Interview Questions About Handling Problems

Businesswomen shaking hands across a table at a job interview.
Photo: Ariel Skelley / Getty Images

Companies are always looking to hire employees who can solve problems. That's why interviewers often ask candidates about how they have handled challenges in the workplace. Also, questions like "Describe a problem you encountered at your last job" are a way for interviewers to assess your attitude towards past supervisors or employers and to see if you place blame or take responsibility.

When questions of this type are asked, it is best to think of them as a request to share how you have intervened to solve problems in the past, rather than an opportunity to complain about difficult situations at work.

Have Examples Ready to Share

Prepare examples of how you have addressed problems or met challenges for each job, internship, volunteer, and leadership role included on your resume. Choose problem situations where your involvement led to a solution and avoid unsolvable or difficult issues that couldn't be improved or fixed. 

Remember, employers will be listening to your answer. They want to learn how you resolve issues, deal with conflict, and take the initiative in identifying and resolving problems. Look for examples that showcase abilities that will come in handy in the position you're interviewing for. As with resumes, numbers can be impressive: if you drove sales, reduced time, or had a result that can be quantified by metrics, be sure to share the details.

Describe the Problem, Your Actions, and the Results

For each example, describe the situation with just enough detail to represent the magnitude and nature of the problem. Then state how you specifically assessed the situation and acted to meet the challenge. Emphasize the skills or qualities you tapped to intervene. Include the skills which qualify you for the job. Finally, describe the results which you helped generate or how the situation was improved. Your stories don't need to represent monumental achievements; small successes which illustrate your key strengths are sufficient. Avoid rambling, and also make sure not to speak negatively about co-workers or managers.

You might, for example, share a story like "During my first year as an HR manager at ABC company I noticed that new recruits were leaving at a higher rate than I had experienced at previous employers. I decided to create a survey to identify the reasons for turnover. I found that they weren't satisfied with the level of feedback and mentoring which they were receiving. I established protocols for managers to meet at regular intervals with new employees during the first year and set up a mentoring program. During my second year turnover of new recruits was reduced by 30% and surveys indicated a higher level of job satisfaction."

Tips for Answering This Question

As you are thinking through how you would answer this question, use these tips to help you formulate a strong answer.

  • Practice storytelling: Avoid a long pause and a rambling, unfocused story by rehearsing answers. Have a sense of some of your big accomplishments from each position so that you can provide a coherent, relevant story. Remember: employers will be interested in seeing how you think and problem-solve.
  • Choose a good example: This is a situation where a generic answer, such as, "I always respond to problems quickly and efficiently" doesn't suit. Choose examples that will put your relevant skills on display. Avoid pointing fingers or placing blame, and keep language neutral when describing the cause of the problem.
  • Make sure to emphasize results: ​Be specific about what you accomplished. If you can include numbers, such as, "This increased sales 10% year-over-year" or, "This lowered overtime costs by $1,000 a month," be sure to mention them.

Tips for Answering When You Don't Have Work Experience

If you do not have work experience, it's okay to use examples from school. Just try to keep it meaningful and highlight your resourcefulness. When answering the question, illustrate the example. Explain the situation and its importance, what went wrong, what impact the problem could have, what you did to fix it, and the ultimate results.

A good example would be, "I had a major paper due for my biology class. It was an extensive research project and accounted for a big part of my grade. I was almost finished and was just writing the conclusion when a thunderstorm hit and the power went out. My professor has a strict lateness policy and accepts no excuses, so I knew I had to hand it in the next morning on time or I'd fail the assignment. I used my phone to look up coffee shops that were open all night and that had wireless internet. I did back up my work frequently, so I only lost about a page and a half. I was able to go to the coffee shop, rewrite the sections of the paper I lost, add in my sources and proofread it. I handed it in the next morning on time, and ended up getting an A on the paper and in the class."

In this example, the candidate shows that he is prepared; he regularly backs up his work, so that shows he is careful and conscientious. When the power went out, he thought to look up area locations where he could work, demonstrating quick thinking and resourcefulness when faced with a problem. He found a way to get the work done and met the deadline, without sacrificing quality. That's an outstanding example that shows you're a good employee.

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles