how to talk about weaknesses in an interview

by Ask a Manager on December 21, 2012

A reader writes:

I have a question for you about how to approach tricky interview questions. I’m thinking about responding to the “tell me about your greatest strength/weakness…” question (and it’s various forms) right now because I’m in the midst of interviewing applicants for a position on my team; it’s not me who’s in the hot seat right now. The responses of, “I work too hard” or “I’m a perfectionist” are getting boring and predictable.

For myself, I know that my sense of humor leans toward sarcastic and that can be poorly received by colleagues and clients. Is it “too honest” of me to admit to that as a weakness (framed as “something I am aware of and constantly seek to improve upon”) in my own future as an interviewee? I can’t take myself out of it and think objectively as the hiring manager that I am. Would it be a turn-off to you?

Well, before I answer that, I want to first urge you to stop asking “what are your weaknesses?” when you’re interviewing candidates. It’s important information to get, but the question rarely produces useful responses, as you’re seeing. (Although if you’re going to ask it, and I know that lots of interviewers do like it, then I’d urge you at least not to accept answers like “I work too hard.” Let candidates know you want a real answer and explain why — everyone has weaknesses, and you want to make sure that they don’t end up in a job they struggle in or are unhappy in.)

Better questions to get a more honest discussion about weaker points are things like:

  • “What things have your previous managers encouraged you to work on improving in?”
  • “If I talked to your current manager, what things would she tell me you excel at, and what things would she tell me that you could improve in?” (This one seems to get more honest answers, because of the implicit reminder that you will be talking to current or past managers as part of a reference check if things progress further.)
  • “What are you currently working on getting better at, and how are you going about it?”
  • “What’s been your biggest challenge in your position in the last year, and how are you approaching it?”

In any case, back to your question about citing a sarcastic sense of humor as a weakness when it comes to dealing with coworkers and clients … I think it would be a turn-off to most interviewers, possibly a significant one. Anything that says “I offend clients” is a pretty big obstacle to overcome. It’s also likely to make interviewers worry that you’ll be a negative presence in the office — one person’s snark is another person’s negativity, after all.

I’m a big proponent of having an honest discussion about strengths and weaknesses and fit — because it’s how you ensure that you won’t end up in a job that’s a terrible fit for you, where you’ll struggle or be miserable — but at the same time, I don’t recommend saying something with such a high chance of being a strike against you with most interviewers. I would work on that particular weakness privately (and do really work on it!), but have another answer ready for this question.

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{ 164 comments… read them below or add one }

Anonymous December 21, 2012 at 4:05 am

Why is lying in response to this question acceptable? The hiring manager certainly doesn’t want to hear a lie. If applicants can lie for one question then they can lie for every question. It’s just a matter of whether they get caught, i.e. whether the hiring manager asks the same question of previous managers.

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SC in SC December 21, 2012 at 6:24 am

I don’t interpret this type of response as lying. It’s not an objective question with only one factual answer. And while I require honesty from candidates I also expect that they won’t be so honest or open in an interview that it shows a lack of discretion. In fact, I always use the “what would you manager say” question. What I hope to hear is a realistic response with some examples of how the candidate has addressed the issue. What I don’t want to hear are examples of extreme or severely questionable behavior, cliches or so much honesty that makes me question the maturity of the candidate.

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Some European December 21, 2012 at 6:30 am

“What are your weaknesses?” is really equivalent to “Should I throw away your application because you are a liar (telling no weakness), because you are circumventing a question (pretenting a strength was a weakness) or because you refuse answering to this (asking if that interviewer wants you to dig your own grave)?”
I think when the interviewer purposely asks a question with only wrong answers the interviewee should be allowed to protect himself by not revealing everything. Its as much lying as wearing clothes is lying about how you look.

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Sharon December 21, 2012 at 8:58 am

I hate to show so much cynicism, but I agree with this. That’s my least favorite interview question, and not because I can’t admit to any weakness. Just that don’t see any way it’s NOT a landmine.

I was once asked what my prior manager thought was my biggest weakness and that was an even worse question. Why, you ask? Because the political culture at that job (with the prior manager) was very dishonest. For many years I was treated like a golden child and even my performance review meeting were laughingly biased. For example, once one of the criteria was whether or not I answered the phone promptly. (I was a software engineer – yeah, phone skills are just sooooo critical to that job! LOL) Anyway, I admitted that sometimes I let the phone ring too long. Manager verbalizes as he writes down, “Always answers within three rings…” And then, one year (not coincidentally, the year before I left) I got on someone’s bad side and overnight changed from the golden child to a pariah.

Sooo, yeah what would I say that manager felt was my weakness? It’s been several years since then and I still don’t have an answer.

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BW December 21, 2012 at 9:58 am

^^That’s also why I hate the “What are your weakness?”. I just see it has a field of landmines. I’m so thankful I haven’t heard this stupid question in more recent interviews, but it’s been the first thing I start worrying about how to answer whenever I’ve been interviewing.

For the other incarnation about what your manager would say, when you have a good manager who gives balanced and realistic feedback in a workplace that isn’t that messed up, that’s a much easier question to answer.

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Maggie September 8, 2013 at 5:54 am

Well said.

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Ask a Manager December 21, 2012 at 9:18 am

Who said anything about lying? Most of us have far more than one weakness.

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Kelly O December 21, 2012 at 10:03 am

I know I have plenty of weaknesses, and I some of those I would not share with anyone, much less a stranger with whom I am conducting an interview.

It’s not about lying. It’s about choosing an appropriate answer for the situation. In a work context, my biggest weakness is trying to make things perfect at the risk of not getting them done at all – it’s a desire to produce the best possible work with no issues, and it leads me to focus on smaller things rather than the bigger picture from time to time. I compensate for that by building in deadlines for myself, and working on remembering the bigger picture rather than getting lost in detail.

It’s an honest assessment of a true weakness. It applies to my work. If an interviewer cannot tell from my body language, tone of voice, and the interaction that I’m having with him or her that the answer is truthful, that raises more flags.

I don’ t think trying to reframe the question is elusive at all – to me it shows self awareness – this is where I am weak, this is how I compensate for that and try to work around it. (And for those of us genuine perfectionists, it is a pain in the ass that so many people say that in interviews, because it sounds triter than it needs to be, when it’s in fact the God’s honest truth.)

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jmkenrick December 21, 2012 at 2:29 pm

Exactly. My weakness for popcorn is not exactly relevant to my employer.

That is, until I get a job at The Great Popcorn and Kettlecorn Emporium.

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Elizabeth December 21, 2012 at 4:44 pm

You want to work for Topsy’s???

(Everyone I know who has ever worked there said it takes about a week and you never want to smell popcorn, caramel or fake cheese again.)

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Aswin Kini MK December 21, 2012 at 5:05 am

I am not sure about US, but in India we have many interviewers, who have asked this question to many hundreds of candidates. I can say this confidently because I have been asked this question in at least 3 of my interviews over the last 7 years. My only advice to candidates, who have the difficult task of answering this question, is not to be honest about their weaknesses. This is because I have seen that not all interviewers, if not every interviewer here, have the maturity to acknowledge that every great candidate has a weakness.

Therefore, be honest, judge your interviewer. Be honest, but always draw the line while mentioning the weakness, especially when the interviewer is expecting a picture-perfect candidate. For example, if your weakness is “Underestimating the amount of effort required to complete a task”, say it in a polished way such as, “Sometimes, I end up taking extra time to complete a task because I had overlooked the factors involved initially. However, I have identified the areas of concern and am working on it”. This is just my two cents. It worked for me and some of my friends, I won;t say it will work for everyone because interviewers across the world have different traits. Answering such critical questions is best left to the discretion of the candidates.

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Aswin Kini MK December 21, 2012 at 5:07 am

Note: I have missed out a word in the above comment. Sorry about that. This is what I wanted to say:
“My only advice to candidates, who have the difficult task of answering this question, is not to be TOO honest about their weaknesses.”

I just wanted to emphasize the fact that candidates should not open their heart out while explaining their weaknesses, this will only lead to unnecessary problems.

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Elizabeth West December 21, 2012 at 10:46 am

Good point. I think some people, in an effort to be honest, would reveal information they really don’t want the interviewer to know, or that paints them in a bad light. It’s such a fine line.

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Marie December 21, 2012 at 7:00 pm

Yeah – my theory about this question has always been that it is aimed at getting a few candidates to blurt out genuine weaknesses that are serious enough to preclude them from the job, but will in most cases result in a useless “I work too hard” type answer.

