Interviews and assessment centres

‘Would you bend the rules to get the job done?’ Tricky interview question

21 Jun 2023, 15:41

Is it ever OK to bend or break a rule? We take you through how to answer job interview questions about following, stretching and questioning the rules.

A 'do not enter' sign, symbolising an interview question about breaking rules

There are several variations on this interview question, each with a different emphasis. You may be asked whether you would break a rule instead of bending it, but you could also be asked ‘would you break the rules to do the right thing ?’ or, taking a different tack, ‘when is it OK to bend the rules?’. No matter which version you are asked, though, know that it cannot be answered with a simple yes or no.

Life is complex. It may be part of your job to deal with situations where there is no clear right or wrong. It may be that there is a clear regulatory rule but you could come under pressure to stretch it, or to cut corners, to meet a commercial objective. Or it may be that the rule is unfair or detrimental and it needs to be challenged and changed. How would you respond in each case? When, if ever, is it OK to break the rules?

There is no one-size-fits-all, objectively right or wrong answer that every graduate candidate can give to these situations. Your answer should be driven by your ‘gut feel’ – but that’s not to say that you can’t prepare for the question in advance or talk through your thinking with your interviewer.

So why is an interviewer asking if you’d bend the rules to get the job done?

Recruiters want to see how you would naturally behave in a work-based situation, to assess if you, the employer and/or the chosen profession are a good match. This is a classic strength-based interview question . It is designed to elicit an instinctive, authentic answer that reveals how well you fit with the employer’s values and needs – and it’s good for you to find this out, too, as you wouldn’t be happy in a job in which you are expected to work against your natural behaviours and values.

What would fit well with the employer? It depends on the type of organisation, the sector and the job. It could be one or more of the following.

  • You understand the importance of legislative or regulatory requirements, even if not following them would save money for your employer or for your client. This is particularly likely to be a concern of interviewers in regulated sectors, including construction, engineering, finance and hospitality.
  • You act ethically or in accordance with professional codes of conduct, even if there is pressure to do otherwise. This is particularly likely for job roles that involve gaining professional qualifications (which typically have an ethical component), for example accountancy, surveying and HR.
  • You know when it is appropriate to seek support or permission from a higher authority, such as your line manager, supervisor or a member of the HR team.
  • Or you are confident in taking the initiative and using your judgement to resolve an ethical dilemma, to find a solution to a problem or a way forward, or to do your very best for a client. This could happen within a caring profession or within a customer-focused business environment.
  • Or perhaps you are an independent and innovative thinker – who knows when to question, to challenge and to be a ‘reasonable rebel’. You question procedures at work and propose new methods of working not because existing methods don’t suit you personally but because they don’t help further the higher goals of the organisation.

How to think about breaking the rules: when is it OK to bend the rules?

There are a couple of things to think through. There are some rules that are part of a code set down in law (for example: by the Health and Social Care Act 2012) or by a governing body such as the Solicitors Regulation Authority. There are some rules that come from business/legal contracts, for example service level agreements (where one organisation agrees to carry out work for another to a certain standard). And there are some rules that perhaps are best described as customs, coming from the culture of an organisation. Would you approach all of these rules in the same way?

Let’s consider the following scenarios:

  1. You are part of a construction team under pressure to design a building as cheaply as possible – but the only way to construct it any cheaper would be to contravene building regulations, which would make the building both non-compliant and unsafe.
  2. Your employer has a ‘no dogs allowed’ policy in your office, but a client wants to bring their new puppy to a meeting there. You want to maintain a good relationship with this client, who spends a lot of money with you – but the puppy isn’t fully house trained yet.
  3. You are a social worker and one of your service users wishes to give you a necklace as a way of saying how much they value your developing relationship. You don’t want to damage the rapport you are building with them, but accepting gifts is against the rules of your local authority. In addition, your profession’s code of ethics says that you must not gain financially from your position.
  4. You are a graduate manager in an organisation with a unionised workforce and you notice that the fire exit is blocked by boxes. There is an agreement in place with the union that it is a worker’s job to lift and move boxes and that a manager shouldn’t do a worker’s job. However, no worker is available and health and safety regulations require that a fire exit is kept clear.

