interviewer asked what was the worst thing that’s ever happened to me

A reader writes:

I just had an odd interview and wanted to hear your thoughts. I’m currently teaching full-time but am interviewing for some part-time adjunct work I can do over the summer. I had an interview this morning that was going well until the interviewer said, “I have a very difficult question, but it’s one we’re asking all of our candidates: What is the worst thing that’s ever happened to you, and how did you deal with it?”

The actual worst thing that’s ever happened to me is NOT the type of experience I’d ever want to share in a professional context. I made up something anodyne about adjusting after moving to a new city, but I was surprised that such a personal question was asked in the first place, and it made me second-guess working for this organization.

The interviewer was talking like I might be offered the job at the end. Am I right to be turned off by this? And, if I turn down the job, should I tell them why, so other people aren’t blindsided by this question? I’m fine, but I imagine it could be pretty upsetting for someone with a more recent traumatic experience.

What on earth?!

This is a wildly inappropriate and out-of-line question to ask in a job interview.

First, obviously, for many people the answer will be things that under no circumstances should they be expected to talk about in a job interview — losing loved ones, sexual assault, divorce, addiction, abuse, medical crises, and other traumas of all sorts.

How on earth hasn’t that occurred to them?

The fact that they haven’t considered how many people have painful, deeply personal “worst experiences” says something awfully bad about their understanding of the world around them and the people who cross their path.

And yes, of course people can just pick something less personal rather than giving the real answer — but it’s an incredibly intrusive question to ask in the first place. And even when candidates have the presence of mind to pick something less personal, the question is highly likely to throw people. No one wants to be thinking about a deeply personal trauma when they’re interviewing for a job, or wondering, “WTF, are they really asking about my abusive family member?”

I’m sure they think the question will help them suss out how candidates deal with adversity and challenges … but there are lots of ways to do that without trampling boundaries and crossing into such personal territory. They could ask, “Tell me about something difficult that’s happened to you professionally and how you handled it.” They could ask, “Tell me about a work challenge that has been hard for you to overcome.” They could ask, “What’s been one of your biggest disappointments professionally and how did you respond to it?”

So yes, you’re right to be deeply turned off by this.

It’s not necessarily something you have to turn down the job over, but I’d consider it a pretty serious flag that something is weird there — definitely with your interviewer, and possibly more broadly. At a minimum, it requires a much closer look before you accept a job there.

Ideally, in the moment you could have said, “That’s such a deeply personal question, especially with the types of trauma people might have in their backgrounds! Can you tell me why you ask it?”

But yes, if you do turn down the job (or for that matter, if you take it), I’d strongly encourage you to tell them that you found the question off-putting and inappropriate. They need to hear that.

{ 504 comments… read them below }

  1. AdAgencyChick*

    Not even qualified with “What’s the worst thing that has happened to you *in a professional context*, and how did you deal with it”?!

    Oh lord.

    1. sacados*

      And the fact that the interviewer acknowledged they know it’s a “difficult question” …. makes me wonder if they actually are fishing for people to openly share their experiences of abuse, assault, trauma, or what have you.
      Which is just …. odd.

      I don’t know how Alison would feel about this (new person has little capital accumulated and all that so maybe it’s a bad idea) but if it were me, I might ask about this even if I did end up taking the job. It’s unclear if this interviewer would be OP’s manager in the role, but either way it’s something I might bring up once I was actually hired.

      1. The New Wanderer*

        To me it read like they were prefacing “difficult question” because they’ve already gotten feedback, either directly from candidates refusing to answer and telling them why, or indirectly by having them stammer through something either truly traumatic or making something up on the fly.

        In either case, the fact that they’re still asking is a big red flag.

        1. Sally*

          If the OP ends up telling the company how awful this question is, I’d like to get an update to find out what they had to say about it.

            1. Pomona Sprout (she/her)*

              Count me in on this!