I’m noticing from the comments, though, that a very good answer to the question is the kind of weakness which you are not prepared to change for the sake of a job – that way, you don’t end up with a job you hate, and they don’t end up with an employee they hate.

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Waiting Patiently December 21, 2012 at 6:27 am

I agree with OP that “being a perfectionists” or “working to hard” is becoming boring even for me as a interviewee. In job interviews I usually say “delegating responsibilities or asking for help because of my need to see a task to end” something like that. I usually try to describe my weakness clearly instead of just saying outright “I’m a perfectionist.” Not sure if that’s the best approach. Perhaps I’m bored with with my own answers because my company gives us yearly self evaluations which not only ask us for “areas that need approvement” but also ” what was the biggest challenge of the year and how was it approached”.Ifind my self really reflecting back to past years because I want to show growth and continued effort toward improvement

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Waiting Patiently December 21, 2012 at 6:43 am

Wanted to add that like AAM said about the questions she posted- it keeps the person honest. I find myself being honest about my weaknesses in most interviews. However as someone else posted I do try to read my interviewer to gauge how honest I should be. I will admit those dreaded self evaluations force me to be more honest with myself about a weak area.

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Lisa December 21, 2012 at 10:57 am

It’s like you took the words right out of my mouth. The last time I had this question during an interview (which has been several years now), I remember saying that I’m a perfectionist, without anything qualifying the statement. (And it’s true – I’m a perfectionist to the point where sometimes it affects the timetable of the project I’m working on, but I won’t ask for help because I don’t trust anyone to do it right – read: the way I would do it.)

Since that interview, I’ve had a few management positions, which has really helped me learn that the deadline is often more important than 100% accuracy – sometimes 90-95% is perfectly acceptable. Hopefully I never get that question again in an interview, but if I do, I think I’ve decided on something to the effect of “My weakness is not trusting people to complete tasks the way I would do them, meaning I often take on too much responsibility. However, as a manager I’ve learned the best thing to do is delegate responsibility, analyze the outcome, and correct where necessary.” AaM, how would you rate this answer in an interview? (Not that you would ask the What are your weaknesses question anyway…)

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Ask a Manager December 21, 2012 at 11:00 am

To be honest, it still sounds like the old “strength disguised as a weakness” model. To make it genuine, I think you’d need to talk about why it was a problem for your employer that you took on too much responsibility. Otherwise, it comes across as “I produce tons of work! I’m awesome!”

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Lisa December 21, 2012 at 11:20 am

So, add in the information that it created a backlog of projects which didn’t have a concrete timetable, but were crucial for store operations? This specific example I’m using comes from my retail job…we are supposed to complete cycle counts, which is updating the on-hand quantities of our products. There’s no schedule for when they have to be done, or which ones we have to do, but not completing them means inventory will be off and customers will get very, very upset! Usually I like to do them all myself because no one knows the inventory like I do (and I know that sounds toot-my-own-horn-ish, but it’s true…I get calls from my manager on my days off because even she’s not sure where something is). However, other things invariably come up, cycle counts get pushed to the back burner, inventory ends up inaccurate, etc. I’ve learned I can’t get them all done with constant interruptions, so I’ve learned to delegate the less complicated ones to coworkers – that way the inventory accuracy is closer to 100% (so customers aren’t all huffy when it says we have something when we don’t), but I can still do follow-up corrections later if necessary.

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Ask a Manager December 21, 2012 at 12:03 pm

Exactly! Just make sure you include the part about how you’ve worked on it so it’s not a big problem anymore!

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Lisa December 21, 2012 at 12:34 pm

Lol, now all I have to do is get the warehouse to send us the stuff we actually asked for! Thanks AaM :)

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nyxalinth December 21, 2012 at 12:04 pm

The strength disguised as weakness thing…I blame it on bad interviewing advice. I did it for ages because I read so many books saying it was a good idea! I’m gradually moving away from that and more into a “Here’s my weakness, this is what I’m doing to improve.” model.

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Jamie December 21, 2012 at 6:42 am

I’ve had the exact same two negatives come up at my last four reviews…I know what my manager would say if asked…although I seriously doubt he would say it. I am getting better though, so there’s that.

A weakness doesn’t have to be something at which you completely suck, either, just something you don’t it out of the park IMO.

Id come up with stuff I’m not great at, but aren’t relevant to the job. Ie there is this one piece of software I have to troubleshoot a couple of time a year – and I haaaaate it. I’d mention that because if I ever got a new job I’d truly hope to never touch it again. It’s very specific to this niche and the documentation was written by the proverbial infinite amount of monkeys with typewriters thing. Becfore they get to the words of Shakespeare they churned this out.

Actually when I got my current job I used presentation skills. I said something about being fine in small meetings but I was nervous in front of large groups or something. However as my job changed I did more and more of these and now I can present before the whole company on a moments notice and not even think about it. Some weaknesses do improve with practice.

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Long Time Admin December 21, 2012 at 8:55 am

“Becfore they get to the words of Shakespeare they churned this out.”

Funny!! But you left out the word “cr@p” before “out”.

I hope I remember your line. I’d love to sneak it into a document sometime.

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jennie December 21, 2012 at 12:04 pm

It was the best of times it was the blurst of times?

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AgilePhalanges December 21, 2012 at 3:08 pm

This is what my mentor coached me to do when I was interviewing for the job I’m in now. I never was asked this question, but was prepared with an answer about delegating work and overseeing people handling those tasks. It was something I was starting to be asked to do in my old job, but was struggling with because it’s easier to just do it myself than to explain it three times, answer questions continually, and still have to fix it after they screw it up. :-)

The position I was applying for was not, in any way, supervisory or delegatory. In fact, now that the manager who hired me has been promoted another level higher, I’m a one-person operation and handle the daily grind all by myself, though with guidance from both her and the manager slotted in between us.

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Mike December 21, 2012 at 7:09 am

I recently interviewed (and got the job) where I was asked that with an addition of how I’m addressing it. Before I answered I took a moment and gave it some honest thought. I answered that during crisis (i.e. production servers are down during peak usage time) I’m not a great communicator and can be a bit rude when interrupted while I’m fixing it. I’m addressing it by realizing that I have others I can use, no one is going to die over it, and to just be calmer. I then cited a recent incident where I did just that.

I don’t hate what this question should be getting at: are you self aware enough to know your weaknesses and are you addressing them?

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Jamie December 21, 2012 at 10:53 am

I answered that during crisis (i.e. production servers are down during peak usage time) I’m not a great communicator and can be a bit rude when interrupted while I’m fixing it. I’m addressing it by realizing that I have others I can use, no one is going to die over it, and to just be calmer. I then cited a recent incident where I did just that.

This is perfect – this is someone I would want to hire.

And not just because I have the same issue and resolved it the same way…and it would be nice to have someone to share the pressure with when the servers poop the bed.

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Jamie December 21, 2012 at 10:55 am

One caveat – assuming rude is being a somewhat brusque and doesn’t include actually using the word “dumbass” to anyone directly.

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Rosalita December 21, 2012 at 12:35 pm

I agree with Mike – when I ask some form of the question (framed along the lines of AAM’s suggestions rather than “what are your weaknesses?”), I want to see how self aware a candidate is. That quality is important for the culture of my organization, and testing it is always part of our interview process.

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Anlyn December 21, 2012 at 1:30 pm

Hmm, I kind of like this. I may steal it. :) My usual response to this question is that I’m terrible at updating documentation. I hate doing it, and I’m complete crap at it. But our resources are so thin right now that documentation is dead last in our priorities, so it’s not something I’ve really had to improve on.

But trying to stop calling endusers “stupid users” (not to their face…just to other analysts)? Yeah, that I can…and should…do. Until I have to reset someone’s password for the umpteenth time.

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Anonymous December 21, 2012 at 7:22 am

Being a perfectionist may be boring, but it truly is my biggest fault. I have a hard time working with others because I end up correcting/editing their work because I can’t submit anything less than perfect (so I basically end up doing everything), and it also leads me to quadruple check everything I do and I am really hard on myself when I do mess up.

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Ask a Manager December 21, 2012 at 9:23 am

But is it something your manager would see as a weakness? The question is really asking about it from the perspective of your manager; the interviewer doesn’t care about stuff that impacts nothing but your quality of life, realistically.

