Situational Judgement Test

Everything you need to know about taking a situational judgement test (SJT).

Download a free situational judgement test in PDF format

Lots of employers use situational judgement tests during their recruitment stage, particularly at graduate level. Here we explain to candidates what they are, how they work and what to expect in your situational judgement test. Basically SJTs measure your behaviour and attitudes to work-related scenarios. With a bit of insider knowledge you will have nothing to fear.

Free Situational Judgement Test (PDF)

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Download this free example situational judgement test as a PDF and print it off to work through it in your own time. Click the link above to download the zipped file, alternatively, use the links below to view them online individually.

So what are situational judgement tests and how do they work?

Situational Judgement Tests (or ‘SJTs’, as they are often abbreviated to) come in a great variety of guises and have been growing in popularity as an assessment method since the late nineties. Currently organisations as diverse as Waitrose, the NHS, PricewaterhouseCoopers, Sony, Wal-Mart, Deloitte, John Lewis, the law firm Herbert Smith, the Fire Service and many more, are using SJTs as part of their recruitment process.

Situational judgement tests present candidates with a range of different situations that they might experience in the job for which they are applying. For each situation, a number of possible actions are suggested. There are usually around 4 or 5 actions but this varies. It is the candidate’s job to choose between these possible options and judge which is the most effective course of action to take and therefore which action they would take if faced with this situation. SJTs are always multiple-choice; no answers other than the options listed are allowed.

The situations (or scenarios as they are sometimes called) are almost always reflective of a real-life aspect of the job. So for example, if you are applying for a job as a call centre operative, one of the questions on the SJT might be as follows.

A quick example question

You are working in a call centre for a major UK telecommunications company. You have received a call from a customer who has been waiting in for an engineer who has failed to arrive within the scheduled time slot. The customer is upset and is talking in a raised voice. Of the following options indicate which would be the ‘most effective’ and which the ‘least effective’ action to take first of all:

  • 1) Apologise to the customer and say you will arrange for a re-scheduled appointment.
  • 2) Listen to the customer’s feedback and tell them that you can understand why they are upset and that it must be very inconvenient for them.
  • 3) Explain that the engineer has a very busy schedule and its difficult for her to always be on time but you’re sure she will arrive soon.
  • 4) Ask the customer to hold while you contact the engineer to establish where she is. This is the most effective response as it directly takes control of the situation, and will ultimately provide the information to make a more informed decision. After contacting the engineer you will know whether to re-schedule the appointment, or whether a re-schedule will not be necessary. Although customers may not like to be put on hold, it is the only way to solve the issue at hand.

Why employers use situational judgement tests

For employers, SJTs are a very cost effective, powerful and convenient way to select the potential strong performers from a large group of candidates. Employers will be more likely to use an SJT if they have a high volume of candidates applying for a role or position and if they recruit for this position on a regular basis. So the recruitment process for a graduate training scheme or internship programme is a likely place to find an SJT whereas assessments for more senior positions are less likely to include one.

Employers may use SJTs on their own as a sifting tool or sometimes they will include SJT questions in a realistic job simulation which might also include an in-tray exercise and ability measures such as numerical reasoning. Job simulations are usually presented online or computer-based. They can incorporate various different media such as video, animation and written text. Employers use these to try and create as realistic a situation as possible for the employer to test how the candidate will respond to the ‘real’ demands of the job.

For example, in a job simulation test for a sales manager role, as a candidate, you would log on to a specified website. You would then be told to imagine that you are the manager of a team of sales people and given access to an email inbox and folders of documents. You would be asked to make decisions about the documents and respond to the emails. Then you might be interrupted by a video of someone asking your advice on an issue and given four responses to choose from. This is the SJT part of the simulation.

It is useful to be aware of where you might come across SJT questions although the way that you approach them should be the same, regardless of the other elements of the process. We will talk about this below.

