Interview Questions About Dealing With Problems at Work

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When you are applying for a job, a typical job interview question is, "What major problems have you encountered at work, and how did you deal with them?"

Here's what you need to know to develop an effective response to this interview question. 

What the Interviewer Wants to Know

Pay attention to that second part of the question, about how you handled the issue. Your interviewer is not interested in dishing on how evil your last boss was or how messed up your previous employer’s stock inventory system was. 

Instead, this question is your opportunity to share how you deal with adversity and challenge. Interviewers are hoping to get a sense of your character and how you deal with challenges. 

How to Answer Questions About Work Problems

In your response, you'll want to make sure to describe the problem—and also the solution. It helps to be prepared. This type of answer always has two parts, and sometimes three. 

1. Describe a Problem

For the first part, you need to describe a problem. Then, you need to show how you actively, not passively, resolved the situation.

2. Explain How You Handled the Problem

You don’t necessarily have to be the one who solved the entire problem, though if you did, good job for showing initiative. Many times, however, calling in the right people is the best and most appropriate form of action. Either way, don’t be shy about telling this to your interviewer.

3. Share Your Personal Philosophy (Optional)

A third part of answering this type of question involves sharing your personal philosophy. Your philosophy can be about your work ethic in general or certain industry-specific issues. If you don't have a personal work philosophy, take some time to think about it prior to the interview.

Don’t stress about coming up with a major problem. Not everyone can rescue a company from financial ruin. A problem can be as simple as helping two colleagues who disagree about how to address a task resolve their differences. What you perceive as a problem and how you choose to resolve it tells a whole lot about who you are as a person.

Examples of Solid Interview Answers

Here are sample interview answers for three different problems. You can take these and edit to fit your personal experiences and background, or use them as guidance for crafting your own response:

Example Answer #1

Once I found a major flaw in the work of one of the most senior members of the department, which could have been very costly to the company if it had been overlooked. I went directly to them and called it to their attention so they could fix it before it affected the final outcome.

Why it Works: The above problem is a simple two-parter: Here’s the problem, and this is how I fixed it. You get extra points here for letting that senior employee save face and fix the problem themself, instead of involving their superiors needlessly.

Example Answer #2

I feel that the best way to deal with any challenges is to meet them head-on. When I found that one of my colleagues was saying things that weren't true behind my back, I went to them and talked it through. It turned out they had misunderstood what I had said, and I was able to set the record straight with them, and my supervisor.

Why it Works: The above is an example of the three-part answer: This interviewee states a personal philosophy right up front and then shows how they apply that philosophy in their work life. 

Example Answer #3

One of the major problems I have found in this profession has been a lack of proper funding for the programs we are trying to implement. I think I have a lot of creative ideas to help overcome some of the budget limitations inherent in this type of work.

Why it Works: You’ll note this answer doesn’t convey a problem that happened. Instead, it shows that the interviewee is aware of challenges in that particular industry and is already thinking ahead about how to deal with them.

Tips for Giving the Best Answer

Follow these strategies to give a strong answer that'll show you're a good candidate. 

  • Be prepared.It's far easier to respond to this question if you have a problem and solution in mind, rather than thinking of them from scratch. Before your interview, try thinking through your experiences at various roles you've held in your career. This trip down memory lane will serve you well answering this question, and others that ask you to reflect on your work.
  • Show your work.Remember, interviewers are most interested in seeing how you approach a problem. You don't necessarily have to offer a single solution that fixed everything. Showing how you got started dealing with the issue is sufficient. 
  • Share a philosophy.If you can share something that points to a work-related philosophy, interviewers will notice. For instance, you might note that you don't run away from problems, or that you know when to elevate issues to superiors, or so on. 

What Not to Say

Here are some missteps to avoid: 

  • Don't ramble.You want to give a tight two- or three-part response. Don't get too into the weeds with the specifics of the challenge that occurred, and share your solution in plain and straightforward language. If you're looking to keep focused, the STAR technique can help. STAR stands for Situation, Task, Action, Result. Use this framework to talk about these four elements. For this particular question, you'll likely want to emphasize the actions you took, as well as any positive result that occurr 
  • Don't complain. Yes, interviewers are asking about a problem. But that doesn't mean they're looking for you to share a laundrylist of issues and concerns that have come up in your previous roles. Focus on having the bulk of your answer center around the positive and the solution you came up with. At all costs, avoid speaking negatively about companies or specific colleagues.

Common Follow-Up Questions 

Key Takeaways

SHOW YOUR WORK. Of course, interviewers want to see a positive outcome, but they are also eager to understand your approach. 

KEEP IT POSITIVE. Be professional, polite, and positive. Focus on the solution, instead of the problem, in your response, and keep your description of the problem neutral (rather than negative in tone).

SHARE A PHILOSOPHY. If you have a work-related philosophy to share—and it's relevant to how you handled the situation—go ahead and mention it.