You can manage a team, a hotel, a call center, a retail store, an entire manufacturing plant, or perhaps a department of a retail store. In reality, your duties do not change much–just the scope changes–the size of the place you manage, the budget you operate with, the number of employees you try to lead and manage. And of course the scope of your responsibility.

It’s a similar story with interview questions. You perhaps interviewed for a team manager or operations manager or business manager job before. The questions you will face in this interview will be pretty similar. You will deal with some basic questions about your experience and motivation, and then with behavioral questions, when the interviewers inquire about your attitude to certain situations that can happen in the workplace. Let’s have a look at some of the questions, one by one.


Why do you want to work as a Department Manager here?

You can start with praising their place. If you apply in a retail store, you can talk about a great selection of products (in a given department), excellent reputation of the place, fair pricing policy, good atmosphere in the workplace, or your personal loyalty to the brand. You are a customer of their store and enjoy your shopping experience. When you saw that a job was available, you immediately decided to apply.

You can do the similar thing when applying for a department manager in some corporation, just the things you will praise will differ. Of course, you can also refer to their salary offer (if it stands out), employee benefits, recommendation from a friend who’s already working for the company, etc. Anything you say, they should get an impression that they are your first choice.

Sample answer:

I have always liked your brand a lot. Have shopped here many times, always had good interactions with the employees, enjoyed my time in the store. Many times I thought it would be great to work here. When I found the department manager job opening, read the requirements and the duties, I immediately knew that the time has come for me to apply, since I find the job a great match to my strengths and skills. What’s more, I live just 10 minutes drive from the location of the store. That would be a great benefit since I am a family man and do not want to spend hours commuting to work daily.


Do you have any relevant experience?

In my opinion, any experience is relevant once you apply for a managerial job. Because in each job you deal with people and money. You either manage someone or someone manages you–in both cases you learn how to do it better. And of course, there are always some resources you are responsible for, and decisions you have to make in work.

Any experience is relevant, you just have to help the hiring managers to see the connection with the role of a department manager. How can you do that? For example by explaining what you learned about effective management while having your previous job. Or you can list the duties you had, things you were responsible for–some of them certainly overlap with the job description for Department Manager position in their company.

And if you are just starting out, praise their excellent training program, and focus on your abilities and skills that make from you a great applicant, at least in your view. You’ve been always a natural leader. Understanding the people well, and knowing how to motivate them, and having passion for management, you’ve been always on your way to some managerial role. This just happens to be your first job application.

Sample answer:

I’ve been working as a shift leader in a coffee place downtown for sixteen months. Sure, it isn’t the same as managing a department with ten employees. However, I believe my role has prepared me for the job with you. Let me explain. In every place you face the same challenges with employees–conflicts in the team, lack of motivation, being understaffed on some days, having to deal with this or that issue. The same goes with resources. You work under pressure, trying to deliver, trying to meet your goals. Looking at it from this angle, the job of a manager in one place doesn’t differ much from a job of a manager in another one. No doubt I will have to learn a lot here, but I also believe my previous experience will help mea big way…

You will manage five to ten other people in this job, most of them working for a minimum wage. How do you plan to motivate them?

Do not suggest making a raise, or offering them a bonus–you won’t have an authorization to do so. Try to be more creative with your ideas. You can suggest trying to build the right atmosphere in the workplace. If people like each other, if they enjoy the company of their colleagues, and feel some responsibility for the results of the team, they typically work harder, and complain less.

You can also try to go by an example. Not restraining from taking on the manual labor (when you do not have anything more important to do), or always being the first one in the store or department, certainly has some impact on the people. More than anything else, however, you should refer to individual approach to your employees. You want to know your people, and talk to them often.

Certainly they will have different personalities, desires, problems, and each of them will have a reason why they work in a store or company. Once you understand them better, it will be easier to work with each individual, playing the right tune, saying the right things, motivating them in the most appropriate way.

Sample answer:

I prefer an individual approach when it comes to employee motivation. Of course, it is important to try to create a good atmosphere in the team, making sure people help each other and cooperate instead of competing. Having said that, each human being is unique, and a form of motivation that does miracles with one employee may not work at all with another one. That’s why my main goal is to understand each person well, their goals, desires, worries, and then motivate them accordingly. One more thing I want to mention is going by example. I want them to see me working hard, because a lazy leader can hardly motivate their people to give their 100% every day.


Tell us about a time when you showed initiative at work.

In most companies and stores they expect a proactive approach from you. They do not look for a manager who will sit in their comfy office all day, doing nothing until there’s some problem they have to address.

