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15 Behavioral Interview Questions for Nurse Candidates

Hiring new employees is always a challenge, even when there’s a plethora of seemingly qualified candidates from which to choose. Hiring new employees for roles in which turnover is typically high is an even bigger challenge. And when the pool of candidates is small, the challenge grows bigger still. Human resources managers at healthcare organizations that hire nurses are very familiar with this challenge.

Given the challenges associated with hiring nurses, it’s imperative that it be done well the first time around, to minimize the risks (and costs) associated with hiring the wrong person and avoid the need to re-enter the hiring cycle prematurely. So, how can we get better? One solution starts with the interview itself, and the questions we ask potential nurse candidates.

But, before we get to the solution, let’s talk about why we interview nurse candidates. Seems self-evident, right? We interview candidates, rather than just hiring them based on the skills and credentials on their resume, because we want to use our powers of observation to predict if they’ll be successful once hired. The problem is, most people aren’t very good at interviewing in a way that predicts success.

So, the solution is to interview better, but how? One way is to look at something called behavioral interviewing. But, before you can do that, you’ve got to know what it is.

What Is Behavioral Interviewing?

Behavioral interviewing is a technique developed by industrial psychologists in the 1970s. It is based on the idea that the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior under similar circumstances. Using the technique, the interviewer asks the candidate to recall a previous experience relative to a given situation to elicit details of the task, actions that were taken or not taken, and/or the impact of those actions. A quick online search will uncover some of the most common behavioral interview questions and even give you some sample answers.

When interviewing nurses, you can’t just start with a list of questions, you need to find the questions that map to the skills and characteristics you value at your organization. Southwest Airlines provides an example of a company that excels at defining their ideal candidates and then crafting an interview to identify them. While healthcare organizations aren’t airlines, they can certainly adapt Southwest’s strategy to fit their needs when interviewing nurses.

Let’s consider questions to ask for nurse interviews. Here’s a starting list of the necessary characteristics and skills for success in today’s complex healthcare environment, followed by some behavior-based interview questions for nurses that will help identify those nurses who possess them.

Nursing Behavioral Interview Questions

While common interview questions for nurses can include more typical or general topics, nursing behavioral interview questions require nurses to use previous experiences/events as examples. In the big picture, interviewers have very little one-on-one time with a nurse candidate. Making the best use of this time and learning as much as possible depend on knowing which questions to ask at a nursing interview. The following are examples of behavioral interview questions nurses might answer to give the interviewer an indication of how well a candidate will fit within a given role.

Needed Skill: Excellent Communication

Nurses constantly work in teams, both with other nurses and other healthcare workers (physicians, lab techs, etc.), making effective communication key. Situational interview questions for nurses helps gauge how effective the candidate is with communication. When using the following questions to ask at a nursing interview, look for a candidate that isn’t afraid to speak up or repeat their intended message in a different way — someone that doesn’t shy away from communicating even in difficult circumstances.

  1. Give an example of a time when you had to work with someone who was difficult to get along with. Why was this person difficult? How did you handle that person?
  2. Ensuring patients are informed about their care is important for many reasons.  Tell me about a time when you had to overcome a communication barrier to make sure a patient understood what you wanted them to know.
  3. Describe a situation when you talked to a patient who was angry or upset about an aspect of their care for which you weren’t responsible (examples: didn’t get a meal they liked, procedure was postponed). What did you say to the patient?  What, if anything did you do about it?

Desired Characteristic: Compassion and Empathy

While nurses are often portrayed as having an abundance of compassion and empathy, some candidates might be lacking in this category. The following sample nursing interview questions and answers might shed light on how well a candidate understands patient and coworker feelings. For example, with interview questions for nurses — be weary of answers that feel like a forced exaggeration or made-up example. Tune into responses that indicate the ability and willingness to understand how other’s feel, especially in an event/circumstance the nurse hasn’t personally experienced.

