Hypothetical questions allow an interviewer to find out how an interviewee would deal with an unprepared situation, if those were to arise during their tenure at work. Potentially considered the toughest of all interview questions, an interviewee can pat his back if he is able to doll out a satisfactory response to an unexpected hypothetical question during an interview. Judith H. Dobrzynsk, (Forbes.com staff writer) points out that hypothetical or situational questions allow an interviewer to get an overall view of the candidate’s personality and his ability to fit in with the company culture. The idea is to analyze the candidate’s problem solving skills and spontaneity via abrupt situational/circumstantial questions. Most of the times, it puts the candidate at an uncomfortable position fumbling for the appropriate response to deal with an imaginary situation that may never potentially arise in his lifetime. While it is indeed difficult to foresee an imaginary situation, the best responses do not necessarily come from candidates with high general knowledge. They are just practical and use some common sense.
The fact of the matter is hypothetical questions test a candidates natural traits which are hard to analyze in the course of a 10 min short conversation. Your interviewer wants to know more about you.
- Do you take your own decisions?
- Are you a good decision maker?
- Does someone else dictate your decisions?
- Do you need constant guidance or can you work independently?
- Are you flexible?
- Are you ambitious?
- How far can you go to boost for your career?
- Are you looking for a secure ‘pay’ or a challenging career?
- Are you practical?
- Can you remain composed under pressure?
- How do you deal with unanticipated situations?
- Are you matured enough to independently deal with the day-to-day unique business complexities?
So the best way to answer such questions would be to REMAIN CALM and composed, instantly correlate it with any of your past situations where you took a decision. It could as simple as deciding on you’re the subjects you wanted to study in high school, or choosing the college, what triggered your decision, what factors did you take into consideration, did you seek help, if you did – who did you turn to and why did you think the person was qualified to resolve your query, and if it was a unconventional decision, how did you convince people/family. It could be any situation from your past (this was obviously an example to explain where I was coming from). Your response will appear more convincing by correlating it with another you have experienced in the past. If you cannot think of any, the next best thing you can do is think of any such situations any of your friends had to go though and how you would have reacted and handled it better. The good thing about a past experience is that it gives you the time to introspect what was good and what was bad about the incident, and how you could have dealt with it better, had you known (Sigh!). Just make sure you reason well with your interview (even if you did not show that sound judgment in the past). Unreasonable hasty decisions may show you in poor light, immature to take important decisions.
A situational question could pose ethical dilemma on a candidate. Often they relate (whether or not) to stand up against a senior/supervisor, (whether or not) to decline a project, or an unfavorable workplace related challenge. As an interviewee, your responsibility lies in effectively tackling these conditions highlighting your strength of character and moral responsibility to the interviewer. Show that you can be flexible and extend your services for the greater good of the organization.
Showing that you care for the organization above all is what your employer wants to hear from you. He will believe you if you sound convincing and reasonable. Leaving personal issues aside, an important day at work is expected to be the most important calling for an employee. Period. So when asked about turning up at work at odd hours, holidays or during personal exigencies, you know what to say!
Let’s take a look at what specific traits employers gauge in a candidate via hypothetical questions, or (to be more precise), why it’s necessary for the employer to pose hypothetical questions in an interview session. And more importantly, the right way to respond to hypothetical questions in a job interview:
- Hypothetical questions allow an employer to measure the honesty level of a candidate. For instance, what would be your course of action if you find your colleague stealing office supplies/stationary? The perfect way to respond would be to accentuate your moral code and personal commitment while dealing with such questions.
- Whether one can efficiently accept instructions and suggestions from the reporting managers and implement them with an optimistic attitude or not, are judged via hypothetical questions by the interviewing managers. The probing questions are meant to judge how respectful your attitude would be towards the company in an adverse situation like a conflict with your immediate boss, or at what stage is it right to bypass your supervisor to look for a resolution. While answering, keep aside your professional pride and maintain a respectful attitude towards the hierarchy of the company you are applying for.
- HR professionals evaluate leadership skills in a candidate via hypothetical questions. Situations like continual sluggishness at workplace and inability to meet the deadline as a team leader can appear intimidating. Convince your interviewer that your call would be to individually talk with the team members and learn the underlying reason contributing to the downfall. Highlight your problem solving ability and discipline.
- You may be judged on your customer service skills via hypothetical questions. How to handle an irate or annoyed customer demanding a refund can be tricky. Highlight your personal commitment to provide excellent customer support to pacify the customer and promising speedy resolution within the limits of company policies.
The following tips can help you sail through a tough interview and answer hypothetical questions with confidence:
- Gain an understanding of the profile and JD: If you have an idea of you’re your job description could entail, it becomes easier to surmise the situations you could be potentially exposed to, and accordingly prepare for the job interview. For instance if you are applying for the position of a website designer or a developer, questions like dealing with client deadlines and expectations, working in coordination with the team, staying up-to-date with latest advancements and upgrades in your domain despite work pressure, organizational vision could be tested through probing questions. It shows how knowledgeable you are and whether your skill set match up with the profile. For those new in the industry inexperienced in facing adequate number of job interviews, it is recommended that you take someone in your confidence and practice the probable hypothetical questions with a constructive feedback mechanism prior to appearing for the interview.
- Google up the company: A fair idea about the company, its culture, services, clients and hierarchy before appearing for their interview can be an advantage. Visit the company website, check newsletters and press releases to have reasonable knowledge about the organization and its latest developments. Once you know where you are applying, your position, key responsibilities and their criteria, you will have a fair understanding of their expectation from you.
- Accurate representation: Avoid long, unnecessary and rambling responses while answering hypothetical questions. Ideally, the responses should be short and relevant with facts to support.
- Use your past experiences to make a difference: Create a link with your past job experiences while talking about your weaknesses. Your dealings with different adverse situations, how you brought about a positive outcome, how the difficult situations helped you shape your career to get a better understanding of the position, and how you were able to sort the issue affirmatively, are the actual stories that will impress your interviewer.
- Be sharp-witted: Few questions could really be out of the blue. Better known as oddball questions, these unexpected abrupt questions are specifically designed to see how the thought process of a candidate works. For example, how many coffee shops are there in London? Don’t panic! Be conversational without being intimidated or be taken off-guard. Your responses should be practical and appear convincing to the interviewer. The interviewer is not exactly waiting to hear the right number of coffee shops in your area; he is waiting to see how the candidate makes an extra effort in finding a smart answer. You must carefully avoid sounding rude while answering such questions.
10 commonly asked hypothetical questions:
- What would you do when you differ with your immediate boss in handling a problem?
- How would you deal with a colleague with whom you fail to build successful working relationship?
- How would you handle workload during staff shortage?
- What would you do when you realize that the deadline is over and the report you wrote for your supervisor is not at par?
- How would you handle a situation where you are sure that your boss is wrong?
- Elaborate a difficult working condition and how you overcame it
- Your colleague discloses that he/she is planning to call in sick when in actuality he is taking a trip. What would you do and why? (Ve..ery tricky!)
- While introducing a new policy, you face a lot of resistance from your team members and work group. How would you handle it?
- What would you do when your supervisor tells you to do something unethical?
- As a leader what would you do to build team spirit?
The key takeaways of this discussion are:
While answering hypothetical or situational interview questions remember the four points:
- Define the issue
- Analyze the issue
- Try to generate a possible solution to the problem, and
- Choose the (ethically) right solution and course of action.
It becomes quite easy to respond to situational questions provided you know how to bridge the gap and use your previous work and life experience in resolving the current issue with an open mind. Your answer must explain:
- Why you took that step?
- How the result made an impact, and
- The lesson learnt. The highlights are your analytical thinking, decision making ability and problem-solving skill.
Hope this elaborate post helps you overcome the tension of appropriately responding to hypothetical questions during an interview. If you think I have missed out discussing any aspect of this critical interview topic/ question, share your thoughts in the comments below.