, place a candidate in a hypothetical situation that they would likely encounter on the job. While SIQ’s can drill down on task-level questions about standard procedures, they are most effective when used to role-play a candidate’s response to realistic scenarios, such as a customer complaint or having to choose between competing priorities.

What are the Key Elements of an Effective Situational Interview Question?

In every job function, there are unique scenarios that make for insightful SIQ’s. It’s important to choose scenarios that are likely to occur. There’s no value in role-playing a situation that is unlikely to happen on the job. 

The best SIQ’s will help the interviewer to get a well-rounded perspective into a candidate’s suitability for the job. While behavioral questions will provide insight into how a candidate has solved similar challenges in the past, I believe that situational questions are the best method to address three core competencies, which you can remember using the acronym BED: 

Business Acumen,
Emotional Intelligence, and
Divergent Thinking: 

Business Acumen: Does the candidate demonstrate the ability to identify operational, financial, or reputational opportunities and risks? Do they have the capability to see the bigger picture?

Emotional Intelligence: Does the candidate demonstrate self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, or social competence? 

Divergent Thinking: Is the candidate able to brainstorm and articulate creative ideas spontaneously or with minimal direction?

Can you give me an example of a Situational Interview Question where I can identify the BED competencies?

Sure. Let’s use a question for the retail industry:

Scenario: Interview for a retail store associate in a clothing store.

Interviewer: We have a lot of customers that will come out of the change room and ask for a store associate’s opinion about an outfit. 

Suppose a customer asked for your feedback. However, the outfit didn’t seem like the best choice for them. It could be the fit, style, or pattern; it doesn’t matter. The bottom line is that the outfit was not flattering for the customer. In this scenario, what would you say to the customer if they asked for your opinion?

The cynical interviewer might say, “Why even bother asking this question? A candidate isn’t going to say anything offensive to the customer, especially in an interview role play.”

But the ideal answer could vary depending on the values of the corporation. Some organizations believe that the customer is always right. Others have earned a loyal clientele by balancing helpful advice with body-positive feedback. Different retailers, different expectations for their retail clerks. 

So, depending on the retail store’s values, an interviewer can score a candidate’s answer by looking for the BED competencies:

Business Acumen: Are they mindful of how a response to a fitting room situation could impact the corporate brand, both positively and negatively? 

Emotional Intelligence: Are they quick to build rapport and credibility when a potential customer is feeling vulnerable and exposed, both physically and psychologically? Is the candidate self-aware of their body language in the moment?

Divergent Thinking: How quickly can they think on their feet when a customer asks for their opinion about an unflattering outfit? Do they provide a unique perspective or suggest a creative resolution that you hadn’t considered before?

Advice to Employers:

SIQ’s are a great way to provide a realistic job preview

If there are undesirable yet recurring scenarios in the job you’re interviewing for, you can preface your question by calling out that these situations will likely happen to you on the job. It will force the candidate to mentally place themselves in the role. If the job is not a fit for the candidate, they can choose to self-select out during the interview phase, rather than two weeks after they start their new role.

Don’t overdo it with back to back to back situational questions

You aren’t narrating a Choose Your Own Adventure book. For a more natural interview flow, you can batch your questions into themes and alternate between situational and behavioral-based questions.

Advice to Job Seekers:

Before the interview, research the company’s vision and values

There should be a correlation between the values on a company’s website and the behaviors that they expect you to demonstrate in everyday situations. If there’s a disconnect, it’s a major red flag. 

Be authentic

If your answer to a situational question is the opposite of what you’d actually do, you may be convincing enough to fool the interviewer and still get the job. However, if you’re expected to behave in a way that contradicts your strengths and working style, you’re going to hate your new job before you’ve even settled in. That’s not good for anyone.

In Closing:

Relying on past behavior alone will only tell you so much. If you want to get a well-rounded perspective on a candidate, it’s time to bring SIQ’s back into the rotation. At the very least, the next time you’re trying on an outfit, practice your interviewing skills by asking for a store clerk’s opinion. Remember to look for the BED!

If you’re in front of the whiteboard and ready to disrupt the talent industry, please subscribe, share, and brainstorm new ideas with me.

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Chris Mulhall is a Talent Management Executive and the Founder of Whiteboard Talent. His mission is to challenge the status quo and encourage others to disrupt the Talent industry. Read more about Chris, his comic strips, and his affinity for whiteboards.

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