  1. It is sometimes difficult to perceive the impact of an illness or hospitalization on a patient’s life. Tell me about a time when you were able to step into another person’s shoes to understand how they were feeling.  What did you do or say in that instance?
  2. Being empathetic to another person’s circumstances entails putting forth a special effort to understand the situation or dilemma. Give me an example of a time when you were empathetic to a co-worker. How did this contribute to a work outcome?
  3. Describe a time when you cared for a patient with values, beliefs, or morals that conflicted with your own. How did the situation affect your relationship with the patient?

Needed Skill: Problem Solving and Critical Thinking

Critical thinking as a nurse entails making decisions in rapidly changing, complex, and high-pressure situations. In many cases, every potential solution to a problem must be evaluated against competing ethical principles and potential negative consequences. Some nurses are expert critical-thinkers, while others struggle to comprehend and master this skill. Critical thinking interview questions for nurses helps identify candidates that make sound decisions based on informed thinking when faced with complex problems.

  1. Give me an example of a time when you used critical thinking skills to solve a problem. What was the problem and how did you come to a decision? What was the outcome?
  2. Tell me about a time when you faced a problem you had to solve and no feasible solution was ideal (all solutions had some negative consequence). How did you decide, and what was the outcome of your decision? Through reflection, what did you learn?
  3. Tell me about a time when you had to make a quick decision about patient care. Describe the basis for your decision. What was the outcome?

Desired Characteristic: Resilience

Nurses must be equipped for long, physically and emotionally demanding shifts. Understanding how to cope with high-stress aspects of the job is key to a nurse’s success. Helpful nursing interview question and answer scenarios will shed light on candidates that provide honest, real-life examples of how they’ve handled a stressful event. Situational interview questions for nurses also help to identify nurse candidates with avoidance tactics that might respond with a general statement (“I just didn’t let the stress get to me,” or “I didn’t let myself think about it.”).

  1. The nursing profession can be stressful — physically, emotionally, and mentally.  Tell me about a time when you endured a stressful situation at work. How did it affect you? What characteristics about your personality have helped you manage stress?
  2. Tell me about a time when someone (supervisor, co-worker, patient) wasn’t happy with your performance at work even through you were doing the very best you could. How did it affect you?  Did you do anything about the situation, and if so, what?
  3. Describe a time in your recent past when you suffered a big disappointment (at work or outside work). How did it impact you emotionally? How did it affect your ability to carry on with day-to-day life?

Needed Skill: Patient Safety-Mindedness

Ensuring a nurse candidate’s first concern is the safety of patients is of utmost importance for the interviewer. While common interview questions for nurses may drive at the candidate’s strengths and weaknesses, the following examples provide insight into how the candidate’s priorities match with those of the organization. Interview questions and answers for nurses specific to patient safety will highlight candidates that aren’t afraid to question the status quo and are comfortable speaking up when they have safety concerns.

  1. Tell me about a process or task at work with which you’ve had concerns about the potential for errors that could cause harm to a patient. What, if anything, did you do to ensure safety, or improve the process or task?
  2. Describe a situation at work when you have witnessed someone breaking a rule or cutting corners that might put a patient at risk for harm. How did you handle the situation?
  3. Has there been a time when a physician or another practitioner ordered something for a patient that you felt might be inappropriate or potentially harmful? What did you do?

All the above nursing interview questions can help hiring managers predict the success of a nurse candidate. Of course, depending on the open position, the desired skills and characteristics will vary and thus, so will the questions asked. After all, a pediatric nurse working successfully in the PICU won’t necessarily possess the same profile as a nurse working in the emergency department.

It’s also important to note that behavioral interviewing for nurses is a skill and, like any skill, it takes training and practice to do it effectively. Relias offers a selection of courses on effective hiring practices in partnership with Skillsoft, a business training company used by many of the world’s most successful companies.

Editor’s Note: This blog was originally published in January 2018 and has been updated with new content. 

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