A woman sitting across from a job applicant asking interview questions. She has a laptop open in front of her.
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How to answer the three types of interview questions

23 Nov 2022

Hays’ Nick Deligiannis explores the different question styles you may be presented with in a job interview and shares advice on how to tackle them.

There are three types of interview questions you’re likely to encounter and there’s a reason why each one might be asked.

This is crucial to know, as you can then articulate your answers to address what your interviewer really wants to know about you, including what you’ve achieved and how you respond under pressure.

Types of interview question

1. Situational

These are asked to give you the opportunity to display your approach to a specific scenario and how you would handle it. The interviewer may ask for an example to demonstrate your previous approach to such a scenario.

2. Competency-based

These are asked to test if you have the attributes, knowledge and behaviours that would lead you to be successful in the job.

3. Behavioural

These are asked to assess your character, specifically how you have approached potentially challenging situations, in order to understand how you would do so again if you were to be hired.

It’s important to bear in mind that not all interview questions you’re asked will fall into these distinct three categories. There is often some overlap in the way questions are asked, and therefore the way you should answer.

But the below examples will help you enter your next job interview with confidence, assured that you can answer the most common types of questions that will be directed your way.

Situational job interview questions

Situational interview questions seek to deter you from simply providing pre-packaged, generalised, scripted statements about your skills and experience by focusing on a given hypothetical situation and how you would handle it.

Situational interview questions can be difficult to answer, as you are required to think on the spot – which in itself is a skill the interviewer is testing you on.

Answering these questions well can prove that you are willing to take the lead or ask for help, stay calm under pressure and make positive choices that help you to overcome any situation you’ll be faced with in the job.

Before answering a situational question, take a moment to fully understand what it is you’re being asked. For example, is the interviewer looking for evidence of your time management skills? Do they want to find out how you manage conflict?

Example situational interview question

“You know that a colleague has made a mistake at work, but as far as you’re aware, only you have spotted it. What do you do?”

How to answer

One thing that your response definitely shouldn’t include – and this goes for any situational question – is any indication you would ‘pass the buck’ to someone else to attempt to absolve yourself of responsibility. Instead, you will be expected to show that you can take ownership of the situation and find a solution calmly and productively.

Example of a good answer

If you have a real experience of this situation, draw on this. Otherwise, the following would work: “I would first assess the situation, making sure that I am correct in my judgement. Then, I would follow any internal protocols for handling the situation, such as contacting my boss directly, before taking it any further.

“Otherwise, I would calmly approach the subject with the individual and let them know what I think has happened, what the impact of the mistake could be, how it could be resolved, and what I could do to help. If the individual was certain that no mistake had been made, I would seek advice from a supervisor and raise my concern to them.”

Competency-based job interview questions

Competency-based questions are used by interviewers to assess specific attributes, knowledge and behaviours. For example, a hiring manager looking to understand more about your behaviours that lead you to be successful in a job may ask about different ways in which you used your analytical ability in a previous role to solve a problem.

Alternatively, if it is your decision making skills that they are looking to assess, they may ask you to provide information about how you built strong professional rapport with colleagues to make informed decisions.

While these questions may often seem to be situational, competency-based questions are far less likely to be hypothetical, enabling you to draw directly on real-life examples and be focused on specific competencies rather than a general approach to situations.

Again, as with situational job interview questions, before answering, you should take a moment to think about what the interviewer is really asking or looking for.

Example of a competency-based interview question

“Tell me about a time when you were required to use your creativity to solve a problem.”

How to answer

Creative people are often able to think on their feet and come up with new solutions to problems that other members of their team would not have even thought of.

Therefore, here the interviewer will be looking for you to demonstrate how you approach problems. The STAR technique will be useful in helping you to structure your answer here and tell a story.

Example of a good answer

“I worked at a HR firm where one client was struggling to determine the causes of its high level of employee turnover. My manager asked me to undertake some data analysis to identify any trends or patterns indicating the likely causes.

“I ultimately devised an anonymous staff questionnaire that employees were able to complete online. We discovered from this that staff were concerned about the company having inadequate provision for their training and development. Many respondents also felt that it was difficult to talk to management. The client used these findings to make changes that helped to reduce their employee turnover by a third over the next six months.”

Remember competencies are the knowledge and behaviours needed for the specific role so during your interview preparation. Double-check the job description for what they are looking for and think of clear examples of when you’ve demonstrated these competencies. Having examples to hand will enable you to answer these questions with great ease and allow you to really showcase your expertise.

Behavioural job interview questions

Behavioural questions are asked to elicit information from you on how you would be likely to handle any of a range of real-world challenges based on your previous behaviour facing a similar circumstance.

Where situational questions decipher how you would approach certain scenarios and competency-based questions prove you have the skills required for the role, behavioural questions ascertain if you have the character traits the interviewer is looking for.

Such questions tend to be based on the principle that a candidate’s past behaviour is the best predictor of their future behaviour and can touch on such aspects as your ability to work as part of a team, client-facing skills, adaptability, time management skills and more.

Example of a behavioural interview question

“Give me an example of something you tried in your job that didn’t work. How did you learn from it?”

How to answer

I touched on the importance of creativity and initiative above – but a vital part of being creative is realising that not all of your ideas will necessarily work.

When the interviewer asks this question, they will therefore wish to see evidence of your willingness to learn from what did and didn’t work, while nonetheless learning from your experiences.

Example of a good answer

“Working in customer service for a community health club, we had the idea of offering one-off month-long memberships. However, not enough people who took up these memberships then purchased a longer-term membership for it to be cost-effective for the business.

“We therefore switched to making our shortest contract six months long, and found that this did a better job of keeping the health club in profitability.”

By familiarising yourself with these common types of interview questions, you will be able to better position yourself as a candidate who can be depended on to deliver an instant impact and make the right decisions. You’ll be able to show your value at the interview stage to an extent that wouldn’t be possible through the obvious ‘templated’ interview answers alone.

By Nick Deligiannis

Nick Deligiannis is managing director of Hays Australia and New Zealand. A version of this article previously appeared on the Hays blog.

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