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the gold digger December 21, 2012 at 9:45 am

I would see it as a weakness if I were a co-worker because I would find that kind of person very annoying to work with. Some things don’t have to be perfect. They have to be 95%. If you spend an extra two days to get the last five percent, then you are wasting time.

That kind of person tends to create her own problems, as well. My reaction to someone like that is, “If you’re going to re-do everything I give you, then why should I even bother to make an effort? I have other work to do.”

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the gold digger December 21, 2012 at 9:48 am

For example. I love my husband madly blesshisheart, but he is an annoying perfectionist. If I ask him to email our friends to tell them what time our flight arrives, it will take him forever.

My version: “Hi guys. Our flight gets in at 5:36. We’ll pick up our bags and wait for you outside. We won’t expect to see you before 6:00.”

His version:
Saluation. Inquiry into the health of the friends, their children, and their parents. Short discussion of how the Steelers are doing. Longer discussion of local and national political situation. Statement that we are really looking forward to the trip. Finally, the necessary flight information.

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Ask a Manager December 21, 2012 at 9:49 am

If the person is annoying their coworkers, then yes, it’s absolutely a weakness that affects more than their own quality of life. However, I suspect (and Anonymous, forgive me if I’m wrong) that Anonymous isn’t presenting it as “I do this thing that annoys my coworkers” but rather as “this is a way that I’m hard on myself.” That tends to be the case with all the cliche “strength disguised as a weakness” answers that people like to use — they tend to feel they’re presenting it as something that actually reflects well on them … when in fact, if they seriously want to present it as a weakness, they need to talk about how it has made them less effective.

When candidates have given me those BS cliche answers in response to the sorts of questions I recommended in the post (which is actually rare — those questions tend to elicit more honesty than “what are your weaknesses” does), I’ve asked point-blank, “So tell me how that’s impacted your effectiveness.” Nearly every single one has looked blank and confused (because they clearly had thought they could away with BS’ing the question).

(The reality is that most of those fake “weaknesses” actually could be said to impact their effectiveness if they were true. And the fact that they didn’t have any insight into that was part of the problem.)

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Kelly O December 21, 2012 at 10:14 am

Here’s a way I’ve framed perfectionism as a weakness – I will miss deadlines because I’m trying to get everything as perfect as it can be. I will go back and look at numbers half a dozen times, check my page formatting, make sure everything is formatted exactly the same, change number displays so they come out the same (even though my predecessor did not do that.) I want this report to be as close to perfect as it can be when it goes out, and with everything else going on, it makes me late in getting it out.

That negatively affects other people, because they cannot do what they need to do because of my obsession with that detail. I have to remember that while the formulas and numbers need to be correct, most people aren’t printing this thing, and getting that set up does not have to be done. It’s nice if there IS time, but it doesn’t have to be perfect.

(And I set my reminder for completion early – that helps me tremendously.)

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Ask a Manager December 21, 2012 at 10:17 am

I like that, because it acknowledges the ways in which it’s a problem for others (not just for you, the way people normally try to present this), and it also talks about how you’re managing around it to improve. It’s a good answer.

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Reformed Perfectionist aka Another Emily December 22, 2012 at 1:38 pm

Perfectionism would be a huge weakness in my industry; it would lead to cutting in to your profits by spending time on things that don’t add value to our clients. After poor communication, it would probably be the worst fault to have.

I have perfectionist tendencies so I fight this all the time. Anonymous, maybe this would help you. Because I need to be sure my final product has no mistakes (or very few. At first it had to be none but I’ve made progress), I develop a systematic way of doing every task. Then it’s more efficient, but I only do each item once. Then I quickly run through a checklist, or check items off as I do them. This way there’s no triple-checking because I know each item is right when I check it off so I can move on. It takes me a bit more time than average to learn a new task, but once I have it down I can often find efficiencies.

Another thing that has helped me is a tracking system that my supervisor developed. If I’m not sure about something, I make a decision but keep track of it. Then if I realize I was wrong later, I can go back and fix the mistake quickly. I don’t need to search through dozens of documents (or whatever) to find it.

Lastly, I try to be aware of when I’m starting to spend too much time on something. It sounds silly but it actually does help me to ask “Does this really matter?” This is how I’ve been able to start being okay with occasional mistakes. Some mistakes are small and aren’t worth fixing. You’ll develop a sense of where that line is in your own industry.

So basically: develop a system that works for you and follow it consistently, develop a checklist to go with it and keep track of anything you think you might need to revisit. As my Dad always says “Done is better than perfect.” I hope this is helpful.

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Laura L December 23, 2012 at 9:14 am

I have a friend whose perfectionism is definitely a weakness and it’s for these reasons. She’d rather have her work be perfect that have it done by the deadline.

It also means that she doesn’t complete all the work she’s supposed to because she’s focusing on only some projects.

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K December 21, 2012 at 10:04 am

Right; I work with a couple of people who’s perfectionism makes it much harder to get things out of the door, which is a serious problem when you’re working on tight, completely immutable deadlines. But that can be presented differently then just saying “I’m a perfectionist ::wink::” and leaving it at that.

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BW December 21, 2012 at 10:15 am

I have a coworker like this, and I know I have to fight this same urge as well, so I empathized with her and understood, but it drove me absolutely nuts to the point of pissing me off because it she was not just making legit corrections, but changing everything that was just a matter of personal style as well. So hell yeh, I’d say that’s a weakness, especially if you are working on a team where different people are responsible for different pieces. It created a lot of confusion for me on the receiving end, because I was supposed to be lead on something, but my perfectionist co-worker would just take it over rather than acting as a support or staying in a reviewer role, and then change things without consulting with me first to find out what the logic was behind the way I did something or she would totally turn my work process upside down by insisting she do it her way rather than the most efficient way or the way the team had decided on.

It’s a strength and a weakness – because it’s the kind of thing that when applied right, allows her to do great work and be of value to the team, but….holyjeebus! This was by far the biggest concern I had in speaking with my manager about work.

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Ask a Manager December 21, 2012 at 10:21 am

Exactly! My point is more that most people who use “perfectionism” as an answer to the question aren’t seeing it that way; they’re seeing it as “ha, here’s an answer that’s really a strength, so I’ve fooled you!”

But you’re absolutely right that it can cause real problems — they’re just overlooking that.

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Waiting Patiently December 21, 2012 at 8:12 am

Can relate to matters that require immediate attention and my communication style doing those times. Its far too easy to get frustrated with others during those times. So im learning to communicate better.

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FormerManager December 21, 2012 at 8:18 am

Honestly, I’m wondering if the ubiquitous “what are your weaknesses” question is going the way of the resume objective. I remember being asked it when I interviewed following graduation in 2005. Then, when I was job searching in 2009, I don’t remember being asked it in any interview. A year ago when I was doing hiring I never asked it nor did any of the other hiring managers since we’d always get a canned response.

I think people have wised up to the question and know to give an answer that turns the weakness in to a strength.

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Ask a Manager December 21, 2012 at 9:25 am

I think you see it more with less experienced interviewers who are told or assume they’re supposed to ask it. I asked it when I was first hiring, then eventually realized that the alternate questions that I put in the post got me far more useful information. But I think it takes some experience interviewing to realize that.

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Erin December 21, 2012 at 9:28 am

I’ve been actively interviewing for jobs from last fall to this fall. Have definitely run into this question at least 4 or 5 times, and always asked in the same way! (Leans back, smug look in the eyes, a “oh boy, let’s see how you tackle this question” smile playing at the lips.)

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the gold digger December 21, 2012 at 9:50 am

Unfortunately, “I can’t stand working with jerks” usually isn’t the right thing to say.

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Waiting Patiently December 21, 2012 at 10:30 pm

Ding…ding…ding..

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FormerManager December 21, 2012 at 10:22 am

Interviewers who turn it into a game should not be surprised when they wind up hiring employees who play mind games all day.

Seen this happen too many times….

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jmkenrick December 21, 2012 at 4:03 pm

Another way hiring is like dating….

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Kathryn T. December 21, 2012 at 1:08 pm

My snarky answer (never actually given) is “Kryptonite.” My real answer is “In the past, I’ve had trouble with time management, particularly when several high-priority requests have come in at the same time. I’ve learned that it’s best to be assertive and proactive about clarifying relative priorities, both with my manager and with peers, to make sure that everything gets the proper attention and nothing slips.”

