my interviewer asked me, “if I were to fire you, what would be the reason why?”

A reader writes:

I wanted to get your take on a recent interview question I was asked. Normally I’m prepared for most questions thrown at me from various interviews I’ve been on, but this one threw me: “If I were to fire you, what would be the reason why?” My interviewer even stated that it was a hard and unique question, but I honestly became very flustered! I had no idea how to respond. I tried to come up with an answer, but I got so nervous I feel like the rest of my interview may have suffered because of it.

This is a bad question. It’s probably the interviewer’s way of trying to get you to talk about weaknesses or possible fit issues, but it asks you to speculate on something that you really can’t realistically do. It’s not like you’re going to say, “Well, my past managers have given me serious warnings about my follow-through and I suck at staying on top of my to-do list” or “my ability to lay out a vision and inspire followership in others is pretty shoddy.”

There absolutely is value — lots of it — in having an honest discussion about the areas of a role that might be more of challenging for you, so that both you and the hiring manager are moving forward with your eyes open and can make educated decisions about whether those challenges are likely to be prohibitive in the role or not. That’s in everyone’s best interests — theirs so that they don’t make the wrong hire and yours so that you don’t end up in a job you struggle in (or even end up getting fired from).

But there’s a much more straightforward (and less defensiveness-provoking) way to have that discussion, like by simply asking, “What parts of the role do you anticipate being the most challenging for you personally or needing the most support or coaching in?” And, “Tell me about the parts of Job X that you found the hardest and how you approached them.” In other words, saying what you mean, rather than couching it in a question that feels like a gotcha.

But if you’re on the spot and have to answer this question, I might say something like this: “Well, I think I have a good understanding of the role and what you’re looking for, and I’m confident in my ability to do X, Y, and Z, but if it were to not work out, I could imagine it being because the needs of the role shifted and you ended up needing someone with more strengths in A or B, which aren’t particular specialities of mine.”

I might also add, “I’m curious about your own answer to that question. Are there things that you’ve seen harm people’s success in the role before?”

But it’s an annoying question. If you end up working there, hopefully you’ll develop enough of a rapport with this person that you can encourage them to frame whatever they’re looking for with this question differently in future interviews.

Random musing: I almost wonder if this interviewer is trying to apply a “pre-mortem” here. A pre-mortum is a crazily helpful business concept where you imagine that a project has failed and then work backward to determine why that would have happened, so that you can adjust your planning now to avoid that outcome. “If it’s the end of the year and this person isn’t working out, why would that be?” would be a great question for an interviewer to think about on their own or with colleagues. I just don’t think it works well when posed to the candidate, at least not with the framing that this interviewer used.

{ 186 comments… read them below }

    1. Also obvious

      Interviewer: “Where do you see yourself in five years?”
      Peter, thinking: don’t say ‘doin your wife’, don’t say ‘doin your wife’, don’t say ‘doin your wife..’
      Peter, talking: “Doin your… son?”

    2. AdAgencyChick

      Why not just ask, “What are your weaknesses?” Because everyone has them, but the whole point of the interview process is to match up not only strengths, but also weaknesses, with the job that needs doing. My weakness at X matters not a whit if the position is focused on Y, but if they really want a focus on X, then sure, I could be fired for that if I took that job.

      If someone asked me this, I’d probably be a bit nonplussed, and hopefully would have the presence of mind to say, “If you’re looking for a teapot expert, then you’d probably fire me because I’m not all that well versed in china glazes, but if this role is chocolate-focused, I’m guessing that wouldn’t matter.”

      1. Greg

        The weakness questions sucks almost as much as the one the OP was asked (though for different reasons).

    3. Jazzy Red

      “Because you’re crazy.”

      I’ve worked for idiots like this in the past, and believe me, it’s hell on earth. I would run far, far away from anyone who asked such a stupid question.

  1. Meg P

    Not that I would ask that exact question in an interview, but a coworker used to ask about what interviewees had gotten knocked down on in previous performance reviews. Savvy folks can answer around the question, but you might be surprised by the information people will reveal about themselves.

    1. LBK

      I’ve been asked “If I asked your current manager what your biggest challenge has been, what would they say?” which is more or less the same thing. I actually kind of like that question instead of the more common “What’s your biggest weakness?” because it forces the candidate to include some information about outside perception and visibility of their work that you may not get if you just ask for their own opinion of themselves. Also gives you some info about their relationship with their manager, which can be valuable.

      1. BRR

        I’ve heard more variations like that. I also like it better because I think it’s harder to answer with something like “I’m too much of a perfectionist.” I also like Alison’s comment below about addressing weaknesses in regards to the specific position. You wouldn’t want to misrepresent your skills to get a position because it will be clear that you can’t do a,b,c, and your job will be in jeopardy.

      2. INTP

        For my current job I was asked “What do you think your biggest challenge in this role might be?” I didn’t mind answering that at all, and it’s basically the same question, except that it gives you an opportunity to say how you’d overcome that challenge instead of answering as though you’d be incapable of handling it and get fired over it. It’s less antagonistic and as a result would probably garner more honest answers.

        1. LBK

          I think you can naturally include information about what you’ve done to work on your weaknesses if it’s phrased the way I described, but it’s harder for the interviewer to draw out information about perception through the “biggest challenge” question since it’s all about what that person thinks about themselves.

    2. Ask a Manager Post author

      I’d actually argue that the savviest will answer that honestly and be willing to reveal less flattering information — because there’s real benefit in making sure that your weaker spots aren’t going to cause issues for you in this new job. I’d never take a job without having an honest discussion of my weaker points, because I want to end up in the right job for me. And from the hiring side of things, candidates who are able to do that come across as far more compelling. (It’s hard to do this early in one’s career, of course — but 10 or so years in, people should be able to do this.)

      1. C Average

        +1

        Knowing what you’re not good at is REALLY good information that should absolutely influence your career choices.