Different styles of situational judgement tests

Situational judgement tests can be presented in a variety of different ways and seek different ways for candidates to respond to the situations presented. Situational judgement tests can:

  • be paper-based
  • be computer-based, which is most usual
  • use text only
  • use video clips to present the situation, with written response options
  • use animation and computer-generated avatars to enact the situation, with written response options

There are a variety of ways in which you will be asked to respond to situational judgement test questions:

1. Most and least effective

The situation is presented with four or five possible responses and you are asked to indicate which is ‘most’ and which is ‘least’ effective in your judgement.

You are a team leader in a customer contact centre. You just overheard an employee in your team telling a customer that they were “over-reacting” and that they needed to “get psychiatric help”. You are not sure what the customer’s call was about but now the call has finished and you have a chance to speak to the employee.

Response Most Effective Least Effective
Tell the employee that you have no chance but to recommend their dismissal
Tell your employee that you will work with them to improve their performance over the next 3 months
Tell the employee to do it again
Ignore the employee's behaviour and hope they won't repeat their mistakes on another occasion

2. Rated responses

Here the situation is presented with the possible responses and you are asked to rate each response for effectiveness, in your judgement.

Response Counter-productive Inefficient Slightly Effective Effective Very Effective
Tell the employee that you have no chance but to recommend their dismissal
Tell your employee that you will work with them to improve their performance over the next 3 months
Tell the employee to do it again
Ignore the employee's behaviour and hope they won't repeat their mistakes on another occasion

Notice here that there are 4 boxes for each response that give a level of effectiveness, whereas ticking (or clicking on) the other box means that you actually believe the action to have a negative (counterproductive) effect. In this type of question you will usually be able to rate each action independently of the other actions presented. So, in theory, you could rate them all as effective or all as counter-productive. However, you should bear in mind that the way that the questions are designed it is unlikely that this would be a ‘correct’ response, i.e. one that closely matched the ‘expert’ opinions on which the test is based. It is more likely that there will be one action that is very effective and the others will be less effective or counterproductive.

You may not always be given the opportunity to highlight an action as counterproductive. Sometimes the rating scale is simply from ‘highly ineffective’ to ‘highly effective’ and points in between.

3. Ranked responses

The situation is presented with the possible responses and you are asked to place the responses in rank order as to how effective or appropriate they are. Here you will only be able to allocate each number once. So only one response can be ranked ‘1’, only one response ‘2’, only one ranked ‘3’ and only one ranked as ‘4’.

The numbers may be given explanatory labels e.g. 1 = most appropriate, 4 = least appropriate. OR 1 = most effective, 2 = next most effective, etc. Or they may be left simply as numbers for you to allocate the rank order.

Response 1 2 3 4
Tell the employee that you have no chance but to recommend their dismissal
Tell your employee that you will work with them to improve their performance over the next 3 months
Tell the employee to do it again
Ignore the employee's behaviour and hope they won't repeat their mistakes on another occasion

4. Likely to perform

This is a variation on ‘most effective’ and ‘least effective’. You are given the possible actions or responses and asked to say which you are ‘most likely to do’ given the situation with which you have been presented and which you would be ‘least likely to do’.

Response Most Likely To Do Least Like To Do
Tell the employee that you have no chance but to recommend their dismissal
Tell your employee that you will work with them to improve their performance over the next 3 months
Tell the employee to do it again
Ignore the employee's behaviour and hope they won't repeat their mistakes on another occasion

The way of phrasing this question is subtly different from being asked to assign the ‘most’ and ‘least’ effective response. Being asked which one you are most likely to perform or to do will probably start you thinking about past behaviour. You might think “Well I know which is the most effective action but in the past I have actually done something different”.

And indeed, this is what the designers of this particular answer type are interested in. They are seeking to identify your tendencies, personality traits and past behaviour more than they want to know about your ability to evaluate the ‘best’ and ‘worst’ answer from a group of possible answers. Your ability to select the ‘most effective’ answer is probably based more on your intellect rather than on your personality.