(Learned that lesson from a manager for whom everything was priority 1, all the time, to the point where he asked an employee to stay to run a sanity QA pass on an upcoming build even though she was in LABOR. That was a work environment so dysfunctional that they literally wrote a book about it.)

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Long Time Admin December 21, 2012 at 8:47 am

Truthfully, my biggest weakness is that I like to “own” my work, and hate it when people change what I’ve done. In my current workplace, EVERYTHING is run through several other people, all of whom have a pathological need to put their blasted fingerprints on everything. And our corporate writing standard is “make it easy for someone with a 6th grade education to read”. (Really?? Is the company hiring professional architects and engineers who only have a 6th grade education?) Many of the writing standards here are much lower than my professional (secretarial) standards.

I can’t even think of how to phrase this in an interview, so I go with “I am used to doing everything myself, so I have trouble delegating work to other assistants”. Lame.

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Long Time Admin December 21, 2012 at 8:50 am

ps – almost everyone who comments on this blog has much better writing skills than the people I work with (it goes without saying that AaM does, as well). It’s so easy to read most of these comments and understand what the commenter is trying to say.

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Anonymous December 21, 2012 at 9:14 am

Sixth grade is perhaps a little low, but when we consider people who are not native speakers, or are reading things in a hurry, there is something to be said for aiming very low. I think in many types of communications 10th grade would be ideal.

For most internal communications, where there is not a need to impress by sounding particularly educated, I’m not sure of the downside to aiming low and can see the upside.

Well, I guess there is one downside – it’s hard to write that simply and might waste time. For me 12th grade is easy with practice, 10th is possible. But I haven’t tried 6th.

Oh, I just checked this post and see it’s about 8th grade.

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Jamie December 21, 2012 at 10:50 am

Is there an app where you can check for this?

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Anonymous December 21, 2012 at 11:16 am

Word will let you check this. If you turn on Readability stats in the spell checker it will give you the Flesch-Kincaid grade level.

Though I will say that this can be easily skewed. Writing about Minnesota? That will bump your reading level up because it is a longer word. So it is a start, but not an end to readability.

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Anonicorn December 21, 2012 at 9:16 am

Writing for a “6th grade education” level (or lower!) is something I actually wish more people aimed to do. Even if you can read at a higher level, reading something less complicated is always easier. Simplicity – that’s my modus operandi.

However, I do agree that too many chefs in the kitchen can be ridiculously frustrating.

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K December 21, 2012 at 9:47 am

Also, sixth graders are generally fairly literate. We’re just talking about the writing style, not the content (of course we don’t expect technical documents to have content the average sixth grader could understand).

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Anonicorn December 21, 2012 at 11:36 am

Yes, exactly.

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Noelle December 21, 2012 at 11:12 am

Ugghhhh, I can sympathize with this. I do a ton of writing in my job and while I don’t mind edits and constructive criticism I HATE when people basically rewrite everything just so they can have partial ownership. I’ve never found a good way to bring it up in an interview though.

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Anonymous December 21, 2012 at 9:08 am

I had this come up a lot while I was in my last round of job searching. So my response was always the same:

I hate voicemails. (I knew my audience well enough that most everyone got a chuckle out of this.) I try to work around it by setting up things like Google Voice where I can receive the voicemail as an email and make a quick decision: is it for someone else, is it urgent, do I need to get information before I returned the call. I also created a set schedule for myself because I was required to return up to 20 calls a day or more. I’d set 3 times on my schedule and then return all of them at once.

(In my current job I get less than one phone call a week and about a voicemail a month, it is blissful. And I know for many people 20 wasn’t a lot but where I was looking for work it was huge.)

This managed to say that I was looking for a way to resolve things, I would suck it up and do the work I don’t like to give myself time to do the stuff I do. And that I was forward on tech to resolve issues. And was very honest.

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Noelle December 21, 2012 at 11:15 am

I hate voice mail too! Especially the ones asking you to call them back about something that could easily be resolved over email. I’m at the point where I really only have to check them once a day, but I always do it all at once just to get it over with.

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Anonymous December 21, 2012 at 11:18 am

This job is great because people mostly know to email me or stop by my cube (which is very common in the culture of the company and fine for me). I try to be super fast on emails because it trains people to use that. But my last job was horrible. I bribed a coworker to do all of the phones if I did all the paperwork and data entry. Best trade ever.

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Job seeker December 22, 2012 at 6:01 am

I wish I could think up something like this. I was asked this at an interview recently. It was hard for me to know what to say. I have quite a few weaknesses. My problem is I don’t know exactly how to apply mine toward a job. My husband is in management and he probably could think of a million weaknesses I have. He would probably say I am a worrier. I don’t know how I could possibly make a positive out of this. I really hate to feel I don’t know the answer to something and will work my seat off trying to figure it out.

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Anonymous December 21, 2012 at 9:15 am

Question for AAM – in a typical office job (if there is such a thing) would it be problematic to say in an interview that you don’t like talking much on the phone, and would prefer meeting in person or communicating in writing?

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Ask a Manager December 21, 2012 at 9:27 am

Depends on the job. If it’s one that requires a lot of phone work, it’s potentially an obstacle — but maybe you’d rather screen those jobs out anyway. I’m not sure it’s really a weakness though; it’s more of a preference.

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Victoria HR December 21, 2012 at 9:31 am

IMO most interviewers are looking for you to tell them something that you have been criticized for in the past by a supervisor or manager, how you accepted or didn’t accept that criticism, and how you changed because of it.

For example, I’ve had good luck saying, “in the past, I have not followed up with employees as quickly as they would like, because I don’t have an answer yet. Now, I personally do not need someone following up with me if their response is just ‘no news yet,’ so it didn’t occur to me that others would. My supervisor at ABC company recommended that I follow up more often and why. Now I follow up within a certain time frame, regardless of whether I’ve gotten the answer or not. It has definitely helped me with employee relations.”

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Mike C. December 21, 2012 at 9:38 am

I HATE THIS QUESTION SO MUCH!

“Tell me, candidate who’s desperate for a means to provide food and shelter for your family. the biggest reasons why we shouldn’t hire you.”

Why not pass me a pistol so I can shoot myself in the foot? It’s much faster!

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Ask a Manager December 21, 2012 at 9:42 am

Ah, but that’s not the way to look at it. With a decent interviewer, it’s about “everyone has weaknesses, and everyone working here has weaknesses. But let’s make sure that yours aren’t going to be fatal in this particular job.”

It’s far better to find out at the interview stage that the job’s not a fit than to struggle in it or be fired from it, and that’s the point here … again, assuming you have a semi-decent interviewer.

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fposte December 21, 2012 at 10:41 am

I’m kind of with Mike on the real-world implications, though. I think there are a lot of obstacles to candor there because of how vulnerable the candidate is at that moment, and the interviewer can’t control most of the reasons for that–the past managers, experience with interviewers who do use such questions as traps, the situation at home, etc. And a lot of people are less concerned about being a fit with the job than with simply getting the job, and in that case they really don’t want to reveal any flaws that would be fatal in this particular job, and there’s a limit to what the current interviewer can do about that.

I still think it’s a useful area of exploration, but that’s why the straight out “biggest weakness” question fails–because it really is asking far too much of candidates–and why finding other ways to get at the information can be more useful. And even then it’s not a situation where we can just put greatest weaknesses in a row and contrast them as if they were factually verified–it’s like other questions, where the whole answering process conveys information even if it’s not the information the candidate thinks she’s providing.

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Ask a Manager December 21, 2012 at 10:51 am

I definitely agree with that — but from the interviewer’s viewpoint, these are legitimate questions to ask and when people bristle at them, it strikes me as an unrealistic idea of what the interviewer’s goal is in an interview or what the whole process is supposed to be about. I hear a lot of complaints about variations of this question, and I think people need to understand why it’s on the table.

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KarenT December 21, 2012 at 11:33 am

I think people have a problem with question in particular because it’s so expected that answers to it are manufactured. I can see why getting at someone’s weaknesses (and strengths too) is so important for any hire, but in many cases this question results in people trying to come up with the cleverest answer.