      2. the gold digger

        Yes – my weakness is that I hate working at a super-detail level and I am bad at it. It takes me five times as long to put together a financial report because I have to triple-check everything because I am so bad at it. I hate ticking and tying the numbers, many of which are fiction. If I am going to have to do the monthly financial reporting and am going to have to put together the annual strategic plan for the group, then I do not want the job.

        (I’m talking to you, old hiring manager who quit two weeks after I started and whose finance work all came to me.)

      3. Ms Enthusiasm

        In addition to having an honest conversation about your weaknesses it also looks good to include steps you’ve taken to improve in these areas.

      4. Elizabeth West

        As my biggest weakness is math, I have to be very careful how I answer this question (or ask about challenges) because I may out myself as having a learning disability. Some people have a very skewed idea about LDs and many people have never heard of dyscalculia. It can also come off as though I’m not interested in doing certain duties, even though the reason I’m probing is because you do not want me doing your books or trying to manage any kind of budget.

        1. Liz

          I’m the same way, except I’m struggling to get solutions because I can’t remember all the random figures (we have X in Cohort A, participation was Y last year and we’re aiming for an increase this year). I’m great at a detail level though, I just have to spend forever doublechecking the bigger numbers to make sure they’re at least in the right ballpark. At some point I should probably let my current manager know. My former manager did, but only after my role changed – before then it wasn’t an issue. Now, I can get results that are out by hundreds or thousands and not notice…

        2. Jen RO

          Would a hiring manager really hold “bad at math” against a candidate who does a job where math is not involved? I am not good at it, but I can manage a couple of Excels just fine and I wouldn’t care if a candidate told me math is not her thing… It’s job-dependent, obviously, but I can’t think of many jobs where math is a requirement.

      5. abby

        Yeah, I’ve prepared for the inevitable “weakness” question by reviewing previous performance appraisals. I’ve never actually gotten knocked down for anything in an appraisal, but I consider areas where I could develop, or even certain professional goals. It also helps me think about the things I’m good at, but don’t like and would prefer to avoid in a new job. A savvy interviewee won’t dance around this, but instead look at it as an opportunity.

          1. Kyrielle

            Based on actual performance evaluation, I tend to be too wordy and need to work at being concise.

            So I’m working at it, but it’s definitely a challenge. (As anyone who’s read my comments on this site can probably tell!)

          2. Katriona

            That actually was my answer to the weakness question once. To be fair, it was my very first job interview and this blog wasn’t around when I was 16. Plus, the interviewer phrased it as “What would your friends say your biggest weakness is?” and… well, that was the most consistent complaint I had from them at the time. :P

      6. INTP

        I think it’s ideal if you can be open about your weaknesses, but it also depends on how well the opportunities available to you suit your personality. When I was a recent grad with a psychology degree, and internship experience doing primarily administrative or internal customer service roles, I could not get call backs for jobs that suited my actual strengths and weaknesses. I couldn’t seem to convey my writing and analytical thinking skills on my resume in a convincing way (probably because my college major doesn’t stereotypically go along with either of those and my internships didn’t either) and was only getting call backs for jobs that were relatively social in nature or required me to be someone’s assistant. Being honest about the fact that my weaknesses involved timeliness, organization, and multitasking would not exactly land me one of those jobs. I went to grad school for a career change eventually, but the only way that I was able to move closer to jobs that were a good fit for me was to slip into a different personality for the interview, overcompensate like hell to do an adequate job, seize or initiate opportunities for writing and research projects that weren’t in my job description, and use those projects to move onto a new and better-for-me role before I burned out.

        TL;DR – sometimes if your experience or your “on paper” profile is just not in line with your real strengths and weaknesses, honesty about them will leave you unemployed, not better-employed.

      7. themmases

        I’m really glad to hear this. I have to admit, I wasn’t initially offended by this question because I have a good firing story that I would happily share even if not asked about it directly.

        But after reading more people’s comments, I would wonder why the interviewer seems to think firing is that common or a normal way for employment to end.

      8. Wolfey

        For those of us early in our careers, how would you recommend proceeding? I’ve only ever gotten the “What’s your biggest weakness?” question, which I try to deal with honestly because fakeness stinks like a skunk. It’s hard though, since I know in this economy I’m competing against many people who have much more experience and it feels like giving someone another reason not to take a chance on me.

        1. PlainJane

          One approach is to mention something that is fairly obvious in your paperwork. Maybe you lack experience in one small area mentioned in the position posting, so you can own up to that but follow up with your plan for learning that area. If this deficiency were a deal-breaker, they probably wouldn’t have brought you in for an interview, so you should be safe. Or, since you’re early-career, you could name that as your biggest weakness, since it too is clear from your resume. But again, follow it with your plan to get up to speed quickly.

      9. Jen RO

        This is one of the things AAM helped me internalize and I am very happy I found the answer. I’m a technical writer, but I am bad at (and hate) doing video, diagrams, or anything involving design skills. I would not want a job where that is the focus and I hope this answer would make a hiring manager rule me out (or at least consider me for the more writing-focused parts of the job).

      10. ReanaZ

        Yes to all of this. The some of the worst criticism I’ve received on performance reviews was that I was always questioning people’s decisions before following them, constantly trying to change processes to make them more efficient rather than just following them, and that if things were too unstructured I would get stressed and try to add more structure to them, worded more rudely. I don’t want a job where the expectation is that I will just follow orders constantly and never ask questions or try to improve things. If that’s the culture/role expectation, I am not your gal. So I left education and now am a business analyst, and my previous worst criticism is now my literal job description. (And all my performance reviews are great!)

        My current boss would probably say that I am not a Big Ideas person and need someone else to set the vision and remind me to not get too stuck in the weeds. But again–business analyst. It’s my job to listen to other people’s Big Ideas and then implement them in the most effective and efficient way possible, not set vision myself. So it’s not necessary for success in the kinds of roles I’m seeking at this point in my career (but is an area to work on if I ever want to move up into more C-level work).

