How to answer "Tell me about a time when you had to deal with a difficult or unexpected situation at work." (with sample answers)

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This post is part of our series on behavioral interview questions.

Why Employers Ask This

The question "Tell me about a time when you had to deal with a difficult or unexpected situation at work." is a common one asked in job interviews. Employers ask this question to assess the candidate's problem-solving skills, ability to handle stress, and overall professionalism. They want to know how the candidate dealt with a challenging situation in the past and how they are likely to handle a similar situation in the future. The question also helps the employers get a better understanding of the candidate's work style, personality, and communication skills.

How to Answer the Question

To answer this question effectively, it is essential to follow a structured approach. Here are a few tips:

  • Choose the right example: Choose an incident from your work experience that demonstrates your problem-solving skills and ability to handle challenging situations.
  • Start with context: Provide context around the situation, including the problem you faced, who was involved, and what was at stake.
  • Focus on actions: Detail the actions you took to address the situation, including any creative solutions you proposed and how you collaborated with others if necessary.
  • Explain the outcome: Share the results of your actions and explain how your solution successfully addressed the problem.
  • Highlight key skills: Throughout your response, highlight your key skills and qualities, such as problem-solving skills, adaptability, leadership, and communication.

Remember to answer the question truthfully and concisely. Avoid highlighting your weaknesses or disparaging others in your response. Instead, focus on emphasizing your strengths and how you can bring value to the position. By taking a structured approach and highlighting your positive qualities, you can provide a thoughtful, professional response that showcases your abilities and impresses the employer.

Sample answers:

Good answer:

While working as a customer service representative, we experienced unexpected load shedding by our electricity provider. Customers were continuously calling in to ask for updates on their service restoration and I had to explain to them what was happening. I calmly informed them about the situation and offered alternative solutions like taking their orders manually and promising to follow up via email later. I also made sure to update my team leader whenever there were any changes in the situation.

This is a great answer because it demonstrates the ability to keep calm in stressful situations, think quickly to find alternative solutions, and communicate effectively with both customers and team leaders.

Bad answer:

Well, one time I was late for work because I had a party the night before, and my boss was really angry at me. She said I needed to show up on time and be reliable. I said sorry, and from then on, I made sure to set an alarm.

This is a bad answer because it doesn't address the question and doesn't show any problem-solving or critical thinking skills.

Good answer:

During a software implementation project, one of the key stakeholders changed their requirements after the final version had been developed. Although it was a challenging situation, I scheduled a meeting with the key stakeholder to understand what prompted the revision and its implications. After the meeting, I worked with my colleagues in the IT team to make the necessary changes and to ensure that the project met the new requirements on time.

This is a good answer because it demonstrates an ability to work with stakeholders, adapt to new situations, and collaborate with colleagues.

Bad answer:

Once, I had to give a presentation, but I wasn't prepared, and I didn't know what to say. So, when it was my turn, I just rambled on and on, and everyone was looking at me weird. I ended up not finishing in time and getting a low grade.

This is a bad answer because it shows a lack of preparation, communication, and inability to handle unexpected situations. It's important to note that you should never talk about past experiences that reflect poorly on you unless they have changed or you learned from them.

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