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Rosalita December 21, 2012 at 12:47 pm

Agreed. Also, interviewers don’t expect anyone to be perfect. When I’m interviewing (and coaching others to interview), we want to find out the candidate’s areas for growth and development. That way, if we end up hiring that person, we’ll be in a better position to support them and work well with them. If someone didn’t have anything to learn from the job, why would they want the job? If I could do everything perfectly in my role right now, I would be bored. I know I have areas to grow and to work on, and for me, that’s part of the challenge and the fun of it. This is the mindset I’m using when I’m asking candidates about their own areas for development – not to trap them or make them “shoot themselves in the foot,” but to understand what they’re hoping to get out of the job and how that might match up with what the job actually is.

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Rosalita December 21, 2012 at 12:50 pm

I meant I agreed with AAM’s post, though KarenT has a point as well.

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Jubilance December 21, 2012 at 9:56 am

When I was interviewing for my current position, I was asked a variation of this question, but the interviewer also let me know that they wanted a “real” answer. Part of the question was to also address what was I doing to develop in that area, which I think is a great way to frame the answer. I was honest & said that I was working on my time management skills, and outlined the techniques that I’d started using to strengthen in that area, along with how they were working for me so far.

Saying “I’m not the greatest at organization but here are the steps I’m taking to improve upon that” or something similar should be a good way to go about giving a “real” answer.

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the gold digger December 21, 2012 at 10:10 am

Yes – my real weakness is that I am not good with the number details. (Which is one of the reasons I was so annoyed when my boss quit one month after I started and left me stuck with the budget. I hate doing the budget and one of the reasons – other than the absolute pointlessness of developing objectives that corporate is going to override anyhow – is that I hate having to make sure all the numbers tie, especially when the numbers keep changing.)

I don’t want a job where that’s important, but it will always be an issue. So I have developed systems to double check myself: I build redundancies into my spreadsheets. I let work sit overnight and then review it with fresh eyes before I submit it. When I have to put a team together, I make sure I get someone who is excellent with the details.

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QQ December 21, 2012 at 10:01 am

What about the advice you commonly hear to say something that has little to nothing to do with the job that you are applying for? Such as, for somebody who will be sitting at a computer all day, saying that you are not good at public speaking. I would think that would annoy interviewers too because they would think “come on, give me something that’s relevant to me.”

AAM, what are your thoughts on an answer that relates to being an introvert? I hate that introversion is considered a negative trait by so many people, but I also know that some people really are going to see my reluctance to make small talk as a weakness. I also think that working that personality trait into the interview could be a way of saying “this is why I’m not as chatty/bubbly as other people you are interviewing, it’s not because I don’t want the job.”

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Ask a Manager December 21, 2012 at 10:26 am

Depending on how you frame it, I think that could be a great answer – will also hopefully prevent you from ending up in a job where they expect you to be super bubbly at the time.

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Victoria HR December 21, 2012 at 12:24 pm

I’ve answered this in response to that question also. “I tend to be more introverted and quiet than some. I’ve gotten feedback on it from former managers, so I have learned the proper ways of communicating in a professional manner, and how to come out of my shell at work. On the other hand, it makes me more detail oriented, blah blah blah” They want to see you realize your limitations and are taking steps to circumvent them.

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QQ December 21, 2012 at 3:28 pm

I recognize that, but at the same time I really do hate that so many people see introversion as a character flaw. The fact is that I am probably never going to be chatty in the hallway and would much rather work for somebody who is understanding of that. I just worry that it’s going to put me out of the running for jobs that I would otherwise be a good fit for.

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BW December 21, 2012 at 7:32 pm

My department took a personality test for some team building meeting. All but 1 person were introverts. That’s par for the course in my field and the people we interact with most. Extraverts are the ones who get looked at a little sideways in our hallways. I totally lucked out in my career choice there! :)

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Another English Major December 21, 2012 at 7:39 pm

As a fellow Introvert, I sympathize. I let interviewers know that while I am not great at small talk, I am a great listener. Some will like it and some won’t but I think it is a good way to screen for fit.

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Another English Major December 21, 2012 at 7:40 pm

*introvert. I don’t know why I capitalized that.

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bearing December 21, 2012 at 10:04 am

This is very interesting. It sounds like you’re saying that (whatever the interviewer’s reason for asking it) the utility of the question is in ensuring that the applicant doesn’t get placed in a job where he or she would be miserable and/or a poor fit.

Let’s stipulate that the applicant isn’t (yet) so desperate that s/he will take any job, even one where s/he’s a poor fit. If this is the case, then there should be an ideal “right” answer from the perspective of the applicant: one that will cause rejection if and only if the job really WOULD be a poor fit.

It makes me wonder if a good strategy would be to carefully consider the sorts of workplaces and jobs that one knows one doesn’t want to get stuck in, and craft an answer that will get you rejected from those but not from others.

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Another Jamie December 21, 2012 at 12:02 pm

I wonder if there really is a weakness that would accurately predict a poor fit. As many people have said in the comments, previous weaknesses have become strengths because they were part of the job. (Jamie’s example with giving presentations comes to mind.)

I really think the real question behind the “weakness” question (and variations of it) is “how do you handle valid criticism?”

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Ask a Manager December 21, 2012 at 12:06 pm

“I wonder if there really is a weakness that would accurately predict a poor fit.”

Oh yes! For instance, someone who is more of a big-picture person and isn’t naturally inclined to get bogged down in details, when the job is very detailed-oriented. Or someone who is good at getting things done when they can just sit behind a computer but isn’t happy or effective when they have to go out and meet with lots of contacts, when the job is very schmoozing-driven. And so forth.

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Kathryn T. December 21, 2012 at 1:14 pm

I should tell my husband (who is currently on long term contract) to say that. “My greatest weakness? I can’t make small talk to save my life. I prefer a work environment where people are responsive to colleagues’ needs for information and resources; if I have to wheedle and charm someone out of a UI spec in order to get my work done, I’m not going to be especially successful.”

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Marie December 21, 2012 at 7:26 pm

Me too, me too! I am good at problem-solving, but if there’s no problem to be solved / work to be done, I have nothing to say! My clients tend to like dealing with me because I take them seriously whether their legal issue is big or small. But I doubt they would want to continue hanging out with me once the problem is solved.

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ChristineH December 21, 2012 at 2:00 pm

Or someone who is good at getting things done when they can just sit behind a computer but isn’t happy or effective when they have to go out and meet with lots of contacts, when the job is very schmoozing-driven.

I think I got in the wrong field!!! :(

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GeekChic December 21, 2012 at 2:31 pm

When I’ve been able to be picky when searching for other jobs I’ve definitely used a “screening” answer when responding to this question or variants of it. Most often, my answer in that case is some version of “Most employers would say my biggest weakness is that I do not suffer fools.”

This has definitely helped me screen out places (and roles) where I wouldn’t fit it in and found me roles where I can excel.

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Another English Major December 21, 2012 at 7:44 pm

I especially agree with the schmoozing, which doesn’t come natural for me. I learned this after waiting tables, which is very schmoozing driven and a much better fit for extroverts.

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Molly December 21, 2012 at 8:45 pm

But wouldn’t details like that already come out in the job description or through other questions in the interview?

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Molly December 21, 2012 at 8:47 pm

Sorry, my comment didn’t make any sense where it ended up being posted. Lemme try again:

Alison said:
“For instance, someone who is more of a big-picture person and isn’t naturally inclined to get bogged down in details, when the job is very detailed-oriented. Or someone who is good at getting things done when they can just sit behind a computer but isn’t happy or effective when they have to go out and meet with lots of contacts, when the job is very schmoozing-driven.”

And my response to that is: wouldn’t details like that already come out in the job description or through other questions in the interview?

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Ask a Manager December 22, 2012 at 11:37 am

Not necessarily. Interviewers can’t generally think of every possible area they should probe, and sometimes candidates give good, reassuring answers about Area A but then have a different take on Area A when you come at it from a different angle.

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Joey December 21, 2012 at 10:09 am

A lot of peoples weakness is admitting or recognizing they have a weakness.

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Janet December 21, 2012 at 10:11 am

A former co-worker once told me that when he was hired for the job he responded “If you hire me, I’ll probably always be about 5 to 30 minutes late every day. I’m always late.” to the weakness question. Our old boss thanked him for his honesty and still gave him the job. And sure enough, he was always late. Always.

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Scott M December 21, 2012 at 10:29 am

Wow, I don’t think I’d have the guts to be that honest!

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Lisa December 21, 2012 at 11:04 am

I know I wouldn’t, even though it’s accurate.