              I would give anything to be able to ask that person to explain their rationale for asking such an outrageous question (because I would honestly love to know), hear their answer, and then tell them all the reasons why it’s a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad idea.

              I would also love to know what this person’s role was. In particular, was this an HR person? Hiring managers have been known to do some very ill-advised things in conducting interviews, but an actual HR professional not knowing how bad this is would make it even more horrifying to me.

        2. blepkitty*

          Some places are required to ask the same questions of all candidates, so it *could* be that they realized it was a bad question after the first one but had to keep going.

          (I’m absolutely not excusing the question though, because I don’t know who’d think that was a good one to ask to begin with.)

          1. Anonnnnn*

            Unless it’s a panel interview, the interviewer should be able to get away with omitting the question even if it’s “required.” What are they going to do, quiz the applicant on which questions the interviewer asked? I wouldn’t even be able to remember.

            1. Dorie*

              In education, there is sometimes a form provided by someone higher up than the interviewer with the questions that must be asked. Answers are recorded and kept on file. Depending on the type of school, the role, how it is funded, and a variety of other pieces, I would bet these could be audited. The caveat may have been the best they could do, unfortunately.

        3. Anna Nutherthing*

          This is my guess, too. Sometime in the first few interviews they realized how truly awful this question is. But out of some misplaced sense of fairness, they felt they had to ask it of everyone anyway.

      2. Magenta Sky*

        If it were me, I’d have clarified that they mean “worst thing ever” rather than “worst thing on the job,” and if so, withdrawn my application immediately.

        (And if not, well, I was robbed at gunpoint once on the job. And that was *not* the worst thing that ever happened at work.)

          1. ampersand*

            Yes. And I don’t wish “bursting into tears during an interview” on anyone, but truly, if they don’t already know that this question is inappropriate…hopefully *something* makes them realize it.

          2. Anonnnnn*

            I wonder if that’s their goal for weeding out “crybabies,” though? Awful thing to do, but awful bosses are out there.

            1. RagingADHD*

              Or to select for people who are willing to be “transparent and vulnerable,” because they have a culture where they are “like family” and want to blur or eliminate boundaries between work & personal life.

              AKA, enmeshed toxic culture.

              1. Tipping Point*

                I hate that type of work culture, “we’re a family”. It creeps me out, like is this a job interview or a cult orientation?
                I prefer to keep my personal and professional life sperate.

                Asking what’s the worse thing that’s happened to you and how you dealt with it, is one of the most inappropriate questions ever. How is this question still legal or justifiable?

              2. MsSolo*

                I think there’s three things it could be weeding for:
                – people with no boundaries, due to toxic culture around ‘faaaaamily’
                – people without the resources to object to bullying and harassment from coworkers, due to toxic culture around ‘you’re a mindless wage slave, how dare you complain’
                – people who’ll turn up to work regardless of immediate trauma, due to toxic culture around ‘we’re more important than your dead relative’

                In conclusion: toxic culture.

                1. Professional Straphanger*

                  >>people who’ll turn up to work regardless of immediate trauma, due to toxic culture around ‘we’re more important than your dead relative’

                  Ooh, I spent six years at a place like this before I flamed out. Planned-for vacations got canceled at the whim of management, people were expected to be absent for family milestones like births, graduations, and birthdays unless you were a favorite of course. I got some great experience that has served me well but the price was a bit too high – too many days I drove home crying, wondering if I really was as stupid as they made me feel, and my self-esteem was busted for about a year afterward because the unofficial motto of the place was not “what have you done for me lately” but “What have you done for me TODAY?” And of course whatever you did, it was never good enough.

          3. I AM a lawyer.*

            I can’t speak about the worst thing that ever happened to me without crying, even though it was 9 years ago. I guess that’s what they want?

            1. Happily Self Employed*

              I am new to the Unitarian Church and joined a discussion group to get to know people better. Well, whoever writes their stock list of questions has apparently NEVER had any truly difficult life experiences because I swear something that invokes this kind of response showed up every time. The questions were more specific, but we had people with different types of trauma who got hit by different questions. Everyone in the group was kind and accepting, but I definitely gave the question authors some side-eye.

              I finally got 86’d for life when I broke down weeping about a question that hit me about something I was right in the middle of. I had called the leader to give a last-minute no-show, and she talked me into showing up so people could give me support. She wasn’t expecting that level of falling apart, however. People were kind, but I got a call from the minister the next day saying that I had completely misunderstood the discussion groups and had deeply upset everyone by my terrible judgment in not staying home if I couldn’t be in control. She said I was blacklisted from the discussion groups because she couldn’t let this happen to anyone else in her congregation. It was not supposed to be group therapy and we weren’t supposed to discuss our personal lives.

              I tried to explain that this is exactly how other people interpreted the questions and that was how I had the impression we actually WERE supposed to discuss trauma relevant to the questions. I mean, when you ask about “when did you have to leave something you really cared about behind?” and “when did you feel completely betrayed?” what on EARTH else would you expect someone to think it meant, if they hadn’t lived a completely tranquil life?

              Why would a discussion group be designed for people to be reminded of serious traumas and then make up something about leaving their transit ID somewhere and the inconvenience of replacing it?

          4. RUKiddingMe*

            I would look him dead in the eye and say, “I had to make the decision to turn off my child’s life support and hold him as he took his last breath. How did I handle it? Guess.” Then I’d walk out. Fk that guy.

            1. Robbenmel*

              If I’d had to answer that truthfully, I’d have had the same answer. I am so sorry for your loss. For me, it was my grandchild, so I didn’t have to make the actual decision, but I held him as he took his last, because his parents just couldn’t. What about YOU, interviewer??

            2. ArtsNerd*

              Oh god, I’m so sorry you had to do that and that is a stellar response to the question.

              My answer’s more gruesome. I wouldn’t say it out loud because I don’t have the nerve but there’s no way that question wouldn’t trigger the memory.

            3. Morticia*

              I have my own trauma I would relate in excruciating detail Fuck these people. They get to hear it all. Hopefully, it will be highly educational for them.

            4. Magenta Sky*

              I actually had to make that decision for a friend (with another friend also on the medical directive).

              That, too, was not the worst thing that’s ever happened to me (if only because we knew it was coming for 2 1/2 years).

            5. Rainy*

              Similar impulse here, except it would be the death of my first husband.

              You want “difficult”? I can make this really difficult.

              1. Iconic Bloomingdale*

                I am so sorry for all of your losses. And your stories illustrate why that interview question is totally inappropriate in a workplace context.

            6. Girl Alex PR*

              That is also my worst moment and despite it being eight years ago, I can’t bring my son up without crying. I’m ashamed to admit it, but most people at my job don’t even know I had a son because it’s such a traumatic thing. I’d walk out of an interview if someone asked me that. Unacceptable.

              1. DerJungerLudendorff*

                Not wanting to bring up your trauma is entirely reasonable and nothing to be ashamed of as far as I’m concerned. And I certainly wouldn’t want my coworkers to needlessly torture themselves with it.

                I’m sorry for your loss.

          5. Tina*

            I used to write the kind of fanfiction where THE TERRIBLEST TERRIBLES (that were somehow in-universe completely and utterly believable to my readers) happened to characters. I would love to be asked a question like that, because I’m really good at pulling together an awful traumatic coherent totally fictional event on the fly.

        1. Sandangel*

          I probably had my worst so far last night: found rotting dog food with live maggots on the sales floor, and later the same but with cat food and *dead* maggots in storage. Hope the interviewer has a strong stomach.

      3. AnnaBananna*

        I’m still awed at their balls in asking. Knowing my lack of filter (and inability to hide feelings any day of the week) I probably would’ve snapped with ‘if I haven’t told my therapist, why would I tell a stranger at a JOB INTERVIEW, out of curiousity?’ with an innocent smile on my face to see them squirm. To your first point, I am curious if the organization or department somehow deals with trauma for their clients? I really hope so, otherwise it’s a big ‘ol WTFFFFFF.

        1. Wem*

          I would tell them one of my children died(which I did) and then proceed to tell them where to go and how to get there.

        2. whingedrinking*

          I’ve never had a life-threatening injury or illness, I haven’t been assaulted or stalked, I haven’t been to jail or fled a war zone. The worst things that have ever happened to me are mostly pretty garden-variety stuff that almost everyone goes through – the death of elderly relatives, layoffs, broken hearts, that kind of thing. And as minor as those things are compared to what some people go through, I *still* don’t want to talk about them with a random interviewer, trauma-related organization or not. Ask me how I’d help people who are hurting, not to tell you all about my hurt.

          1. Anonapots*

            Yuuuuup. Because your trauma shouldn’t have anything to do with the trauma of the people you’re helping. That’s what trauma informed care is all about. Something tells me they don’t know what that is at all.

          2. ArtsNerd*

            Yup! I have multiple ‘big deal’ traumas to choose from, but that’s totally irrelevant to why this question is terrible.

          3. StrikingFalcon*

            I did have a close call once, which I dealt with by… getting taken to the hospital for emergency surgery? I mean, at that point I wasn’t really in any shape to be making decisions. I’m not sure what anyone thinks that would tell them about my ability to do anything job related.

          4. DerJungerLudendorff*

            And honestly, dead family members and broken relationships are a pretty big deal by themselves in my book.

            Anything that gets within the same postal code as those subjects does not belong in a job interview.

      4. TootsNYC*

        Like, it’s not like they didn’t think about it!
        They did think about it, and they asked it anyway.
        Holy cow.

      5. Kevin Sours*

        The way the interviewer framed it gives me the impression that maybe they weren’t entirely comfortable asking it. Like they were given a set of questions they had to ask by higher ups or they already realized what a terrible question it was but felt they had to ask it of all candidates out of some misguided notion of fairness.

        It’s just such an awkward and weird intro to an awkward and weird question.

    2. Detective Amy Santiago*

      Even that I would look askance at because it could still involve something sensitive like sexual harassment or verbal abuse or other things that a person wouldn’t want to discuss in an interview.

      1. Steve*

        Not just ‘sensitive’ as in ‘don’t really want to talk about it’ but also in the context of ‘not allowed to discuss it due to confidentiality’.

        1. NW Mossy*

          No kidding! One of the worst things I’ve ever had to deal with as a manager was a life-threatening crisis for one of my staff, and there’s absolutely no way that I’d talk in any detail about that situation in an interview. While nothing legally binds me to silence, ethically I wouldn’t feel comfortable telling a story that simply wasn’t mine to tell.

    3. Apocalypse How*

      Frankly, even that is too broad for me. For a lot of people, the worst thing that has happened to them professionally might involve discrimination or harassment, and people shouldn’t have to answer for that. Maybe the question should be something like, “What was the most challenging experience you had in the course of working on a project, and how did you work through those challenges?”

      1. Hills to Die On*

        Right. Even the worst thing professionally isn’t appropriate. “Let me tell you about how I was discriminated against and laid off after reporting severe Sarbanes Oxley violations. I was almost assaulted a couple of times but I advocated for the company letting me work from home since they couldn’t guarantee my safety in the office and refused to fire the person who was threatening me. It’s a way better story than my divorce or my childhood sexual abuse.”
        Ugh. Just….ugh.

        1. TootsNYC*

          or then there’s me. The worst thing that’s ever happened to me is….well, a cancer diagnosis 35 years ago? my mom died unexpectedly?

          I mean, I just haven’t had horrible things happen to me. I wouldn’t know how to answer this.

          Well, wait…maybe I have (a blamey boss and a clinical depression; getting laid off several times;…), but I just don’t even think of them when you ask me “the worst thing that ever happened to you.”

          Because I don’t run around thinking about them–precisely because they were bad things!

          1. Anonapots*

            And even then, things that are kind of standard moments in life aren’t usually on the tip of your tongue. A lot of people have trauma that is so significant it is easily the worst thing that’s happened to them. Other people have had bad things happen to them, but is it the worst? I dunno. How long back do you want me to look? Is it a fairly recent thing, which might feel more raw and painful than something that happened four, ten, 20 years ago?

          2. DerJungerLudendorff*

            If nothing else, then sitting in an interview raking up every traumatizing and painful memory in your whole life while picking out the juiciest bits for the interviewer is a pretty awful experience on its own.

      2. ellex42*

        Good interview question that I’ve actually been asked: “Tell me about something difficult or challenging that happened to you in the workplace and how you dealt with it.”

        The worst thing that has actually happened to me on the job/in a professional capacity is not something I want to talk about. In fact, there are at least 3 top “worst things” that I experienced in the workplace that I really don’t want to talk about to anyone, ever. And I’ve been super lucky enough not to have experienced the “worst things” most people would automatically think of first.

        1. AuroraLight37*

          Yeah, this one came up several times for me in interviews. I’m a librarian, so getting sworn at or threatened by patrons happens from time to time. I’m fine answering this one, because I don’t take it personally since it happens to everyone on staff at some point. But, “worst thing that happened?” I’d really rather not discuss something like “potential active shooter in the building” (which isn’t the worst thing that’s happened) with a total stranger.

        2. Marion Ravenwood*

          I’ve had that type of question a couple of times. I like it because it lets you pick relatively tame things (in my case I usually go for how I handled particularly persistent/aggressive journalists) but doesn’t go into the territory of anything truly awful.

          1. Happily Self Employed*

            Yes, those are great examples of something relevant to performance at the new job. Unlike reliving personal traumas, like OP’s question.

            On the other hand, the only time I interviewed someone for a job, I asked if they could describe how they solved a problem at a previous job. The candidate started out “When I went to marriage counseling–” and I interrupted her, afraid I’d hear some embarrassing personal details. I explained I was not asking about her personal life and I wanted to hear something about the workplace. She nodded vigorously and started about the marriage counseling again. This time, I interrupted and tried to give examples of workplace problems: the printer won’t work and there’s a deadline, another employee is taking your lunch… and she just. didn’t. get. it. I think I just skipped that question and documented in my notes what happened. (English was very clearly not her first language, and I honestly didn’t think I’d be able to communicate well enough to train her or delegate work.)

            I got a complaint from HR that I had demanded to know the details about her marriage counseling.

      3. Kevin Sours*

        I find it useful to avoid the word “most” or other superlatives when asking these sorts of questions. It’s subjective. You have no real way to verify either the criteria they used to decide it nor if they are being entirely honest. It potentially puts them in a bind of having to talk about something they have good reason not to or to lie to you about it.

        And, mostly, it’s not that important if it was just a “challenging experience” or the “most challenging experience”.

        1. A reader*

          That’s the part that I don’t get – the addition of “worst.” One person’s horrible, toxic workplace could be a completely normal job for someone else.

          Now I’m wondering if the interviewer would start debating with the candidate if an experience was truly that awful. Can’t you picture it? “That’s really the worst experience for you? Are you sure?”

      4. Aspie AF*

        This is it for me – it would be impossible for me to answer that question truthfully in a way that didn’t slag former employers. It would also force me to self-disclose.

    4. Antilles*

      Frankly, I would treat it as though this IS the question – that they’re asking about your worst *professional* issue. So then answer accordingly with your story about how you once had a project manager resign the day before a major deliverable and had to swoop in to fix it or that time a client totally misinterpreted your teapot design and you needed to tactfully smooth things over or whatever.

