When I was younger – and even to this day – my mom would always tell me: “Those who can’t remember the past are doomed to repeat it.” To be fair, she would use this to get me to study for history tests, but in terms of situational interview questions, I think the saying still applies. Situational interview questions, much like behavioral, pose hypothetical questions about situations in a candidate’s professional past and how they came to solutions. Ergo, my mom’s favorite, “those who can’t remember the past” statement.
Many of these questions – often phrased like: “Tell me about a time when…” – focus on problem-solving and the handling of different circumstances in the workplace. As talent industry buffs, we all know these questions help in understanding the ways a candidate will handle a situation if it occurs in the role they’re applying for.
The goal of situational interview questions is to get the candidate to describe how they will handle potential career hurdles by using concrete examples from their previous positions. The questions are often very in-depth and force candidates to think on their feet and jog their memory for examples.
What you’re looking for in their answers are:
- What was the situation?
- What went wrong?
- What did the candidate do to come to a solution?
If the candidate truly is right for the role, their answers will usually tie in some of the skills and requirements for the position. But, sometimes candidates can fake their way through the questions by offering up bogus situations or talking in circles – before you ask, no I’ve never done this before… okay, only once or twice.
It’s easy to distinguish fake answers from the real deal. Real answers follow the STAR technique: Situation, Task, Action, Result. Meaning the candidate can precisely describe the situation, explain the task they had to complete, describe the specific actions they took, and tell you the result of their efforts in great detail.
Nevertheless, the fakers are still out there.
But, there are ways to bypass them: asking the questions that can’t be faked and understanding unforthcoming language. After talking to some top-notch recruiters around the office and checking some trusty online sources, I created a bulletproof list of ways to swerve the fakers using situational interview questions:
- “Tell me about a time when _______. Great! Now tell me about another time.”
- Most candidates come prepared with at least one situation but asking for two is a great way to ensure they actually are experienced in handling the situational obstacle. Another great way to sniff out a fake is by sitting silently after they answer, that way they have to sit and think about what they said. If they continue talking about the situation after a few moments of silence, you might have a faker on your hands (the only way to be sure is to try out a combination of these tips).
- “Tell me about a time when you had to collaborate with a difficult coworker, manager, or client and what the result was.”
- All of us have dealt with difficult coworkers or clients, but that doesn’t mean we’ve thought through how we resolved it. Not only does this question force candidates to think about that experience and what they learned from it, but it makes them think about the collaborative side. If they’re faking this one, they’ll speak in generalities about the situation and all of the players included.
- “Tell me about a time where you faced a difficult problem and how you approached handling it.”
- With this question, you’re looking for them to describe their thought process and their way of approaching problems in general. A non-faker will be ecstatic to share how they handled this because it will make them look that much more qualified.
- “Describe a situation where you worked under a tight deadline and how you met it.”
- Deadlines are something we all deal with. If your candidate can’t come up with a real scenario for this, are they really even a good candidate? No, they aren’t.
- “Tell me about a time when you received criticism and how you rebounded.”
- Ah, criticism, one of my favorite isms. A faker won’t be upfront with their answer for this one, they’ll try and push the blame on others and leave out specifics.
For any of these questions, according to a study done by Leadership IQ, a non-faker will use first-person pronouns that reveal ownership. Truly qualified candidates have no reason to fake answers, they’re usually full of stories and eager to share their accomplishments – especially with someone who could help them land a new gig.
But, as the saying goes, fakers gonna fake.
That doesn’t mean you can’t catch them in the act. Stop them before they make it to your hiring managers by looking for these signs: vague responses, speaking in generalities, hypothetical language, and unrealistically straightforward answers.