Careers advice

How to answer the conflict with co-worker question

Follow the framework.

Among the common job interview questions, there are a few that we all like a little bit less. These include questions about salary (because, awkward), questions about our biggest weaknesses (because, we want this job) and questions about why you’re the best person for this job (because, it should be obvious!).

Another one to add to this list is questions about conflict with previous co-workers, and how you’ve resolved it. None of us like talking about incidents where we’ve fallen out with people, particularly in a setting where we’re trying to come across as the best possible person the hiring manager could add to their team.

So why do companies ask this job interview question, and how should you answer it?

Why they want to know

Your technical expertise and experience is only part of the picture as far as employers are concerned. They want to hire someone who will fit in with the company culture and ethos, and who’ll make the lives of those around them easier, not harder. Indeed, Trade Me’s Head of Engineering, Amir Mohtasebi, says that when he’s hiring software engineers, their coding ability is only half the story, highlighting that “equally important are things like stakeholder management, working with other teams, and customer intimacy.”

Companies aren’t keen on people with big egos who find it hard to compromise and work with others, or who are likely to make a big deal out of small workplace issues. They’re interested in people who can work collaboratively, and who don’t always have to be right.

Employers want to hire people who can work collaboratively, not cause issues.

The other reason employers ask this question isn’t actually to do with the conflict side of things completely, it’s more a general test of how you view your communication style. The way you handle stressful situations, such as a conflict with a coworker, is a good indicator of your approach to communication more generally, and this core soft skill has vital implications that go way beyond conflict management and resolution.

Okay, so, how do I answer the question?

The ‘how do you handle conflict’ job interview question belongs to a category known as behavioural interview questions. Unlike more straightforward enquiries, such as ‘tell us about your past experiences’, these questions seek to determine exactly how you’d act if you encountered a particular situation. So this is what you need to tell the interviewer.

Fortunately, there is a simple framework you can follow that will ensure you answer the question appropriately.. It’s called the STAR framework, and it looks like this:

The STAR framework for answering behavioural interview questions.


SITUATION

Here, you provide the background context for the conflict you found yourself in. Here, we’ll use the example of a graphic designer. For the situation part, you might say something like, “I was working alongside another junior graphic designer on a big project that involved creating multiple digital assets. This work would come through our workflow system, and we were each supposed to claim the assets we were working with by marking them with our names.”

TASK

This is where you provide specifics of the conflict that took place. “However, in one instance, they forgot to mark their name on the asset, so I started working on the same asset as them, and finished it. They only realised after they had been working on it for two hours, and were upset that they had wasted their time.”

ACTION

The most important element – the step you took to resolve the conflict. You want to show that you took positive, well thought-out actions to resolve the issue. “Between us, we worked out what had happened by reviewing our flow procedure. We agreed to take the additional step of sending each other a quick Slack message whenever we started working on a new asset. I also helped them out with their next asset to make sure they didn’t have to stay late to get their work finished.”

RESULT

Then bring the example to a close by explaining the positive results of the action you took. “After we agreed to add in the extra communication step regarding the workflow pipeline, we never had this issue again, and by offering to help them out with their work, my relationship with this colleague didn’t suffer in the long term.”

The end of your answer should describe how you came to a positive resolution.

What not to say when answering this question

Hopefully, the above example has given you a template for answering this question that you can apply to your own examples. However, when choosing an anecdote to answer with, we’d advise avoid any of the following:

  • A story where you made a big mistake: if the conflict arose because you dropped the ball in a big way, avoid telling this story. Even if you resolve the conflict beautifully, the interviewers will pick up on your error.
  • A story where you blame the other person entirely: there are two sides to every story, and the interviewers will likely raise an eyebrow if you use the interview as a chance to talk badly about someone you used to work with. To them, this will likely show that you lack the self-awareness to realise that you might have been partially to blame.
  • Saying you’ve never had a conflict: ‘conflict’ doesn’t have to mean a full on screaming match with a colleague (we really hope you’ve never done this). If you’re really struggling for an example, it’s okay to interpret this question as a disagreement over an approach to your work. For example, you wanted to do X, they wanted to do Y, how did you resolve this and move forward constructively?
  • Talking in generalisations: we’ve all had to work with difficult colleagues at one time or another, but unless you can provide specific examples, simply saying that you didn’t get on with someone won’t be enough.

The key takeaway

By far the most important messages to get across when answering questions about conflict in your job interview are your ability to communicate, remain calm and treat people with respect. If your answer ticks these three boxes, you’ve nailed it.