    3. SCW

      I ask about a time they’ve received correction/redirection at work, not just to find out where they are weak, but to see how well they take feedback. I get a lot of good information from that–not just the weaknesses, but the style they work best with. I had one person say that they were so glad their manager was very gentle and delicate in the way they talked to them, that it wasn’t all direct and “make sure you keep track of time!” but that they liked that she couched in nicer terms. And I’m listening and thinking, “so directness is rude, huh” and knowing that couldn’t work with me. I hate having to walk on eggshells, I want to be able to say straight out: “I’ve noticed your breaks are stretching out to an hour from 15 minutes, can you keep a better eye on the clock?” and not dance around it for an hour.

      1. PlainJane

        I’ve been asked that question in interviews, and I found it gave me an opportunity as a candidate to show how I responded to feedback–not just in the moment, but how I addressed the issue going forward. Great question.

    4. Noelle

      I’ve been asked variations of this several times. I usually am honest, and say that the only issue any of my managers ever brought up was one, who said he wished I was more of a team leader. At the time, I was literally doing the work of 8 employees and my boss admitted I was doing an awesome job, but at the same time, I needed to learn to delegate and include people. Since then, I make sure to involve people earlier and make sure I’m considering their input. To be honest it’s not always helpful, but I certainly understand why it’s necessary and in some cases it’s extremely useful.

  2. AW

    The only good answer I’d be able to think of is budget cuts. “Upper management decided to reduce head count and since I was the last hired I would be the first fired.” Alison’s answer is way better, answering the question they should have asked, but I would have been so flummoxed I wouldn’t have been able to think of anything other than layoffs.

    1. AW

      The bad answer that would have popped into my head would be: “Because I’m black and/or a woman and/or Jewish?”

    2. Why must we pray screaming?

      > “If I were to fire you, what would be the reason why?”

      I’m afraid you’d never know. Most likely the order would come straight from the very top, with a curious lack of discussion. You’d fire me and a man you’ve never seen before would caution you not to talk to anyone else about this matter, and then escort me to a waiting helicopter.

      But I’d be back within a year’s time. The President of the United States will visit your office, shake your hand and say “thank you” and give you a small, but very expensive (and vaguely worded) plaque to hang on your office wall. All records of my time away from the office will have disappeared.

      And the reason? I can only speculate, and even then, only to myself.

      So … can we talk about the dental plan?

        1. Why must we pray screaming?

          I don’t know who you are, and I never will. And you may well never read this. But I just want to say: you totally kicked my ass with your reply and made it all worthwhile, and I love you* lots.

          * in a wholesome, non-threatening, I’m-glad-there-are-humans-like-you kind of way, I mean. As happy as your reply made me, the Internet still sorta sucks.

          1. intoxicated by thee

            Can the three of us please set up house together? I have the necessary security clearances, and my own copy of Wave.

  3. Adam

    Fortunately, I have never been fired (laid off, yes, but not sacked). So my knee-jerk reaction would probably be: “I don’t know. That’s never happened to me before.”

    That’s probably not the most helpful answer and could potentially rub the interviewer the wrong way (but if they had asked me this question they would have started it), but I don’t know if I could come up with anything else on the spot.

    1. Adonday Veeah

      I’m with you on this. I’ve always just done whatever I needed to do to keep my job, even when I’ve been in situations that were Not. A. Fit. I have no idea what would get me fired. It would have to be a pretty personal issue between me and my boss.

    2. lowercase holly

      same here. i probably would just be like, “i have no idea what types of things you personally fire for, but i’ve never been fired so…?”

    3. Vicki

      Same here.

      My job has been eliminated several times over time (I, and what I do, are deemed ‘no longer a fit’), but I’ve never been fired. Firing seems, usually, to be reserved for incompetence, malicious, or illegal activities.

  4. TOC

    Wow, what a tough question to answer on the spot. I’d probably say something like, “I have a long track record of being a high performer, so the risk of being fired just hasn’t ever been an issue. Part of the reason is that I’m careful to find jobs that play to my strengths in A and B. If that’s what you’re looking for, I don’t anticipate there would be any serious performance issues. But a role that requires more work in C and D won’t play to my strengths, so if that’s what you need this might not be a good fit.”

    1. Hummingbird

      Buzzfeed Quiz: Why will you be fired from your current job?

      1. Pick a color…

      2. Pick your favorite scenery…

      ….

      1. Parfait

        “Your result: Because you were doing Buzzfeed quizzes at work. Turn around, your boss wants to see you in her office.”

      2. Adam

        Color choice Green: You will be canned for promoting your aggressive stance on climate change.

        Color choice Red: You will be canned for leaving expired food in the break room refrigerator.

    1. JMegan

      Ha! That would be exactly what was running through my mind as well…hopefully I would be able to keep it from coming out of my mouth, assuming this was a job I actually wanted.

    2. Liane

      Aren’t Mike C’s “Because I told you this was a stupid question during our interview” & AMG’s “Because I told my interviewer that his approach was straight-up jackassery” better answers to “If I were to remove you from the candidate pool and rudely not let you know or answer your follow-up email, what would be the reason?”

  5. JMegan

    I was once asked “What would your manager say about you, that you would disagree with?”

    In retrospect, it’s not a bad question, as it does get into your own self-awareness, and what (you think) other people’s perspectives are. But I was certainly tripped up by it at the time – not only because it was unexpected, but because I had just been fired. So I figured there were plenty of things that my manager would say that I wouldn’t necessarily agree with, but none that would pass muster in an interview setting!

    1. Alter_ego

      Oh god. This would kill me. Because the honest answer is “he says I’m defensive”. Which there is NO WAY to say without…you know…being defensive.

      1. Noelle

        Makes me think of my dad’s relationship with his managers. He’s unionized and has memorized every rule book so he knows the requirements better than his managers. His favorite story is when they tried to write him up for being argumentative. His response: “I am not!”

