Give better answers to interview questions with this method

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It’s hard to know what the interviewers want when they ask questions. What if there were one trick that could help you to answer questions better?

There is. It’s called the SAR method and it can help you to answer your interview questions thoroughly and convincingly. SAR stands for Situation, Action, Result and it acts as an outline to answer behavioural interview questions.

The danger of “would”

What unfortunately happens to many candidates when faced with a behavioural interview question is that they answer with “would” statements. A “would” statement describes a hypothetical scenario with ideal conditions that may or may not have any bearing on reality.

Here is an example how “would” statements can work against you:

Q: Please give me an example of a situation you handled when your boss was not available for guidance. What was your boss’ opinion of how you managed this situation?

A: If there was a situation and my boss was not present, I would tell the person that my boss was away and to wait until they returned.  I would then explain the situation to my boss in detail to get their guidance on how to appropriately manage it. I would then get back in contact with the person with the correct information.

Let’s analyze this response.

When an interviewer is asking for an example, they want a real situation that actually happened to understand the reasoning behind the candidate’s course of action. The second part of the question is asking the candidate if their boss was comfortable with that course of action.

The candidate did not answer either part of the question. In an attempt to give the “right answer”, in this case a “boss-knows-best” answer, they have undermined their opportunity to display problem solving skills. They also stated a purely hypothetical scenario. In real life, there are few situations where telling someone to wait deescalates the situation. Imagine that you are the hiring manager who is listening to this response. What you hear is that while the candidate will probably follow the rules, they will also depend on you fully and not take initiative. Work will pile up when you are away. This answer does not inspire confidence in the candidate.

Extrapolate this into a one-hour interview and the result is a frustrating and tedious conversation for the interviewers. Interviewers have no problem probing to better understand a candidate’s point, but if the interviewer has to probe on every question to get a kernel of reality, it does not bode well for the candidate.

The SAR method

What makes the SAR method so powerful is that it puts the candidate in an assertive light. Companies want employees who will take action and resolve problems regardless of their job title.

Let’s break down what this looks like:

Situation: The situation provides context. This helps the interviewers put themselves in your shoes to better understand the circumstances that led to the action.

Action: The concrete actions that you personally took. Even in a team, each player has their responsibility. If you describe a team accomplishment, be sure to point out what your specific role was in attaining the common goal.

Result: The result will be either favourable or unfavourable. If the result was favourable, remember to link your actions with the favourable result. If the result was unfavourable, emphasize what you learned and/or what you did differently the next time.

Let’s take the same question as before but answer it with the SAR method.

Q: Please give me an example of a situation you handled when your boss was not available for guidance. What was your boss’ opinion of how you managed this situation?

A: It was a Sunday and I was the only IT technician on staff for the employee help desk. One of the executive assistants called in a panic because her boss was on a flight to Hong Kong and needed a memo sent on his behalf that the Hong Kong office had to receive before his arrival. Because they were so focused on all the preparations required for the trip, they forgot to request access for the executive assistant to send emails on his behalf.

It’s IT policy not to execute action without a request, but this was clearly a particular situation. The time difference with Hong Kong created additional pressure to act quickly. I told her that I would grant her the access for 12 hours but that she would need her boss to send the request when he landed to extend the access until he returned. 

I told my boss what happened on Monday. While she was disappointed that I strayed from the policy, she agreed that I had taken the best possible action given the circumstances. I offered to send a copy of the policy to the executive assistant as a friendly reminder for next time and my boss agreed. 

This response using the SAR method is more effective than any “would” statement could be. The situation gave context as to why the employee broke the policy. The action, the decision to break the policy, was taken in the larger context of what is right for the company. The result was mixed: the boss was not thrilled, but understood. The employee then consulted with the boss to take corrective action because the policy was broken.

These types of imperfect situations are a part of life. The SAR method gives the interviewers, particularly the hiring manager, insight into how you will behave an employee.

Prepare for your next interview

I would recommend practicing the SAR method next time you are preparing for an interview. I also suggest that you take a look at my previous articles How to prepare for a job interview and Interview Dos and Don’ts.