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Ask a Manager December 21, 2012 at 11:06 am

The thing that’s great about this is that if he’s absolutely going to be late every day and it’s not something he’s going to change, then he needs to get that on the table up front and make sure he doesn’t end up in a job where it’s going to be a big issue. He’s screening for employers where it won’t be a huge problem. That’s very smart.

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bearing December 21, 2012 at 1:52 pm

That is exactly the sort of example I meant — because someone who is habitually late, and would rather not change that, is not going to be a good fit in an organization where punctuality is demanded, but it won’t be a problem in many other workplaces.

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Ellie H. December 21, 2012 at 2:09 pm

This is exactly me, too. I am 5-10 minutes late every single day – just maybe on time three or four times every two weeks. If I make a concerted effort and devote a lot of mental energy to it, I can be on time. I really try to work on it and it’s something I really hate about myself because I am definitely, 100% capable of being on time. Also, I live a ten minute walk from my office. It’s ridiculous that it takes me so much to improve it. Unfortunately it’s not a big deal in my job – nothing really happens if I’m late, but it still makes me feel disorganized and unprofessional.

I did bring this up in a performance review once at a previous job and my manager was somewhat amused, and pleased with my honesty (but went on to point out a more significant problem – too-casual dress – which I was mortified by and immediately corrected). But, I’ve always thought it was too minor/superficial/dumb-sounding to cite if asked “what’s your biggest weakness.”

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Waiting Patiently December 21, 2012 at 11:19 pm

Did he have valid reason like a commute from another job or school? I have seen this work in cases like the aforementioned.

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Jen in RO December 27, 2012 at 5:15 am

That’s also what I told HR when I was interviewing for my current job. I wasn’t so direct, but I said I have trouble getting places on time. Luckily, HR said it’s fine to be a little late as long as you don’t exaggerate (30 mins) and I got the job. (I’m never here on time!)

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fposte December 21, 2012 at 10:18 am

Most of my interviewing is with fairly young people quite early in their career, and their major weakness probably is indeed perfectionism, as in the perfect being the enemy of the good. I’m still trying to figure out good questions about strengths and weaknesses for this crew, since they often don’t have the work experience or perspective to identify what a manager might have wanted them to change, so I’m really interested in the comments on this. Right now I’m asking about a time when something they were responsible for went wrong and what they learned from it. That doesn’t necessarily tell me what they’ll be weak at in my organization, but it at least lets me know if they’re capable of the self-reflection to understand that they could have done something better and to identify what would have made that happen.

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Ask a Manager December 21, 2012 at 10:19 am

I think that’s a good approach in that context. It might also be interesting to ask if they do anything differently now as a result of that experience (because some won’t).

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fposte December 21, 2012 at 10:43 am

Oh, I like that–that’s great! Thanks so much.

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Scott M December 21, 2012 at 10:28 am

I like the : “If I asked your manager” approach. I haven’t interviewed in years, but I’ve thought about this question often as a though exercise. I must admit though, that I never thought about what my manager might say.

Previously, my standard answer would have been that I have a short attention span. So that I tend to leave things unfinished, unless I focus. And then I would list the tools that I use to help me stay focused.

If you asked my manager(s) they would probably say that they would like me to develop more leadership skills. But then, that’s not something that I’m interested in doing because I’
m not interested in moving up into a leadership position. In fact, if I ever left my current company, It would probably be because I’ve been here so long that I’m considered a defacto leader, and I’d rather just be a grunt. However, I’m not sure how well that would play in an interview!

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Mike December 21, 2012 at 10:39 am

The problem I have with the “if I asked your manager” approach is that the manager would probably give something I don’t consider a weakness. I.E. “doesn’t always wait for coworkers to catch up before moving forward”. That isn’t a weakness of mine, that is a weakness of theirs for moving too slowly :evil grin:

And yes, that was actually on a performance review and yes I did work on making sure everyone was onboard before moving forward (most of the time).

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fposte December 21, 2012 at 10:45 am

But the goal isn’t to find out your personal self-doubts–it’s to find out what about you affected your work for an organization. I think that’s a really good example of why Alison’s question would get her more useful information than a straight out “What’s your greatest weakness?”

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Elizabeth West December 21, 2012 at 10:58 am

In my head, I saw you at the interview saying, “My biggest weakness is a short attention sp–SQUIRREL!”

:)

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Scott M December 21, 2012 at 12:03 pm

+1

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Anon December 21, 2012 at 10:41 am

I think this question is tough because it can be culture-dependent. For example, I am a data/facts-driven person, and I am not good at the “soft sell” stuff required for consensus building. On the correct team, this is a non-issue. So, if the purpose of the question is to weed me out so I don’t end up in a role where I have to do a lot of soft-selling, that makes sense, but if the interview is for a job where it’s a great fit, it sounds like I am disguising a strength as a weakness.

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Jamie December 21, 2012 at 10:43 am

I am like this, too, and I think that’s where a version of this question does come in handy for the interviewee as well since I personally want to select out of jobs where this is skill is required.

I’ve seen people who are very good at coaxing people into meeting deadlines and selling co-workers for buy in…ugh…I just really don’t want to work anywhere where that’s necessary.

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Malissa December 21, 2012 at 12:00 pm

I’m there, it can be absolute purgatory. Some days it would be so nice to say, “because it’s your job and I need you to do it.” Unless you have actual authority over a person that phrase doesn’t always work well.
Granted it’s a phrase that shouldn’t have to be used in the first place. But when I’ve asked 10 times when somebody will be done with x so I can do Y, I really would like a better approach. Even explaining to then that they are holding me up and that boss needs X reports by a certain date and this is a crucial piece doesn’t always work.
So while my soft sell skills absolutely rock at this point, having to go through all the BS can get very old.

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Ask a Manager December 21, 2012 at 10:46 am

Anon, I actually don’t think it sounds like a strength disguised as a weakness (and suspect you only think that because you don’t value the consensus building stuff that much)! I think it’s a good answer, and one that will keep you out of bad-fit jobs.

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Anon December 21, 2012 at 11:58 am

Thanks, that’s good insight! I have definitely been in roles on both sides of this (bam, decision made! vs. let’s have an entmoot), and I think my frustration is pretty obvious in the latter.

I have been working on the pre-sell and things like that to improve, and I think I am getting good at addressing everyone’s concerns on big decisions, but I don’t think I’ll ever be happy in the type of place where one person can hold up the whole team on something routine.

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Kathryn T. December 21, 2012 at 1:24 pm

“Let’s have an entmoot” hahahahahaaaaa. I’ve been in too many environments where that is the default decision.

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Mike December 21, 2012 at 10:48 am

The weakness wouldn’t be the fact-driven part but the consensus building skills, which is required for any team.

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Anon December 21, 2012 at 11:21 am

No, it’s really not. I have definitely worked in teams with like-minded people where it was easy to say “the data says X, let’s do X, and everyone was good with that”. I’ve worked in other teams where people would look at the data, and then suggest some other path because of their gut feelings or something similar that happened twenty years ago or something like that. Some people are good at saying “Jim, I hear your concerns. Let’s talk about what you’d need to feel comfortable with this decision”, while I just find it endlessly frustrating, and am therefore happy to self-select out of such roles.

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Mike December 21, 2012 at 11:58 am

In those teams that follow the data you are still building consensus. In those teams everyone is interpreting the data the same way so consensus is easily reached. I’ve been in situations where everyone was following the data but interpreted it differently (especially common when the importance of a particular part of the data is debatable).

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K December 21, 2012 at 12:26 pm

Yes; I’ve also noticed that a weakness that many “data-driven” types have that they are not aware of if is an assumption that there is always one objectively correct answer from any set of data.

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ChristineH December 21, 2012 at 2:17 pm

Maybe I’m misinterpreting what you mean, but this sounds like me in my proposal review panels. I always find that if everyone else gives a particular section high scores, I’ll score it high too even if I personally would give it a lower score. I just hate the idea of being the “odd man out” on any team, because I’d feel like I missed crucial information or that my thinking was skewed. (I tend to be overly-agreeable in many areas of my life, actually.)

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Greg December 21, 2012 at 10:41 am

I’ve gotten this question on every interview I have gone on. My answer is always “I am not a morning person, I am useless before the first cup of coffee in the day.” This is something that they can relate to, makes me more human to them, and has an easy solution to this problem.

If they press me, or I see in their eyes that they do not approve, I continue, “All joking aside, ” and then go on to something more technical (I work in a tech field.) It rarely comes to this however.