      2. Afiendishthingy

        I had a personality conflict with a boss in my younger more impulsive days; she told me “it’s hard to have a conversation with you because if someone says ‘red’ you say ‘blue.'” Took all my willpower not to say ” I DO NOT!”

  6. Anne

    I’ve had this question!!!! I think it was just another way to ask “what are your weaknesses” but it was an odd one to bring up. I answered it as “The only time I’ve been fired was when the restaurant overstaffed for their busy season. So, I based on my experience and previous reviews, it wouldn’t be a direct fault of mine.” … Or something along those lines. I was offered the position (didn’t take it) so it must have not been a terrible answer.

    1. The IT Manager

      Yeah. I have weaknesses, but none so terrible that I worry about being fired over. So if we were to do a thought experiement, and I had to answer you were just fired (not laid off) what was it for?: it would be some strange, unique situation possibly a big misunderstanding because that’s all I can imagine.

      1. Burlington

        Ooh, maybe you concoct a story about how, if you’re being fired, there’s probably a massive conspiracy against you, stemming from the highest reaches of the company, because you “knew too much.” That would be hilarious.

  7. long time reader first time poster

    What about office culture/politics as an answer? Like, “I’ve never had any performance issues in the past, so I can’t really picture that coming up in this role. The only thing I can really think of is there could turn out to be some sort of mismatch culturally between myself and someone higher up, and that manager might prefer to let me go rather than work it out.”

    I don’t know if that’s a particularly great answer, but it’s certainly something that potentially could happen (and is out of the interviewee’s control).

    1. TOC

      That might work if you’re able to demonstrate that you don’t have a track history of mismatches or conflicts and that you’re generally easy to work with. It would also be important to elaborate on what kind of workplace culture you do well in. Otherwise I can see the manager thinking, “Okay, so she’s a good performer, but she doesn’t get along with management.” You’d want to be really clear that this hasn’t actually been an issue in the past.

      1. long time reader first time poster

        Great point. I was thinking about how my answer might come across as a red flag, this is a good way to neutralize that, but emphasizing that you’re not the sort that clashes with people. “… although, I tend to think that I get along very well with all of my colleagues and supervisors, and I have never had any major conflicts in the past, so I don’t think this is a very likely possibility either.” Something like that.

    2. Eliza Jane

      Ha. This would be my sincere answer. I’ve received feedback in the past that I can sometimes be overly passionate about my perspectives in meetings. While I try to balance that, the most likely scenario that I can see that ends with me being fired is that I pushed too hard for what I thought needed to be done and offended someone.

  8. HumbleOnion

    This is a question you should turn around on your interviewer: If I were to quit, what would be the reason why?

    1. LBK

      Oh man, that’s awesome. I’d like to think I would have the gall to say that in an interview if the situation presented itself but I’d probably chicken out and ask a flimsy, less punchy version.

    2. QualityControlFreak

      I think I’d turn it around a little differently. I’d probably say something like this: “I’ve never been fired, so as for reasons I think a lot of that would actually depend on you. What kind of behaviors could you see yourself firing someone for? I haven’t ever had any performance issues so I’m thinking this would be more about your own preferences and company culture. For example, I’m analytical and tenacious and a driver. You can hand me a large, complex project that requires coordinating across departments and I’ll deliver on time and on spec. But if you want a yes-man, or the culture is for staff to do exactly what they’re told (and nothing more), I don’t think that would work out very well for either of us. That’s about the only scenario where I can imagine getting fired. Honestly, I’m very interested in your answer to my question! What kinds of behaviors do you see as a firing offense?” The information you get could be quite useful.

      1. esra

        I like this. We all get silly interview questions sometimes, so we may as well try to turn them to our advantage.

  9. Pretty Ugly

    “Because someone better-looking than me just started working with the company, and since being physically unattractive isn’t a ‘protected class’, it isn’t illegal to fire someone for being physically unattractive…”

        1. Elysian

          I accidentally deflated the Hanukkah Balls below regulation right before the office “holiday” party.

  10. Stephanie

    This is a weird “Gotcha!” question. I can understand the intent, but the execution is terrible. It’d be hard to answer that because how would you know what would put your job in jeopardy just based on a job description and a couple of interviews? Like you could say “From my understanding, this job requires SQL programming and I struggle with that” only for SQL programming to be a minor aspect of the role.

  11. Helen

    I recently saw a comment on another (not job-related site) about being asked this same question in an interview. I hope this isn’t becoming a common question.

  12. OP

    Thank you for the answer, Alison! I’m the OP of this question and love the answers and advice (funny and serious!) so far. During the interview I tried to take it as a “what is your greatest weakness” question and turned it into “When first starting out I did X, Y, and Z, which could have contributed to performance issues, but since then I’ve learned [answer]” I kept second guessing myself after that, though.

    I didn’t end up getting the job, but the interviewer was extremely nice. I ended up receiving one of the nicest rejection letters ever. So, that was a plus in the end.

    1. Rex

      FWIW, that seems like a pretty good answer! So congrats on handling the situation well. Sorry you didn’t get the job.

    2. Cautionary tail

      I could answer this a lot more honestly than others because I was laid off for my actions.

      Boss: Sign here to document that we contractually did that thing we didn’t do and have no intention of ever doing. Then mail it to that other company so they think we did it.
      Me: I would gladly do that thing, attach the documentation, and then sign it.
      Boss: No, just sign it. We won’t do it because it would cost us money we don’t want to spend. Just sign it.
      Me: I can’t sign it without doing the work.
      Boss: What do I need you for? Boss then signs it and storms out.

      A few days later I was laid off.

    3. Liane

      I’m sorry you didn’t get the job, but I am glad the interviewer wasn’t really as bad as the question made them sound.
      “Ask ‘Why would I fire you?'” sounds like the Hiring Manager equivalent of all that crazy advice out there for job applicants, like “Write you were Time’s ___ of the Year” & “Contact the Hiring Manager at least once a day, via email, phone, personal visit &/or flower delivery, to show you are a motivated Go-Getter.”