In reality, how you are likely to perform and behave in a job is going to be a result of both intellect and personality. Therefore test designers and employers are really hoping to get a glimpse of both these elements when getting you to sit a situational judgement test.

Typical competencies measured by situational judgement tests

It has been suggested that one of the best ways to be prepared for a selection test, including a situational judgement test, is to be aware of what the test is seeking to measure. In other words, what aspects of you, as a candidate is the test hoping to pick up on?

Competencies are bundles of skills, abilities and personality traits which contribute to good job performance. The relevant competencies will vary according to the job or job-type being considered. Therefore graduate training schemes, managerial roles, customer service jobs and sales positions may all have slightly different sets of competencies.

1. Graduate level competencies

Graduate competencies will reflect the range of skills, abilities and styles that are effective at a graduate entry level role in an organisation. They are unlikely to include managerial competencies such as ‘directing others’ and ‘strategic thinking’. They will probably include some, or all, of the following:

  • Communicating, Influencing and Negotiating – looking for clarity, appropriateness and persuasiveness of communication
  • Drive to Achieve Results – looking for motivation and drive to achieve high standards and deliver results on time
  • Planning & Organising – looking for the tendency to approach tasks in a systematic and organised fashion, to prioritise activities and manage time
  • Analysis & Decision-making – looking for accurate and timely analysis of information, facts and data and good judgement with regard to what course of action to take based on that information
  • People & Relationship Skills – looking for capacity to build effective working relationships, to have empathy and awareness of others and work well in a team

2. Managerial level competencies

Management level competencies will incorporate most, if not all of the graduate ones but will also include elements of ‘directing or leading others’ and ‘strategic thinking’. Management competencies can be grouped into the following areas:

  • Analytical Thinking & Decision-Making – similar to the graduate level above but also looking for the ability to think strategically, make links across contexts and think long-term.
  • Drive to Achieve Results – looking for motivation and drive to achieve high standards and deliver results on time
  • Managing Tasks and Objectives – looking for planning, organising and motivating others to achieve goals; managing other people’s performance.
  • Managing People – looking for the ability to lead others and provide vision & inspiration.
  • Relationship & Reputation Building – looking for the ability to influence colleagues, senior people and external contacts; to handle difficult interpersonal situations.

3. Individual contributor competencies

Other SJTs are designed to assess people recruited to fulfil a particular role in the organisation such as an administrator or a customer service assistant. For these roles, competencies could include the following:

  • Planning & Organising – looking for the tendency to approach tasks in a systematic and organised fashion, to prioritise activities, follow guidelines and manage own time effectively.
  • Service Ethos – looking for the motivation and drive to provide excellent and high quality service to customers and colleagues, high standards and pride in ‘doing a good job’.
  • Coping with Challenging Situations – looking for resilience, emotional consistency and effectiveness under pressure.
  • Effective Communication – looking for the ability to communicate clearly, effectively and with empathy for the audience.
  • Achieving Results - looking for drive to deliver tasks on time and to agreed standards.
  • Teamwork – looking for the understanding that the team’s goals are as important as the individual’s. Willingness to support others and share resources.
  • Understanding Customers – looking for a willingness to listen to customers and to provide a service that suits their requirements as far as possible.
  • Influencing Others – looking for an ability to be persuasive with customers and colleagues where appropriate.

As most SJTs are designed to gather information about a list of competencies such as those outlined above, you will find that different questions on an SJT will link to different competencies from the list to be assessed. It can help you to approach the test with this in mind and make an educated guess as to which competency each question is designed to measure; when doing this you should remember that some questions may have elements of more than one competency.

How your test results get presented to the employer

Once you have completed the test your answers are scored, usually automatically by computer, and then your result is given to the potential employer.