Recently, I have been on the opposite side of the table, and my co-interviewer (my boss) has been asking this question. Most of the responses sounded like robots. If you are going to give the wrote answer of “I’m a perfectionist” please do not sound like the interview is boring you, no matter how boring that one question is.

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Lisa December 21, 2012 at 11:00 am

I just may steal this answer, because it is the honest to God truth!!!

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fposte December 21, 2012 at 11:00 am

Sure, but if he doesn’t like what happens when he asks that question, there’s something he can do to change that himself.

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maisie December 21, 2012 at 10:49 am

I have been thinking a lot about this question, between having my exit interviews at two jobs and now applying for new jobs.

My boss, who I adore and who was exceptionally nice to me, said that I was “difficult to read” sometimes. I am a highly emotional person, but not at the workplace. I tend to be shy, focused and very much have a “poker face”, especially if I’m on a tight deadline or working on a difficult project. My boss said that he often doesn’t know what I’m thinking or how I feel about a particular project, and that I don’t let any negative emotion show (so, I could be given the worst assignment on earth and my face would be the same as if I was asked to do my favorite task).

Is this an appropriate weakness to say at an interview? I think it has probably affected me in that I don’t want anyone to think I’m not friendly or approachable, so I’m trying to work on being more approachable, but I’m not sure how else. Should I avoid this criticism? Why would “hard to read” be a negative in the workplace?

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Ask a Manager December 21, 2012 at 10:52 am

I think that could be a great answer, but you’ll want to first think about and understand why it could impact you/others in the workplace. Has it caused miscommunications? Made people think you weren’t engaged or on board with something when you were? Etc.

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Jamie December 21, 2012 at 11:29 am

I have gotten “difficult to read at times” as well – more than once.

This is one of the things that keeps coming up for me and initially it baffled me, to be honest. The first time I was told this, and the crux of it is I’m “less approachable” when under stress and it was a helpful conversation with my boss where I wasn’t defensive, I genuinely needed feedback about what the issue was.

He affirmed that I was never less than professional and I no one had ever said I was rude. But that when I am under a lot of pressure and hyper-focused on something I get quite reserved and can be somewhat aloof. This makes people reticent to engage with me or ask me for things.

I have to say after hearing I was never less than professional and I wasn’t being rude – I kind of didn’t understand why it was an issue I was less smiley at some times than others. I thought everyone was like that.

While it took a lot of time I did come to realize that you don’t have to be rude and can be completely professional and still be off-putting. Once when my boss was dealing with a complicated work issue he was acting a little aloof and reserved and I overheard everyone asking if he was mad, who was he angry at…whenever anyone was called into his office people were nervous. And he was totally professional and not at all rude – but a change in temperament really does affect other people.

It affects me less than others, since I just assume if people have an issue with me they will tell me – otherwise they must be busy or dealing with something – but seeing how other people react to it opened my eyes.

This is still a huge issue with me – I won’t pretend I’ve done a 180 and am now like a perky morning show host…but I’m aware of it and what I’ve done to address it is to go out of my way when I’m feeling like that to have a friendly check in with people working on my projects to make sure they know X is going on, but don’t hesitate to ask if you need anything…and I remind myself to make some small talk with at least 5 people each day because that’s easier than just repressing the vibe I’m giving off. I have to diffuse it – not repress it.

But then the other day I was just told I need to smile more…so apparently still a work in progress. Despite everything I don’t want anyone to feel they can’t come to me if they need something just because I’m having a bad day/week.

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Ask a Manager December 21, 2012 at 12:12 pm

I have this problem too. When I’m focused on something, especially something important or that requires concentration, I often come across as unapproachable. (Honestly, it’s because I want to be unapproachable at that moment — I want to concentrate.) I need to work on this more.

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Anonymous January 6, 2013 at 8:04 pm

Alison – if you don’t mind me asking, what would you say your weaknesses are, aside from the above? I’m curious.

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Ask a Manager January 6, 2013 at 8:20 pm

I have dozens! Another one, a little bit related to the one above, is that I’ve had to really work to counteract my natural tendency to value efficiency over interpersonal stuff — so I’ve had to realize that sometimes taking two minutes to make small talk before getting right into business will make an interaction and relationship go more smoothly, and that it’s worth the extra 30 seconds to soften an email request so that it doesn’t sound brusque, and so forth. While I’ve worked on it and try to be conscious of it, I suspect that people who naturally value those interpersonal elements more sometimes still get a brusque vibe from me at times. The people I work best with tend to have an orientation similar to my own.

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Katie the Fed December 21, 2012 at 10:51 am

I’ve responded to this by saying that I’m not a great public speaker. I’ve done toastmasters and speaking classes and I can get through a briefing or a speech and do a decent job, but it’ll never be something that comes naturally to me, and I’ll probably always find it difficult.

Too honest? Who knows. But it’s the truth.

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Anon December 21, 2012 at 12:03 pm

I said something similar in my most recent interview, which ended up leading to my first full-time job. The job does require some public speaking, so I was nervous about this answer, but it was the most authentic one I could give.

I was careful to stress that I had taken a public speaking class in grad school and had volunteered for public speaking assignments in a previous part-time job in order to gain experience (and had received positive feedback). I framed it as, “Here is something that has never come naturally to me, but it something that I have consistently worked on improving. I may need some more support and mentoring in this area than other new hires would need, but you can be certain that I want to develop these skills and will do whatever I need to do to make them the best they can be.”

It worked for me. I was able to present myself as a good worker starting a career and looking to learn and improve… as well as someone who would work hard to acquire the skills needed to become the employee who would succeed within the organization.

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Andy Lester December 21, 2012 at 10:52 am

The problem with “I work too hard” or “I’m a perfectionist” is not that they’re boring and predictable, but that they don’t actually answer the question. The interviewer knows that they are BS answers, and it’s disrespectful to the interviewer.

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Ask a Manager December 21, 2012 at 10:53 am

Yes!

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Andie December 21, 2012 at 11:13 am

Just want to go on record and say I hate this question and I hate it even more that I still have not come up with an answer that I am actually happy with and comfortable saying in an interview. I also hate saying the “typical” I am a perfectionist or work too hard answers.

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Another anon December 21, 2012 at 11:20 am

I think I am the only person on earth, or at least who reads this blog, who actually kind of likes a variation on this question . . . I’ve been asked it and asked myself many times, and I think it’s very revealing. I work in an academic setting, and we often ask candidates what their students would say–what would students say are the candidate’s best points as an instructor, and where would they have suggestions for improvement? The answers are really revealing; the candidate having to put him or herself in the students’ position pretty much eliminates the “weakness as strength” weasel answer.

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Another anon December 21, 2012 at 11:21 am

Curse my proofreading skills before 9! “been asked it and asked *it* myself . . . “

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Anonymous December 21, 2012 at 12:10 pm

I think this is a great variation of the question and can be very powerful. But that is an interesting and engaging question, not a dull trap like the one as listed.

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Andy Lester December 21, 2012 at 11:27 am

When I discuss this question in my presentations, I bring it up as a question to be prepared for, even though it’s bad, and I always give two examples of what NOT to say: “A well-made martini” and “Willowy blondes.” But really those aren’t much worse than “I work too hard”.

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JC December 21, 2012 at 11:38 am

How about if you interview with multiple people and a few of them ask this same question? Should you stick with the same answer every time or maybe mention something else?

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Anonymous December 21, 2012 at 11:53 am

Unfortunately, the “what would your manager say” variation can be difficult to answer if your current manager is a complete ass who has picked on you, harrassed you and made you the office scapegoat for no reason at all, and is the main reason you are looking for new work. I had to be very creative at imagining what a sane manager would say, difficult after so long :(

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Anonymous December 21, 2012 at 12:12 pm

Yeah if someone asked me that at a previous job my answer would have been. “Well he’d say my biggest weakness is my unwillingness to lie. I won’t lie to his wife and I won’t lie to our board. It has caused me difficulty at the organization.”

Not really what they are looking for.

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Ask a Manager December 21, 2012 at 12:14 pm

This is where understanding why they’re asking the question and what they’re looking for comes in. Stealing fposte’s words above, “it’s to find out what about you affected your work for an organization” so they can better understand the total package, strengths and weaknesses, that you’d be bringing with you to them. And with the obvious caveat that something that was specific to that particular organization won’t be of interest.

