How to survive a role-play interview exercise and live to tell the tale!

By Sophie Mackenzie, AdMore Recruitment

Role-play interview…these two words tend to send a shiver down the spine of most people. Whether called upon to do them as part of training and development at work or as part of an assessment process for a new role, chances are the very prospect will fill you with dread!

Fear not, like most things, by understanding what is expected and knowing how to approach it, you should be able to perform well. As someone who has had the dubious pleasure of taking part in role-plays as both candidate and assessor, here are some tips from me.

What is a role-play exercise?

A role-play interview exercise is in simple terms, an artificial simulation of a scenario. It is a way of replicating (albeit falsely) actions and behaviours in a specific situation in order to give a demonstration of how you may perform in reality.

Still widely used in assessment centre processes and training courses, they can be a useful way of judging how a person will behave in order to either decide whether they have the capability to do a certain role or in order to coach someone to improve certain behaviours. They are also a useful way of conducting a cultural assessment of a candidate.

What format will it take?

I am focusing here on role-plays used in an assessment or interview process however the basic principle is the same whatever the reason you are doing them. For the purposes of illustration, I am using an example of a role-play I wrote for a client’s assessment centre process which was used to assess Area Manager candidates.

You will get a brief outline of a scenario with details of the character you will be playing and an outline of the character you will be role-playing with.

For example:

You are an Area Manager for a home wares retailer.

Having joined the business 3 months ago, you are in the process of getting to know your store teams and are conducting detailed follow-up audits of all the stores in your area.

There will usually be some guidance about what you are trying to accomplish from the ‘meeting’ and further details to add context.

For example:

A recent visit to one of your previously top performing stores has identified several issues:

A marked decline in store standards since your first visit 6 weeks ago. Key issues are:

Cleanliness and health and safety in the warehouse and staff areas.

Poor presentation on promotional carousels and issues with availability on key, volume products (kitchen and bathroom basics).

The Store Manager, Andrew Smith, has been late on several occasions. The last time, he was 30 minutes late for a visit from the Commercial Operations Director so this has now been noticed at senior level. Andrew has worked for the company for several years and is well regarded. Until recently, his store has been consistently in the top 5 in terms of sales and mystery shopper scores.

You have arranged a meeting with Andrew Smith to discuss your concerns and investigate the situation.

It is likely to include guidelines about how much time you have to prepare and how much time you have to complete the role-play exercise itself.

For example:

You have 15 minutes to prepare for this meeting.

After 15 minutes, Andrew Smith (played by an Assessor role-playing ‘in character’), will arrive to begin the meeting. They will be joined by another Assessor who will observe the role-play and take notes but not take part in the role play.

You have 30 minutes to conduct the meeting.

How to prepare

Don’t panic!

Read the brief carefully. Take particular note of the timings and work out exactly how much time you have to prepare.

Read the brief again and this time, make notes with your observations.

For example:

Andrew – previous top performer…what has changed?
Store standard issues are all basic things so unlikely to be training issue – problem with store team? Delegation?
Why is he late? Issues at home?

Chances are, the role-play will have been tailored to a scenario you would be likely to face in your target role in which case, it is probably a situation that you have faced before in real life.

If this is the case, clear your mind and reflect on when you have dealt with a similar situation. Think about how you handled it, what you were hoping to achieve as an outcome and how the person you were meeting with reacted.

Think about what the assessors are looking for. If you are interviewing for a role where people management is key, then clearly, they are looking for you to demonstrate your skills in particular around communication, empathy, coaching and motivation. Think also about the culture of the organisation so you can adapt your style accordingly.

Equally, as an Area Manager, you will be responsible for overall standards in your area and in turn sales performance, so you need to make sure these issues are addressed immediately.

The assessors will therefore be looking for you to balance your soft skills with a focus on results so you will need to try to agree a plan of action to improve the situation.

Draw out a rough plan of what you would like to achieve.

This will help you focus on the key points and help you to remember to cover the important areas. Bear in mind however that you need to be prepared to adapt your focus depending on how the other role-player approaches their role. They may behave in any number of different ways and you will need to respond accordingly.