  13. Malissa

    My answer:

    I honestly don’t know. As much as I would like to be able to teel the future I just haven’t found a crystal ball that works yet. But I would hope that if you were going to fire me that it would not be a surprise and that we would have discussed any short comings or unmet expectations long before it caome to that. And that I had given my best effort to correct the situation—and if I hadn’t done that, well, that would be a reason to fire me.

    1. kozinskey

      I like this and think it could work if you say it in a composed, calm manner, but I wonder if the hiring person might take it as avoiding the issue. It sounds like they’re trying to get at performance issues the interviewee’s had in the past, so I’m not sure that totally sidestepping that topic would necessarily go over well.

      1. Cheryl

        Great answer, and maybe avoiding the issue – but the interviewer avoided the issue first by not asking a direct question! So he or she shouldn’t be surprised by heartfelt, emotional responses.

      2. Well

        Yeah, I’d be considered that the final line makes it sound like you consider your best *effort* to be enough. Typically (good) bosses care about results, not effort. If you’re putting your heart into things and still not meeting the minimum expectations for the role after feedback/coaching/etc…well, putting your heart into things probably counts for something, but it wouldn’t (and shouldn’t – results are important!) keep you from being fired.

  14. soitgoes

    I would probably shoot out an answer to a question that isn’t being asked. “Well I’m not being fired from my current job. I’m leaving by choice because I’m seeking better opportunities and more growth with your company.”

    1. some1

      If that’s what is being asked it’s a pretty bizarre and possibly insulting way to find that out — that’s what “Why are leaving your job/why did you leave your last job?” is for.

      1. soitgoes

        I don’t think that’s actually what’s being asked though. It’s more along the lines of, “…well, I’ve never been fired, so I can’t tell you why I think that would happen, honestly.”

        1. some1

          I don’t think the purpose of the question is to find out of the LW had ever been fired and if so, why. The interviewer could just ask that straight out (and almost every employer asks at some point in the process.)

          1. soitgoes

            I think you’re misunderstanding me….I’m fully aware of what the interviewer was asking. However, as someone who has never been fired and who is pretty good at working with other people and picking up new tasks, I have absolutely no idea why anyone would ever fire me. It just simply would not happen. So in a situation where I would have to provide an answer, I would say something that was related but did not actually answer the question, because I have no answer. It’s similar to, “When did you give birth?” The only appropriate answer I could give is, “I’ve never been pregnant.” It doesn’t answer the question being asked, but it’s the closest I can get while still being honest.

            1. some1

              Ah, I get what you are saying. When I read your OP I thought you were saying that the interviewer here was trying to sneakily find out if the LW had ever been fired.

  15. C Average

    This is such a weird question!

    People get fired for literally thousands of different reasons, and many people who get fired never see it coming. If they did, presumably they’d fix the thing that got them fired (either by changing their behavior or by seeking different types of jobs where the problem wouldn’t arise). Given the option, lots of them would happily go back in time and either not take the job from which they got fired or not make the mistake that got them fired. And, of course, many firings are unavoidable, unforeseeable, and not the firee’s fault.

    So it’s essentially asking, “What fire-worthy behavior are you currently knowingly committing?” Because the only alternative read on the question is, “What fire-worthy behavior are you currently unknowingly committing?” which patently makes no sense at all.

    So I’d be tempted to say, “Well, I guess if I knew, I would be working to eliminate the problem. I’m hoping I will have good, honest relationship with my manager here, and would be told if I were doing something concerning enough that I might get fired for it. That way, I could address the problem. If knowing what’s impossible to know is a required qualification for this role, I can tell you straightaway I am not qualified, and save us both some time.”

    1. aebhel

      Right? I mean, I have weaknesses (everybody does), but I certainly hope none of them are fireable offenses.

  16. Mal

    On the same level of stupid questions to ask in an interview:
    I have a field foreman(we’re in construction, I’m HR/office manger,ect. ect.) who USED to conduct all our interviews. Alone. Then I sat in on one one day and I was like, you. can’t. be. serious.
    He doesn’t “interview” so much as bully(He’s well over 6′ tall and problably 250-275 lbs so he LOOKS intimidating too), talk without asking questions and generally tell potential employees what HE’S all about so they understand what he expects. I sat in one interview and this kid just sat there, nodding, saying yes sir, and THAT’S IT. I started asking him questions, but the foreman had already scared him into submission and he was generally just single word answers.
    The field foreman also has a favorite interview question he asks near the end of the interview: “Who do YOU work for?” Now, there’s a correct answer to this, and because most of these interviewees want to be liked and say all the right things, they say: “I’d like to work for Teapot Construction sir.” And he leans forward, says in a low, serious tone, “I work for myself and that’s who I go home to”
    It should surprise no one that we went through over 50 field employees last year, all who worked under him. He’s still here but mostly because the owner “thinks we can change his conduct”
    Luckily, I’ve been able to bring another supervisor in to conduct interviews with me and he’s no longer allowed to interview. I’m also happy to say that our turnover for last year dropped by about 30%!

    OP, I’m sorry you came across a terrible interviewer. I feel incredibly badly for all the employees who came across Teapot Construction’s foreman before I could remove him from the situation. I hope that if you get another interview you’e able to speak with other employees and departments to get a better idea of if this is a company wide attitude or just one person.

    1. Sheila

      Holy cow, is he worse or better at supervising people than he is at interviewing them? Because…holy cow.

      I had an interview once that was essentially the interviewer having a conversation with him/herself and then offering me the job. Wow, what a learning experience.

      1. Jen RO

        I had an interview where *I* told the hiring manager what the job was supposed to be about and what kind of questions he should ask me. They had never had someone in my role before and they were pretty clueless. (They also paid under the table, so I declined, but the interview was an interesting experience.)