What would you do to tackle each scenario? For some of these, your response might be very clear. For scenario 1, for example, an interviewer would take a dim view of anyone who wouldn’t comply with the building regulations, while the paramount concern for scenario 4 must be that fire safety legislation is complied with.

For others, it might be that you don’t have sufficient knowledge to make an informed decision. For example, in scenario 2, why is there a no-dogs policy? Are any of your colleagues allergic to dogs? Is anyone phobic? Does the office letting agreement prohibit animals? In scenario 3, how valuable is the necklace? Would your response differ if it is homemade from an inexpensive beading kit or a pricy gold necklace from a jewellers – or an heirloom?

You may also want to consider whether there is another solution to the problem that would not involve breaking or bending rules. And whether, when and how you should consult a manager or supervisor.

You see, you should aim to show that, according to various circumstances, you can be a:

  • Rule acceptor – working with the systems and mentality of the organisation to ensure smooth-working and success.
  • Rule challenger – not avoiding the rules or constantly moaning about them or undermining them but questioning them when there’s a better way of doing things.
  • Rule changer – achieving change while supporting colleagues and the organisation through change.

Dos and don’ts when answering questions about breaking the rules

DO feel able to ask for more context or a situation in which you might be asked to break or bend the rules, in order for you to give a considered reply. DON’T need to feel rushed into giving a one-word, blanket answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’. It’s OK to say: ‘It would depend on the circumstances – can you give me an example scenario where this situation could arise?’ And DO feel able to talk through your thoughts and how you have reached the conclusions you have. If you say that you would not bend the rules despite pressure from a client, say how you would communicate this to the client.

DO some research on the employer, the sector and/or the profession and let it inform your response. If you know, for example, that your chosen profession has a code of conduct, you could say that it would be a guiding principle.

Example answers to the interview question ‘would you break the rules to get the job done?’

As noted, there isn’t a go-to template answer to this sort of question. However, you should speak thoughtfully. The following answers, each approaching the question differently and covering each position from ‘probably not’ to ‘yes probably’, should give you inspiration.

Example answer 1

’I would never act in opposition to the standards set out in the [insert name of professional body] code of conduct and I would ensure that all legislation was complied with. However, I am also keen to ensure I do my best for clients and so I would push myself to exceed their expectations in ways that do comply with the rules. If that meant working overtime to get the job done, I would.’

Example answer 2

‘Some rules are there for a legal reason. I would never break those. Most other rules are there for a good reason, so I wouldn’t choose to break or bend one without very good reason – and I’d ask permission from my manager first. However, I would want to be able to put a case forward for why that rule needs to change.’

Example answer 3

‘I am leaving full-time education, so I haven’t experienced the scenario your question describes in a work setting. I can’t think of a time when I would knowingly break the rules, but I might question the need for them. At university I have sometimes found myself asking for some procedures to be changed if I felt that would improve things. For example, I suggested that our tutor group routinely starts with a recap of last week’s key points as I felt that would help learning. I always asked politely.’

Example answer 4

‘It depends on what the rules were and what the job was. Sometimes it is better to ask for forgiveness rather than permission, but not if it endangers life or leads to unacceptable legal risk.’

Example answer to the interview question ‘when is it OK to bend the rules?’

This isn’t a strengths question – but again your answer should be based on your gut feeling, taking into account what we’ve reflected above about the nature of different rules. You could say something along the lines of the below:

‘There may be times to break the rules, depending on the situation and the nature of the rules. In life and death situations, safety is paramount. For example, if I was rescuing someone drowning in a pool, I wouldn’t care about following the changing room’s one-way system to get to them. However, it wouldn’t be OK to break the rules for personal gain, to break the law or to open the business up to unacceptable risk.’

However, it would be worth asking the interviewer to clarify whether they intend the question to relate to a specific job or in a wider sense.

targetjobs editorial advice

This describes editorially independent and impartial content, which has been written and edited by the targetjobs content team. Any external contributors featuring in the article are in line with our non-advertorial policy, by which we mean that we do not promote one organisation over another.

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