Warning: watch out for red herrings – you will undoubtedly be given lots of information, some of which may be superfluous or not relevant to this situation. Identify the key issues and focus on them – remember the main point is to identify the underlying problems which have caused them. The key to finding out what they are is to ask OPEN QUESTIONS.

For instance: “how is your day going so far?” “how are you feeling about your job at present?” “what do you think about the new stock loss procedure/promotion/overtime ban?” “how are your team reacting?”

The role-play itself

Once you have sketched out your plan and thought about your options, it is time to get ‘in the zone’!

This is where you need to ‘suspend your disbelief’. By this I mean that you have to get into character and do your best to forget that you are in an artificial situation. In doing this, you will make it easier for yourself to behave in a natural and ‘real’ way and it will help alleviate any feelings of embarrassment or silliness that you may be feeling. By throwing yourself into the role-play and going with the flow, you are more likely to give a good account of yourself.

Bear in mind that the other role-player is likely to be in character too so if they knock on the door, answer it in character and start your performance!

  • The first thing to do when you meet your ‘opposite number’ is to greet them and offer them a seat.
  • Try to behave how you would in reality. The danger is to launch into your questioning straight away but you should not forget the importance of building rapport and setting the scene. Ask them about their day so far…
  • Assess their body language – are they on the defensive, are they stressed, are they very upbeat or nervous? These observations will help you assess how the role-player is approaching the task and how you should approach the situation. For example, if they are defensive, resist going straight onto the offensive. Instead, spend more time building rapport and breaking down those walls.
  • The temptation is always to make assumptions and move straight onto developing an action plan without really understanding the issues. You MUST start by asking numerous questions. Get them to do most of the talking in order to find out what is going on.
  • Ask OPEN QUESTIONS, make sure you are actively listening, reflect back to them to show you have taken on board what they have said. A good role-play assessor will modify their approach depending on how you are treating them so they should start to give you some clues.
  • Depending on how good an actor your partner is, you should by now have an idea of what approach is going to get the best result.


If you have ascertained that someone is under pressure due to personal circumstances, it is important to listen and offer support. Ask the person what would help them to move forward – do they need a day off to sort things out? Would they benefit from working reduced hours for a short period of time? Clearly, you have to be careful about making promises you may not be able to deliver on or wouldn’t have the seniority to authorise however, it is important to think of practical steps which the company could take.

  • Once you have dealt with the root cause, it is important to address the operational issues in store. Again, avoid going on the attack and try to get the person to acknowledge their own shortcomings themselves. It is then much easier to offer support and offer to put a plan in place to help them to improve.
  • The action plan should be SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable (or Agreed), Realistic), Time-specific). Try to make this a collaborative process to ensure ‘buy-in’ from the person.

NB. It is however important that you make it clear that standards MUST improve immediately. Set a date by which you want the improvements to be made and arrange a follow-up meeting.

  • Keep the overall tone supportive and motivational. If you can combine this with a clear action plan and a zero-tolerance approach to poor standards, you will have achieved a good result!

Dealing with a ‘difficult’ character

Depending on how the company want to assess you, they may try to catch you out by briefing the role-player to be purposely objectionable. This is particularly common (and appropriate) when assessing for sales roles.

Again, assess body language so you can see any difficulties coming and make allowances for this in your preparation. If dealing with an irate customer for instance, remember the importance of listening, empathising and calming them down before talking about what you can do to help.

In the case of a difficult staff member, keep HR best practice in mind. If they are indicating that a disciplinary procedure may be required (perhaps in the case of Gross Misconduct for instance), you may need to approach this in a more structured way.

Other points to remember

  • Stay in character – even if you are faltering, try to stay in character rather than slipping out of character and addressing the assessors directly. It is always better to keep going.
  • Keep track of time and ensure that the meeting reaches a conclusion within the timeframe. Don’t rely on the assessor to warn you when your time is up.
  • Use positive body language in particular a firm handshake and a smile.
  • Remember that the role-playing assessor is likely to be as uncomfortable as you! It is an artificial situation which few people relish – this should help you control your nerves.

I hope this helps. For further advice on navigating the interviewing process, please read our other articles in the Career Management section.

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