Talk about a situation when you actually suggested some improvement. Maybe you did a small audit–of a team, process, of a job, and found some areas for improvement. Or you understood that a place was understaffed or overstaffed, and suggested hiring someone (or terminating certain employment contracts).

Another interesting idea is replacing one of your subordinates at work. They did not come to the shift, and you could not find any replacement. Instead of closing the department or letting the customers waiting, you joined the other colleague on the sales floor, and served the customers. Show them that you do not plan to accept the status quo, and never change anything in the department you will lead. On the contrary, you want to always look for areas for improvement, and eventually helping your employer maximizing their revenues.

Sample answer:

In my last job in a warehouse I felt we were not working effectively. Doing the job for about one month, I came to a conclusion that a slightly different organization of the place can improve our effectiveness a lot. I didn’t have a power to suggest such a change, and it wasn’t my responsibility. But I still took the initiative and spoke to the plant manager, explaining my ideas and suggesting changes. I just wanted to help the company and also my colleagues on the shift. The management considered my suggestions but rejected them (they said from safety reasons), and nothing changed. But I am still happy that I took the initiative and didn’t stick to my regular duties only.

* Special tip: You can download the full list of questions in a one page long PDF, print it, and practice your interview answers anytime later, even when offline:

department manager interview questions, PDF


Describe a time when you struggled to communicate something to one of your colleagues or customers. Did you eventually manage to get your message over?

You may struggle to communicate something for two reasons: either they do not understand, or they do not want to understand (because they do not like your message). As a good manager, you should be able to address both situations.

Talking about some event from the past, you can narrate how you patiently explained something to one of your colleagues. If they still didn’t get it, you used practical examples or demonstration, and you did not mind to simplify your language, just to make sure that your message got over.

The second case–they do not want to understand, you can talk about a time when you announced some unpopular decision. You picked the right timing, when you felt the employee was ready to hear your message, and you communicated it in a most sensible way, bearing in mind the consequences it could have on them. But you still told them–because it’s your duty as a manager to announce both popular and unpopular decisions.

Sample answer:

I remember a conflict with a customer who asked for a refund they weren’t entitled to, because they damaged the product with maltreatment. But they had no ear for it, they claimed two years warranty always worked, and said some bad words to me. It was really hard to communicate them my message, explaining the reason why we could not refund them. But I stayed calm, let them shout, and simply, without emotions, clearly explained them what happened, and why we could not refund them. It took them some time to swallow it, but eventually they did. Communication with customers isn’t always easy, but when you are patient and don’t let your emotions to take control, you can eventually get any message over.


Tell us about a time when you missed a deadline or productivity target.

A few things matter here. First of all, you should be able to admit your mistake. Do not blame your subordinates or anyone else for missing the target. You are the manager, and you could have managed things better, so you are the one who bears the responsibility.

Secondly, you should be able to clearly explain what went wrong, why you failed to meet the targets. Maybe you underestimated something in your calculations. Or the team did not try hard enough–you did not motivate them in the right way. Or the team was understaffed and you realized it too late.

One way or another, you eventually found the reasons, and learned your lesson. And that’s the last thing that matters–you should not dwell on this setback. Sure, you missed a target, it happens to all managers sometimes, including the very best. But you identified the reason, you learned your lesson, and will certainly do better next time. No need to dwell on the setback for long.

Sample answer:

It happened to me in my last job of a manager in a small call center. We were in the midst of a relatively big campaign, and suddenly three operators left the job, and two got sick. We were understaffed and it was very hard to make the necessary number of calls to eventually reach the desired number of conversions until the end of the month. But I didn’t give up. I tried to rapid-hire a few new operators at the local collage, pleaded the remaining people to stay overtime, allocated most resources to that campaign, and I also spend a few hours a day on the call myself… Eventually it wasn’t enough, we didn’t meet the target. But I have no regrets since I gave it my best.


Other questions you may face in your department manager interview


Conclusion, next steps

Just like any other managerial job opening, an ad for a position of a Department Manager will typically attract many job applications–can be ten, but also fifty, or hundred. It makes your situation difficult. But the same is true about the hiring managers. It’s easier to choose one out of five candidates than one out of fifty, or a hundred.

To make it easier for them, they make the interview more difficult for you, with many situational and behavioral questions. If you aren’t sure how to answer these questions, or experience anxiety, you can have a look at out Interview Success Package. Multiple great answer to all tricky behavioral interview questions will make your life much easier in the interview. I hope you will succeed, and wish you best of luck!


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Matthew Chulaw
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