      1. Leela*

        I’d never do it but I prefer the following answer:

        “Once, in an interview, I was asked what the worst thing to ever happen to me was”

        1. Smithy*

          I was interviewing for a job that involved working on a research study with very ill children. One of the questions asked during the interview was something along the lines of “how I responded to children in pain or dying”. This many years since, I can’t remember the exact wording – but in later interviews I have brought that up that question specifically.

          When interviewing for a position recently, I was trying to find a way to ask a question to explore a time when someone perhaps had to deliver disappointing/bad news to a client/external audience. In my mind, I was looking for examples of “we’re going to be late on a deliverable”. But one of the responses someone had was a job they had where part of the role was delivering truly upsetting personal news (i.e. your child had an accident and had to be taken to the hospital). Certainly gave me insight into the candidate’s experience and professionalism but also brought to light the possibilities of that question opening up darker doors than I was intending.

          I guess all of this is to say that I’ve interviewed for jobs and hired for jobs where there is an interest in exploring complex issues. But still, the most understanding reading of the interviewer is that this question remains problematic. And if there are complicated issues trying to be explored – this question isn’t the best way to get there.

          1. No Tribble At All*

            Smithy, thank you for the example! There are cases when you’d need to know how the candidate deals with genuinely distressing events…. but most office jobs are not that.

          2. Snuck*

            But this is when you can learn to put your questions gracefully… “Can you tell me about a time that you have had to handle sensitive news?” And “This role requires a person who can work with children who are unwell, can you please tell me about your experience working with vulnerable people.”

        2. Thankful for AAM*

          Leela, that was exactly what I thought when I first read the letter!

          Ask AAM’s question about why they asked, then (depending on their answer)
          I’d answer that I loved everything else I learned about the job but now I was worried that the job routinely crossed lines between work and personal life or regularly included therapy sharing – as we have seen here b4.

    5. Quill*

      Even in a professional context there’s some yikes potential here.

      I mean, we’ve all read the letter where the LW bit a coworker, right?

      1. Detective Amy Santiago*

        Or the one where the boss told the LW that people didn’t like the look of her breasts post mastectomy?

          1. Jen S. 2.0*

            Hellmouth Lady should take all of these in the future. “Well, once at work, I had to clean out a wall full of dead squirrels.” **smiles around at open-mouthed interviewers**

            That’ll teach ’em.

        1. Jennifer*

          Once I was assigned to bring rolls to the company potluck and I bought HIGH-QUALITY Hawiian rolls but somebody else brought cheap @ss rolls and they didn’t even acknowledge my rolls. I’m still in therapy.

          1. Third or Nothing!*

            And then the manager had the audacity to welcome another new hire but not me in the weekly meeting!!!!!!

          2. SomebodyElse*

            I might start asking this question if only in hopes of getting this answer…

            My turn!

            “Well there was that one day I had to deliver some work papers to a coworker at a funeral for a family member. “

          3. Cathie from Canada*

            “I found out one day that I was getting a new manager – and wouldn’t you know, it was a former fiancee I had abandoned in a foreign country years before!”

      2. Gen*

        Yeah the worst thing that happened at my workplaces would mean choosing between the horse that exploded, the cat in a tumble dryer, or the time someone jumped off the roof. Handling those things mostly involved staying calm and calling the appropriate emergency services, there’s no really much else you can do. The nightmares after though aren’t something I’d want to discuss in an interview.

        1. Jennifer*

          I really hope you mean a horse and cat that were of the stuffed variety. If not, I’m very sorry.

          But yes with workplace shootings, harassment, bullying, etc. even asking this question in a work context could be extremely troubling to someone who is trying to move forward.

        2. Blueberry*

          I kind of want to buy you a Beverage of Your Choice and ask. (Not least to find out if whomever put the cat in the dryer got their deserved comeuppance.) But I definitely would not ask in an interview.

          1. Gen*

            The dryer incident was an accident, basically cat likes to sleep in weird places and the owner didn’t look before they put the laundry in there. If you have a pet always check your appliances before you turn them on.