  17. Abby

    I think that question is so terrible. I certainly acknowledge that I have weak spots or areas to work on-who doesn’t? But to suggest that I would ever get fired for them just puts you in a completely awkward spot. Your answer can suggest that these weak areas are actually things that are so bad that you really might be fired because of them. The question has a different tone than some of the other suggestions such as challenges to managing you, what are your weaknesses, etc.

    I was once asked what my friends would say is my greatest weakness and I answered by saying, My friends wouldn’t tell you what my weaknesses are. Smart alecky for sure but I hate the question. I subsequently got the job and interviewed many other times with that person who never asked that question again.

    I will agree that some people will give you really spectacular answers such as a guy I interviewed who flat out told me when I asked why he left his last job that he had a DUI and lied about to his employer and when they caught him, they fired him. But, I would prefer to assume that most people don’t have answers like this and feel caught by the question as I would.

  18. Preston

    I am going to go against probably a lot of people but I think asking what a candidates weakness is really just a sign of a poor interviewer. What a good interviewer does is find out if the person has strengths in the skills of the job. Asking direct questions gets that done not playing silly pyschology games.

    1. LBK

      There is absolutely value in asking about weaknesses/challenges, and any good interviewer should do it. But in a tactful way that will elicit a useful response, not one that either encourages the candidate to lie or shocks them into not giving clear information.

    2. fposte

      I think this is a stupid way to do it, but a direct “What’s your weakness?” question isn’t likely to get you there either. Questions like “What have your previous managers encouraged you to improve on?” can be better ways to get there without playing any particular games.

    3. Ask a Manager Post author

      Asking directly “what are your weaknesses” isn’t a very useful question, but as fposte says, finding other ways to probe for that information is useful and necessary. Asking what’s been most challenging in past jobs, what their managers have encouraged them to work on doing differently, etc. — those are useful and smart questions. It’s not about silly games; it’s about really digging to make sure you’re putting someone in the position who’s likely to succeed at it.

      1. Preston

        AAM,
        I get what your saying, but to me those questions never really have added anything in any interview that I have ever had. I answer them truthfully though. I really see no value in them however. I am do technical analyst work, maybe in fields like HR or marketing that can be of value in an interview. In what I do either you have the skills or don’t… the rest is just personality.

          1. Preston

            AAM,
            That is the whole point. If the interviewer wants to focus on weaknesses, then you might get someone to reveal something really bad… out of being honest. Great for the interviewer probably not so much for the interviewee. But a good candidate is going to to think their answer through and not say something that is going to get them possibly eliminated from consideration. So all the open ended weakness questions do is just sort out the candidates who are overly truthful from those who think before answering. If you want to know about job related weaknesses, say Excel skills, just ask a question about Excel and see what the answer is. That is why this question is so out there that the OP was asking about, it is just so negative and it is absurd to think one is going to get an honest answer. Please understand I am not saying don’t find out about a candidate’s weak areas, just be smart about it and don’t focus on it with open ended vague stupid questions ;)

            1. Ask a Manager Post author

              But what I’m saying is that that’s not true. Strong, savvy candidates will talk honestly about weaknesses because they know they don’t want to end up in a job that’s the wrong fit (and they usually have enough options that they’re not just desperate to get any job).

              Plus, on the interviewer side, it’s very easy to tell who’s BS’ing you about this kind of thing and who’s being thoughtful and genuine about it.

              1. Preston

                AAM,
                I see your point in your first paragraph. I can understand the interviewee wanting to be a good fit espically if they have options. But not every candidate may be in that boat. I know for me moving up the ladder has meant me moving to a different large company each. I get asked in interviews about weaknesses, always answer honestly but frankly I (and I imagine many others) don’t like being put on the spot. The interviewer is now asking me to tell them something negative about myself. Just seems to go against the idea of getting a job :) Which leads to why candidates try and BS you which you address in your second paragraph. :)

                Hope some of that rambling of mine makes sense ;)

                1. Ask a Manager Post author

                  But no, the whole point of getting a job isn’t to smooth-talk or BS your way into something. It’s to have an honest conversation about fit for a role so that you end up somewhere you’ll thrive rather than where you’ll struggle or be miserable or perform poorly.

            2. LBK

              That is the whole point. If the interviewer wants to focus on weaknesses, then you might get someone to reveal something really bad… out of being honest. Great for the interviewer probably not so much for the interviewee. But a good candidate is going to to think their answer through and not say something that is going to get them possibly eliminated from consideration.

              But the point you seem to be missing is that if a candidate has a weakness that is going to impede their ability to do the job, they should WANT to get eliminated from consideration or have the information to eliminate themselves. Why do you want to end up with a job you know you may not be good at? At best you’ll constantly be frustrated and miserable, and at worst you’ll be fired.

              Saying any negative thing about yourself doesn’t mean automatic elimination from consideration, either. No one expects every employee to be perfect in all aspects, but you want to be able to gauge if each person’s particularly weaknesses will be something you can manage or something that will be truly detrimental to their ability to do the job. If it’s the latter, why would either of you – the candidate OR the employer – want to end up in that situation? It’s a bad idea for both of them.

              1. Preston

                LBK,

                I completely agree with what you wrote (and most of what AAM wrote too). What I am saying is:
                Ask me about weaknesses but in context for the job and not in some open ended question like the OP got asked. You both do agree that there is a good way to ask about weaknesses and a bad way right?
                Also focusing on weaknesses in interviews is probably not a good way to go either. It is going to probably to put your candidate in an uncomfortable situation. And that can lead to candidates not really presenting their best foot foward.
                I do disagree with AAM on one thing, and maybe it is just wording. But part of interviewing for a job is smooth talking, maybe not in a used car salesman way, but definitely in a way that makes your skill set desirable to that hiring company.

                1. LBK

                  Ask me about weaknesses but in context for the job and not in some open ended question like the OP got asked.

