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15 Behavioral Interview Questions for Nurses

Hiring new employees is always challenging, even when there are many seemingly qualified candidates. Hiring for roles with high turnover when the pool of candidates is shrinking — a continuing reality in nursing — is an even bigger challenge. In this article, we’ll look at how the behavioral interview technique can provide deeper insights to better inform your hiring decisions. We’ll also provide some sample behavioral interview questions for nurses that you can use and adapt to save time.

Given the current challenges associated with hiring nurses, it’s important to hire the best candidates the first time to minimize rehiring costs and avoid risk. A quality hiring process starts with the interview and the questions you ask nurse candidates. Whereas traditional interview questions do not always predict success, behavioral interviewing can help you make more informed hiring decisions. Use your powers of observation to predict if candidates will be successful on the job rather than hiring nurses based solely on the skills and credentials they list.

A nurse candidate prepares to answer a behavioral interview question.

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 this 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 the impact of those actions.

When interviewing nurses, select questions that correspond to the skills and characteristics your organization values. For example, Harvard Business Review profiled Southwest Airlines as a company that excels at defining its ideal candidates and crafting interview questions to identify them. Healthcare organizations can use this strategy when interviewing nurses.

Let’s consider some behavior-based questions that can help you gather information on the characteristics and skills nurses need for success in today’s complex healthcare environment — and identify the nurse candidates who possess them.

Nursing behavioral interview questions

While common interview questions for nurses typically cover general topics, behavioral interview questions for nurses require candidates to use previous experiences and events as examples. Usually, 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 depends on knowing which questions to ask. 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.

Excellent communication

Nurses constantly work in teams with other nurses and healthcare professionals, such as physicians and lab techs, making effective communication critical. Situational interview questions for nurses help gauge how effectively the candidate communicates. When asking the following questions at a nursing interview, look for a candidate who isn’t afraid to speak up or repeat the intended message differently if needed — and who doesn’t shy away from communicating in difficult circumstances.

  1. Give an example of a time when you had to work with someone 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: They didn’t get a meal they liked, a procedure was postponed, etc.). What did you say to the patient?  What, if anything, did you do?

Compassion and empathy

While nurses are known for having compassion and empathy, some candidates might lack these characteristics. The following sample nursing interview questions might shed light on how well a candidate perceives the feelings of patients and colleagues. Tune into responses that indicate the ability and willingness to understand how others feel, especially in a 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 an effort to understand the situation or dilemma. Give an example of a time when you were empathetic to a coworker. 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?

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Listen as we sit down with Vince Baiera, Partner for Post-Acute Care at Relias, to discuss onboarding and retention in health care. Vince shares some best practices in hiring, training, and engaging employees to help retain them in the organization.

Problem-solving and critical thinking

Critical thinking for nurses means making decisions in rapidly changing, complex, and high-pressure situations. In many cases, potential solutions 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. Behavioral interview questions can help identify candidates who can make sound decisions based on informed thinking when faced with complex problems.

  1. Give 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 what to do, 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?


Nurses must be well-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. Nursing interview questions can reveal which candidates have been successful through real-life examples. Situational interview questions for nurses can also help to identify nurse candidates with avoidance tactics who might respond with a general statement such as, “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 physically, emotionally, and mentally stressful.  Tell me about a time when you endured a stressful situation at work. How did it affect you? What personality characteristics helped you manage the stress?
  2. Tell me about a time when someone (a supervisor, coworker, patient, etc.) wasn’t happy with your performance at work even though you were doing your best. 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 of work). How did it impact you emotionally? How did it affect your ability to carry on with day-to-day life?

Mindful of patient safety

A nurse candidate’s first concern should be patient safety. While common interview questions for nurses may uncover a candidate’s strengths and weaknesses, the following examples provide insight into how the candidate’s priorities match those of the organization. Interview questions for nurses specific to patient safety will differentiate candidates who 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 that concerned you because of the potential for errors that could cause patient harm. What, if anything, did you do to ensure safety or improve the process or task?
  2. Describe a situation at work when you witnessed someone breaking a rule or cutting corners, possibly putting 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?

Develop the skill of behavioral interviewing

It’s important to note that behavioral interviewing is a skill that takes training and practice to conduct effectively. The desired skills and characteristics of roles will vary, as will the questions you ask. For example, a pediatric nurse will need different questions from those for a nurse working in the emergency department.

Familiarity with the technique can help you formulate the right questions and follow up when needed to get the fuller picture of a candidate. When done well, behavioral interview questions for nurses can even help you predict the long-term success and engagement, and retention of a candidate.

Behavioral interview questions aim to uncover a person’s actual behavior rather than their perceptions of themselves, which may not be as accurate. By using this technique, you will better understand how candidates do their work, how they interact with others, and how they will potentially help ensure the success of your organization.


15 Behavioral Interview Questions for Nurse Candidates

Get our free guide containing these 15 examples of behavioral interview questions for RN’s and nurse candidates in a printable version to use in your next nurse interview.

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