Question: 'Tell Me About a Time You Had a Conflict at Work'

By Indeed Editorial Team

Updated 24 November 2022

Published 30 November 2021

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Job interviews can include situational questions. These situational questions require you to provide the interviewer with an example of when you experienced that situation in a previous workplace. One common situational interview question you might be asked is, 'tell me about a time you had a conflict at work'. In this article, we discover the meaning behind this question, provide example answers for different workplace conflict situations and offer tips for a successful response.

Related: How to answer interview questions on initiative (6 examples)

Why do interviewers ask, 'tell me about a time you had a conflict at work'?

An interviewer may ask you the question, 'tell me about a time you had a conflict at work' for several reasons. The main purpose is to invite you to show how you dealt with a difficult situation in a previous workplace and your role in finding a positive outcome. More specifically, when asking this question, interviewers might be looking to understand the following:

1. How you deal with conflict

Conflict can be uncomfortable in a working environment and is important to resolve satisfactorily. This is because the people involved in the conflict need to continue working together in harmony. If your answer indicates that you have the experience and skills to deal with conflict professionally, this could give you an advantage over other candidates.

Related: What are conflict management strategies?

2. If you cause conflicts and why

Most employers don't want continued conflict at work. If your answer indicates that you repeatedly cause undue conflict, they may not want to hire you. If you cause conflict for productive reasons, for example, to insist upon important and positive change within the company, this may give you an advantage.

Related: Taking Ownership in the Workplace

3. How you interact with colleagues

The way you deal with conflict in the workplace can be an indicator of your relationship with other staff members. It may demonstrate if you treat your co-workers with respect and if you are willing and able to compromise when needed. Answering the question, 'tell me about a time you had a conflict at work' can also be an opportunity to demonstrate your mediation and communication skills. All of these can be indicators of whether you would fit in with the established office environment.

Related: What Are Conflict Resolution Skills? Definition and Examples

Tips for answering the question well

The question, 'tell me about a time you had a conflict at work' can be difficult to answer, but having responses prepared will make it easier to showcase your conflict-resolution skills effectively when the opportunity comes up. Here are some tips for answering this question in an interview:

  • Be honest: Use a real event that happened to you as your answer. Making up an event could sound inauthentic and mean you can't explain yourself well.

  • Have a positive message: Including a positive outcome at the end of your answer could improve your chances of impressing the interviewers. You could demonstrate why you are a good fit because you learned from the experience or brought about a positive change.

  • Prepare to elaborate on your answer: The interviewers may want to know more about what happened. As well as preparing a succinct and clear answer to the question, try to anticipate what else the interviewer may want to know, and prepare to answer those questions too.

  • Choose an example that makes you look good: Don't be tempted to choose the most interesting example if the role you played in the conflict or the outcome was negative. Relating an event with a positive outcome, even if it seems minor or mundane, can show that you understand how conflict can emerge and be resolved effectively.

  • Make it relevant: Try to select an example that is in some way relevant to the job you are interviewing for. This could give the interviewers an insight into how you would deal with a similar situation if they were to employ you.

'Tell me about a time you had a conflict at work' example answers

Here are some examples of answers that demonstrate effective conflict-resolution skills. You could use the structure of one of these examples as a template for relating what happened to you. Or, if you are struggling to come up with a situation from your work history, these examples might help to prompt your memory and identify a relevant event:

Example 1: A colleague resents your pay rise

Answer: 'I received a pay rise at my previous job because my output consistently exceeded targets and increased the overall productivity of the office. My colleague heard about the pay rise and discussed it negatively with other members of the team. I heard that the colleague was upset and claimed that my work did not warrant a pay rise.

I was concerned that the ill-feeling would continue and produce an uncomfortable work environment, so I approached the colleague directly. The underlying cause of their unhappiness was that they felt they also deserved a salary increase based on their performance. Together, we prepared a short presentation including details of their work output and targets exceeded. The colleague presented this to our manager and they agreed to increase their pay. By addressing the conflict, I was able to understand the reason behind my colleague's annoyance, help to resolve their frustrations and discover that we have a shared perspective and work ethic.'

Example 2: You miss a shift that you were scheduled to work

Answer: 'When I worked as a customer service advisor, the shifts of everyone in the workplace apart from management were in a diary kept under the till. Sometimes, one of my managers made changes to the rota without informing us.

On one occasion, I did not show up for a scheduled shift because the manager did not inform me that it had been added to the rota. Whilst I accepted some responsibility for not having checked the rota, I also highlighted that direct communication between management and staff was needed in case of changes to the rota, to ensure that the staff member is able to cover the shift. This led to management creating an online rota that alerts staff members when there is a change and asks us to confirm that we can work newly added shifts.'

Related: What Is Shift Work? (With Types and Benefits)

Example 3: You catch a colleague stealing from work

Answer: 'During my time as an office manager, I noticed that we had less and less printer paper. Since I was responsible for ensuring the stock was replenished, I ordered higher quantities more frequently. I worried that my supervisor would start asking questions, so I investigated the situation and discovered that one employee was taking the printer paper for personal use.

Instead of going straight to human resources, I had a conversation with the employee explaining that taking the paper home amounted to stealing, and the potential repercussions of this. The colleague agreed not to do it again and apologised. Instead of having a difficult and public form of animosity between us, I was able to contain the conflict and come to a positive resolution.'

Example 4: Your manager treated you and your colleagues unfairly

Answer: 'My former manager had favourite employees. I was not one of them. I think that this was because I was relatively quiet and did not join in with the weekly nights out. Instead, I worked late on my projects with a few other members of the team to make sure that I completed them on time. This meant that the colleagues who did go on the nights out had a stronger relationship with the manager. We noticed these colleagues gradually having more breaks and taking longer to return to work after lunch with no repercussions.

When we tried to do the same, thinking that it was allowed, the manager disciplined us and told us to work harder. After dealing with this for several weeks and the situation getting progressively worse, we decided to keep a record of everything that we considered unfair. This included a record of derogatory comments that the manager made towards us. We presented the record to the manager to make them aware of their behaviour. This led to changes in the manager's attitude and an overall more positive workplace for us.'

Example 5: A co-worker is late delivering their tasks

Answer: ' I was working as a project manager on an IT project, and one technician was constantly late finishing tasks. When I approached him about it, he reacted defensively. I kept calm and acknowledged that the deadlines were challenging and asked how I could assist him in improving his performance. He calmed down and told me that he was involved in another project where he had to do tasks that were not in his job description.

After a meeting with the other project manager, we came to a resolution that lightened the technician's workload. For the remainder of the project, the technician delivered great work'.

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