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Michael December 21, 2012 at 12:01 pm

I used to do the strength as a weakness thing and never got offers. Not that it was my only thing blocking my offers, no doubt. However, anymore I tell an honest fault.

Being a programmer, I would say currently my biggest weakness is that I’m not as knowledgeable about certain design patterns as I’d like to be. These are generally huge in my profession so it is naturally a very honest, almost “raw” response and to be honest if the place I was interviewing at was a very pattern heavy environment that would be a cue to say maybe that’s not the right place for me.

Also, while honest it doesn’t implicate me in anyway that the code I do write sucks. :D

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Nichole December 21, 2012 at 12:53 pm

When I face this question, I usually approach less “here’s where I’m going to be a pain” and more of “here’s how I could have been a pain and what I did about it.” For example- “I have a habit of bristling at change, and even though it never got to the point where I had to be disciplined, I recognized that it wasn’t productive to complain about every change. I decided to consciously avoid saying anything negative about any change in procedure until we’d tried it for a week, unless I was asked directly by my boss or saw a major flaw that had to be resolved immediately. It’s made it easier for me to see the good in new procedures and express any concerns with examples rather than speculation. My boss recognized my positive attitude as a contributing factor in the success of launching our new electronic tracking system earlier this year.”

It just sounds so much better and says so much more about me as a worker than “I hate change, but I deal with it.”

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Mints December 21, 2012 at 1:31 pm

Argh, I hate this too.
I answered in an interview that staying organized was something I struggled with in the past, but now I’m super duper organized (in more professional words). Which is true, I’m OCD with lists and calendars now. But when I asked for rejection feedback, he said I was my disorganization was a factor. I think he just heard a red flag and tuned out.
I guess I need a better answer. I was thinking something more about how I tend to not speak up in group discussions until I’ve heard other people’s responses first. Sometimes this turns into me not speaking at all, which can be problematic once I realize I had something good to say after all. Does this lack of confidence sound too severe? I want to answer something along these lines, but rewording would be appreciated!

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Mints December 21, 2012 at 1:33 pm

Oh and how I think my past manager would comment on it: He was a really direct guy who was not afraid to be a jackass when necessary, and would encourage me to speak up more when others were being pushy to me.

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tangoecho5 December 21, 2012 at 1:57 pm

I dislike this question too.

In the perfect world, I’d like to ask the hiring manager the same exact question as part of the interviewing process and hope the surprise of the question causes them to answer in a more truthful way since they weren’t prepared for it. “What would they say if I asked those you supervise what your weaknesses as a manager are?” But I guess that’d be a way to guarantee I never get offerred a job ever again?

I meant bringing it up and turning the tables on the hiring manager with that question to be a snarky, wouldn’t it be fun if I could do it without really meaning I would ever ask that question. But now that I’ve written it down, it’s intriguing to me. Would asking a potential supervisor their weaknesses as a manager (or a version thereof) be totally out of bounds?

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Ask a Manager December 21, 2012 at 3:00 pm

You can, you just need to word it correctly! For instance, you could ask, “Working from the assumption that no one is perfect, what do you think the people you manage wish they could change about your management style?”

(Keep in mind though that really bad managers generally have no idea what their specific flaws are, or at least have trouble articulating them.)

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fposte December 21, 2012 at 3:06 pm

That’s an interesting notion. I’ve certainly been asked what my management style is, which addresses a similar concern and is a question less likely to be perceived as confrontational; I also would understand a question about previous employees and what they might have liked and disliked about working for me. I don’t think a straight out “what’s your weakness?” question is a good one for either side, so I’d recommend sticking with those. And of course you don’t want to ask any version of this right after they ask you–then it really does look tit for tat–ish rather than interviewy.

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ChristineH December 21, 2012 at 2:31 pm

This question makes me incredibly antsy!! I haven’t been on an interview in awhile, but when I did, I always dreaded the question because I tend to hyper-focus on my weaknesses. I almost want to say, “where do I begin??” but of course I would never say that!

I’ve been reading through this thread and I really like the suggestions Alison and other commenters have given. I love the perspective of how the “weakness” affected your work at previous jobs rather than the stale “I’m a perfectionist!”

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Not So NewReader December 21, 2012 at 3:20 pm

This question is right up there with “Where do you see yourself in five years?”
“I am a flawless person on the beach in the Bahamas somewhere….”
Sigh.

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LA December 21, 2012 at 3:38 pm

I always struggled to come up with an answer to this. I know that I turned off some interviewers with the answer I came up with, but in all honesty “I’m really nosy” is a huge weakness of mine. It’s also one that plays really well in my chosen profession because I’m always seeking stories to publicize. I have a really bad habit of sitting in on meetings until someone asks me to leave but oftentimes they don’t ask me to leave and are then confused when I know things they don’t think they shared with me. I just really like knowing everything going on around me, it makes me feel more comfortable.

It’s actually be beneficial when I can tell that an interviewer is a little weirded out by my answer. I like knowing prior to working there that they’d be uncomfortable with my personality and I’ve found some really great fits with people that are like me and always wantt o know what’s going on around them

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John Quincy Adding Machine December 21, 2012 at 4:23 pm

I’ve always wanted, maybe in an interview that’s going rapidly south anyway, to give Homer Simpson’s answer to this question: “Well, it takes me a really long time to learn anything, I’m kind of a goof-off, little stuff starts disappearing from the workplace…”

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Laura L December 23, 2012 at 5:19 pm

Please do this. It would make my life!

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Kat December 21, 2012 at 7:28 pm

You know what’s the worst? When a candidate claims to have no weaknesses.

I rephrased the question several times (asking about where she’d like to improve, things bosses have suggested to her, asking directly about weaknesses). I gave her a few minutes to think about it while we talked about other things.

In the end, she continued to claim that she couldn’t think of any. She immediately went to the bottom of my list – she was either a liar, or completely without self-awareness. Neither make for a good employee!

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Chantal December 22, 2012 at 3:12 am

In past job interviews, I’ve mentioned that my hearing loss makes it hard for me to talk on the phone, so I usually ask people to communicate with me in person or via email/text instead. Would this count as a “legit” weakness in a job interview?

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Andy Lester December 22, 2012 at 11:27 am

I wouldn’t bring it up as a weakness for two reasons. First, it’s not something you can improve, and part of the reason for asking about weaknesses is to also hear about what the candidate is going to do about addressing that weakness.

Second, and more importantly, your hearing loss is a medical condition that has you part of a protected class against which employers in the US cannot discriminate. You should never bring up in an interview things that an interviewer would be foolish to ask about. It could make it sound like you’re trying to get some sort of special treatment.

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Chantal December 24, 2012 at 8:24 pm

Hmm, ok, that makes sense. Thanks Andy. My hearing loss isn’t really something I can hide for long, so usually at the interview stage people figure it out if I haven’t told them already. But you’re right that it’s not something that will improve over time. I’m not job-hunting at the moment, but when I do, I’ll just have to pick another weakness that’s hopefully not too damaging.

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Beth December 22, 2012 at 8:16 am

Interviews are all about putting the interviewers fears to rest. I think the weakness question can be a great opportunity when you know the interviewers might have doubts about you with regard to a specific issue. For example, I was applying (and eventually got) for a position in another division of my organization. I knew that I had a good reputation, but that I was known as very quiet and shy about speaking up in meetings. When I was asked the weakness question, I mentioned this issue, but then described everything I was doing to improve such as becoming very active in toastmasters, taking public speaking and leadership classes, etc and giving concrete examples of how I had improved.

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clare October 20, 2013 at 11:21 pm

I know this article is from ages ago, but I’m just reading it now, and this comment is super helpful! It gave me an “a-ha” moment about this question as well as interviews in general, and I’m saving the comment to my “interview prep” word doc to refer back to when I (hopefully) do have an interview…well said :)

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Laura L December 23, 2012 at 9:46 am

As far as I can tell, the whole “strength disguised as a weakness” comes from career coaches (and books) who give bad advice.

The interesting thing is that advice like this perpetuates the idea that an interview is inherently combative and the whole goal is for the interviewee to “trick” the interviewer into giving them the job (and vice versa). Career coaches seem to think that there are magic words you can say that will land you the job every time. Which is a horrible attitude.

Whereas your advice, Alison, is clearly about working together to make sure this is a good fit for both parties.

I’ve never thought it about it like this before, because in the past I’ve just wanted a job, any job, but I like this attitude. It makes me feel more in control as an interviewee.

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