                  I would assume it’s implicit that any question asked in a job interview is meant to be related to work…if I ask you what you would consider your weakness, I obviously don’t mean that you can’t throw a football (unless I’m hiring you as a football coach).

                  Also focusing on weaknesses in interviews is probably not a good way to go either. It is going to probably to put your candidate in an uncomfortable situation. And that can lead to candidates not really presenting their best foot foward.

                  Again, I don’t think you have the right perspective here. A job interview is not about the candidate getting a chance to look as good as they possibly can, it’s about getting as accurate a picture about that candidate as possible. You want clear information, not some inflated image of the candidate based on only softball questions they can knock out of the park. Plus, if you’re that uncomfortable knowing and discussing where you could improve, I seriously question your self-awareness, a trait I find invaluable in good employees.

                  I do disagree with AAM on one thing, and maybe it is just wording. But part of interviewing for a job is smooth talking, maybe not in a used car salesman way, but definitely in a way that makes your skill set desirable to that hiring company.

                  I still don’t think the point is sinking in that you shouldn’t be using an interview as a chance to present an inaccurate version of yourself – if you aren’t good at something, you don’t want an interview that won’t bring that out, because you don’t want that job. A job offer is not the endgame of an interview – a career is.

        1. LBK

          In what I do either you have the skills or don’t… the rest is just personality.

          I’m not sure what you mean by “just personality” – personality is not insignificant, for starters, and there’s more to “having the skills” than just having technical knowledge. Work ethic, motivation, attitude, vision, work style, etc. There are a ton of factors that have a dramatic impact on your effectiveness as an employee that can’t be gauged as simply as seeing how well a person can write code or balance a ledger.

          1. Preston

            LBK,
            Completely agree about how important personality is, sorry if that didn’t come across. I agree on the other points too, but those to me are more personality/personal traits. I would expect good work ethic, motivation and what not from an employee. I think direct questions in an interview about those would be important.

            1. LBK

              But if you directly ask “Do you have good work ethic?” is anyone is going actually going to say no? I don’t think direct questions are as useful as you think, or at least we have very different ideas about what a direction question is.

              1. Preston

                I have been asked to describe my work ethic in interviews. I usually describe it then give an example. I would think it is pretty hard to judge work ethic in an interview though…. but that is just me guessing on what is going through the mind of the interviewer.

                1. LBK

                  It’s pretty easy to judge, actually – for example, by asking about a time that you had a large project or a tight deadline and what your strategy was for tackling it. Or you can ask what someone’s least favorite responsibilities in their current role are – that answer and their reason can give you a wealth of information about what kind of work they’re motivated to do and how they tackle work they don’t like doing.

              2. fposte

                Maybe we are having different ideas, because to me direct questions don’t have to be yes or no questions. “Can you give me an example of something that demonstrates your work ethic?” is direct to me, but it’s likely to get me some useful information in a way that a yes or no question isn’t.

                1. fposte

                  Oh, looks like otherwise we’re pretty much agreeing, so this is largely about what we think a direct question is, which doesn’t matter all that much in the scheme of things. So, you know, never mind :-).

      2. hayling

        Against my better judgement, we hired someone for an admin role who admitted in her interview that she had difficulties with staying organized. Guess how well that worked out? It’s a good question if you ask it correctly.

  19. Tabby

    That question is complete bs and that terrible interviewer should be called out it. Period. “What you should say is “that is a terrible question and I ‘m appalled you would ask it.” People shouldn’t be allowed to get away with crap like that, much less indulged with an “answer.”

    1. fposte

      I don’t think it’s a “getting away with it” thing any more than an interviewee is getting away with a bad answer. They’re not likely to be asking a bad question out of malice–they just fixed on this as a way to break away from rote questions about what your weakness is.

      That doesn’t fix the fact that it’s a bad question, but it doesn’t mean the job is a bad one or that you don’t want to get it. And if you treat the question as if it were a moral failing that deserved punishment, you’re not only being overreactive, you’re throwing the job away.

      1. TOC

        +1. Not everything imperfect out in the world demands our full outrage. It’s not worth wasting my energy on a well-meaning person (especially one who’s hiring me!) who asks one weird question but is otherwise offering an excellent job opportunity.

  20. Amber Rose

    I was recently asked “have you ever lied?” and had the same problem answering. Either I say no, and I’m either a liar or a saint, or I say yes and have to explain my policy on lying, which can’t possibly make me look good.

    I think I mumbled something about never lying to clients. Ugh.

    1. kozinskey

      I work with police officers, and one of the mantras they tend to repeat is that “Everybody lies.” If I were asked this question, I’d probably say that, and maybe make a joke about an ugly sweater Grandma gave me for Christmas or something. Then I’d talk about how I think it’s important to be open and honest with my manager, my communication style, etc etc.

    2. beckythetechie

      “Well, I’ve worked retail for a lot of years, and in that kind of corporate situation, customers don’t always get to know all the facts. But I don’t make it a habit to keep things from people when I’m not expressly forbidden from telling them what’s going on. If anything, I tend to be too honest, or at least a little too blunt in my delivery.”

  21. Mike C.

    Wait, wait, I got it:

    “You fired me because your partner became jealous of my good looks and impeccable charm.”

    1. Lily in NYC

      I probably would answer with something jokey like this, because that’s how I react when I am caught off guard. It’s such a stupid question to ask someone.

  22. AndersonDarling

    “Based on the information provided in the question, I would say that I was fired because I’m working for a company that expects it’s employees to fail.”

  23. Nobody Here By That Name

    LOVE the idea of the pre-mortum. I’ll have to see if I can use that on the job somehow.

    1. GOG11

      +1! I tend to naturally think of potential pit falls, but never in a structured way. I am so glad this is a thing – I worry that people just think I’m super negative, but it can be really helpful to solve the problem before it’s a problem.

      1. Judy

        Or FMEA (Failure mode and effects analysis) for the engineering folks.