As mentioned above, the scoring is done by comparing your answers with the ‘best fit’ answers suggested by the job experts during the design of the test. Once the test has been automatically marked, the number of answers that you rate or rank ‘correctly’ in the test can be compared to the results of a group of previous test-takers. This is called a ‘norm’ group.

Therefore, employers might be given the following:

  • 1. Your overall score on the test – in other words, how closely your responses matched those of the experts overall.
  • 2. Your score broken down into individual competency scores. A standard graduate SJT might return five further scores to the employer in addition to the overall test score. These could relate to five graduate competencies e.g. communication, drive, planning, analysis and people skills.
  • 3. Information on how your overall scores and your individual competency scores compare to previous test-takers of a similar type. Usually this is in the form of a percentile score. You might have fared better than 160 of the other 200 test-takers; you would therefore be said to be on the 80th percentile for that particular competency.

Employers may use this information as a straightforward pass-fail hurdle to reach the next stage of the assessment process; they will do this if they are happy that the SJT is going to put sufficient numbers of candidates through to the next stage and that it is going to select the best candidates for the job from the pool of candidates available.

In addition to this employers should, by law, make sure that the test is testing only things which are job-relevant. The SJT must not test for skills, abilities which are irrelevant and which may discriminate against certain groups of people. An example of this would be, if detailed knowledge of a certain technical area would enhance a candidate’s test score, when this knowledge was not needed in the job and when more people of an older age, or who were women perhaps, would be likely to have this technical knowledge.

Are situational judgement tests timed?

How long do you get for your SJT? Almost all SJTs do not have a time limit. You will be instructed to answer the questions honestly, which usually means promptly. Often the first answer that comes into your head is the one which most reflects your true response, so you will probably be told to go with your first instinct. However you can take as long as is allocated to you in your assessment day.

Although there is no time 'limit' as such, publishers of SJTs will have guidelines for the typical length of time people take to complete their situational judgement test however if you take longer than that it doesn't matter. For example:

Talentlens publish a series of graduate SJTs called IRIS which do not have a time limit. a&dc are another large publisher and their graduate ‘Dilemmas’ SJT has no time limit but they advise it takes candidates on average 30 minutes to complete the 20 scenarios each containing 4 questions. SHL have an SJT of 24 questions and again no time limit but they recommend around 20 minutes for completion.

A growing number of SJTs now are bespoke to the recruiting organisation, or even to the specific role. A bespoke approach is the most effective for implementing SJTs due to the situation-specific nature of the assessment. If a company does find an off the shelf situational judgement test, it will be selected after carefully considering if it is relevant to the role. For bespoke tests, companies still use a test publisher to help them design it due to their consulting expereince and business psychology knowledge. Indeed many test publishers offer only a bespoke service when it comes to SJTs, including Saville Consulting, Criterion Partnership and Kenexa.

What you should do to perform well in situational judgement tests

No particular training or knowledge is required to take this type of test. However, as mentioned above, if practice tests are available on the employing organisation’s website, or elsewhere, it is well worth taking full advantage of these.

When you sit down to take the test, look closely at the detail of both the situation, the possible answers, what you are being asked to comment on and also whether you are being asked for your judgement or information about your most likely response. It is important that you read each scenario thoroughly and each possible response before beginning to rate or rank the responses.

Bear in mind that you can only choose from the available options and are being asked to evaluate the ‘best’ or ‘worst’ of these not any other possible options. When being asked to rank those options, they may all be weak or they may all be quite strong but your job is to put them in some relative order.

Another important point is that, as with ability tests, you are expected to use only the information provided in the question; do not make assumptions about the situation or scenario, even if it is similar to one that you have come across yourself in the past.

And finally, as mentioned above, if you have been given information about the competencies assessed then keep this in the back of your mind as you progress through the test. If you haven’t been given this information then make your best guess as to the competencies that are typical of the role for which you are applying. By identifying the competency or competencies that the question is addressing you can more easily get into the correct ‘mindset’ to judge the options effectively.