        You look at a product’s functions, and then how the functions could fail. You rate them on probability and effect, to decided which ones you should address in your project.

        Function: Teapot holds hot liquid
        Failure: Liquid is too hot, teapot explodes
        Probability 2 (highly unlikely)
        Effect: 8 (injury or serious property damage)
        Score is 16.

        Probability and effect are scaled 1 to 10 and have likert scales, with words to describe. You then rank the failures and work on the most serious.

  24. Jen S. 2.0

    Ugh, this is an awful question. I mean, you can hardly talk about personality clashes with coworkers OR getting punished for blowing the whistle on immoral bosses. My own answer in theory should be “chronic tardiness,” BUT I’ve learned not to take jobs where that’s a requirement of the job. I’d probably have to go with something like, “I’ve never been fired*, so it really would depend on the elements of this working environment that I couldn’t anticipate in an interview. However, I’m usually very good at choosing workplaces, so I hope that won’t be an issue.”

    *…although I did once resign to avoid being fired (from my first job out of college, which I positively hated, which was a terrible fit from day one, and which taught me lots about which jobs not to accept). Finally! The exact circumstance where that would come in handy, which it hasn’t in the 17 years since it happened.

  25. KatJ_NZ

    I’d ignore the poor wording and pretend the question was about which areas of the role I felt likely to be challenged by. “I see that part of this role is cold-calling telephone sales, which I don’t have a lot of experience in. However, I intend to do X which should mitigate any problems I might have.”

  26. Nethwen

    Because our communication styles were too different; I tend to say what I mean and you prefer to be indirect to the point that I have to guess at your meaning.

  27. Scott

    I had an I.T. interview one time where they were asking me to rate my skills on various programming languages, software packages, etc. from “don’t know” to “rockstar” (I know, weird terminology, but I went with it). There were a couple of software programs I’d never heard of and I was tempted to say “have used but don’t know well” but I answered honestly “don’t know”. Good thing, too, because they were fake programs used to weed out people who lied in interviews :).

    Still, the firing question is weird.

    1. I'm a Little Teapot

      I’m usually opposed to trick/gotcha questions in interviews, but that is hilarious.

    2. TOC

      So hilarious. Knowing how easily people inflate their tech skills and how time-consuming (for both the applicant and company) to test proficiency on every single one of them, I can see where they’re coming from on this one.

  28. Clever Name

    I’m sure this wouldn’t get me the job, but I would want to say something like, “If you were to fire me it would be because I refused to do something illegal/unethical that you asked me to do.”

    1. Mephyle

      Yes, this.
      Or any other number of Very Bad Management scenarios that result in getting rid of the squeaky wheel because the management axle isn’t going to be fixed.

  29. AW

    Oh, I thought of another one: Because you’re one of those tech companies that fires the bottom 10% every year and you’re hiring me too late in the year for me to surpass my peers.

  30. ReanaZ

    “Probably my refusal to engage with completely inappropriate, needlessly aggressive, and fairly useless questions like that.” *drops mic, walks out*

  31. JMW

    “If this job turns out to be significantly different than advertised, I suppose there is always the possibility I could fail. I feel confident, though, that I can do this job as it has been described. Are there aspects to this job that I might have missed in reading the job description?”

  32. Chief Detail Officer

    “If you were to fire me, it would be probably because you developed a serious distaste for people who will politely express disagreement when they’re seeing things from a different perspective. After I had a chance to explain my view, I’m glad to follow through with a different vision if my manager doesn’t see things my way, but I’m not someone who can adapt to simply following orders without ever being able to express a different opinion to my boss.”

    (I’d totally say something like that, and happily move on if it turned out to be a deal breaker for the interviewer, because I’m not going to fit well in a position that requires never disagreeing with my boss, and don’t see a reason to either, since I’ve built a very successful career sharing my different views. So I guess for some people this question can actually be a good “premortem” exercise as AAM points out.

    1. BlaBlaBla

      Nobody likes an argumentative combative person, don’t be surprised if no one will hire you even for a night job scrubbing toilets . Cheers!!!

      1. Chief Detail Officer

        Heh. Who said anything about ‘argumentative combative person’, BlaBlaBla?

        Over the years I have worked directly with senior executives who always said “thank you” when I brought up concerns about the direction they were providing / pointed out problems with their plans. One of two things happened: either they’d rethink their plans, or they’d say they’d appreciate the viewpoint, but would be sticking to their original idea. In either case, I was fine with the outcome, because of course the executives above me see things that I don’t see, so it’s normal if they aren’t persuaded by my ideas. But I’d say that at least 50% of the time, my bosses would change directions (either accepting my ideas in full or incorporating some of them into their solutions). After all, that’s what I’m hired for, to be a trusted adviser to them.

        You will probably be surprised to learn that in 15 years since I started my career, I have never been unemployed, and during the peak of the recession in 2008, I decided not to renew a contract and look for another job, which I took precisely 2 days to find. Go figure — there are plenty of bosses out there who actually welcome critical thinking and don’t expect their reports to blindly follow their lead!

  33. Cajun2core

    My honest answer to that question would be, “Because you wanted to hire a ‘yes, man'” and I am not one.

  34. CS7

    Every time I hear of a crazy interview question that I can’t get an answer for ahead of time or couldn’t answer on the spot, I feel all the more turned off by by the whole job-searching process. If I ever got the position of interviewing people, I would ask important questions, but make people feel welcome and comfortable and show empathy for the tense situation. I can’t think on the spot under pressure so it looks like I have an extra difficult road ahead.

  35. Dawn88

    “…I wouldn’t give you any reason to fire me, so that scenario is highly unlikely to happen….”

  36. OldAdmin

    Here’s my spontaneous answer:
    “I have never been fired, and I don’t intend to be here either.
    I *have* been laid off before when a company was downsized or in financial trouble. That is the only scenario I can think of that might come close to answering your question.”

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