            1. TardyTardis*

              You would think a cat would move with having wet laundry thrown at it, but sometimes I guess not (mine always does, thank goodness).

        1. Anon for this*

          Wow – that article is horrifying. We have a winner – a horrible, horrible winner as the answer to the question “what’s the worst thing that has ever happened to you?”

        2. Pomona Sprout (she/her)*

          Wow. That makes the sociopathic library director who bullied an employee into a suicide attempt and when told he survived, remarked, “Ha, he couldn’t even do that right” look like Mother Teresa.

          (The above is a true story that happened in a place where I worked. The same library director didn’t like the fact that she couldn’t fire librarians who were tenured faculty members or non-faculty who were in a civil service system with a lot of protections, so she bullied those she didn’t like by doing things like drastically changing their hours, work duties, levels of responsibility, etc. The place was a nightmare.)

          1. KoiFeeder*

            I almost hope that your library director actually did go into teaching, because the thought of two people who would say that exact thing under those circumstances horrifies me.

      3. bluephone*

        Or poor Liz who was attacked by Jack’s bird phobia that he refused to deal with (and then the company backed him up)

        1. Jennifer*

          Yes! “I was pushed into oncoming traffic by a coworker, causing injuries that required surgery. The company sided with the guy that pushed me and I had to quit.”

      4. Wendy Darling*

        One time I was at an all-day multi-round job interview and the lunch interviewer sexually harassed me and also pressured me to order alcohol during the lunch interview. I didn’t get hired. I reported the harassment to the recruiter. Coincidentally since then that company, which is one of the biggest employers in my area and has HUNDREDS of openings at any given time, does not respond to my applications.

        That’s the worst thing that’s happened to be in a professional context.

        I honestly have no idea what that teaches anyone about me.

        1. TardyTardis*

          Mine is a little…different. A fairly well-known author wanted to buy my fanfiction novel for a fairly minor sum and when I tried to negotiate a better deal, got me blackballed at her publisher and lied about it to all of her circle.

    6. emmelemm*

      Yeah, I would just *assume* they meant the worst thing that’s ever happened professionally and answer accordingly.

    7. You know who you are!*

      I think I know this guy? I was serving on an interview committee in academics when something like this came up. At the time I walked out of the interviews because it brought up bad stuff *for me,* and later I brought this issue up with the guy and basically used Alison’s wordin. He brushed me off at the time, and he never spoke to me again!

    8. NotAnotherManager!*


      In these sorts of situations, I have chosen to answer the imminently more reasonable question I assume the interviewer meant to ask rather than the one that is clearly a bridge too far. In this case, I’d answer the tell-me-about-a-professional-challenge-and-how-you-handled-it interpretation.

    9. Wing Leader*

      It sounds to me like the interviewer was uncomfortable asking and knew it was a crappy question but was required to ask it anyway. If so, that’s definitely a company problem because who would require that?

    10. Marzipan*

      I think if I were asked this, I’d respond by saying that I was going to give them a work-related answer (I have some pretty hardcore ones) since that would be most relevant for them to hear about. And then proceed from there.

      I do quite regularly use an interview question along the lines of ‘tell me about a time when you had to deal with an emergency or an unexpected situation,’ because it’s very relevant to the roles we recruit for and we want to get a sense of the person’s thought process and responses in that type of situation. I’d actually be fine with people using a non-work example if relevant, because it’s also a quirk of the particular roles we recruit for that the candidates may have limited professional experience of that type of situation. But I think we make it quite clear that what we’re after is an understanding of their skills in responding to the unexpected, and I’ve had people give really great answers without the event in question having been anything dramatic or awful. It sounds to me as though these interviewers may be trying to get at something similar but mangling it horribly, and not really knowing in their own minds what they’re asking/looking for in the first place.

      1. LavaLamp*

        I think I’d give them what my friends and family call my “I’m going to make you feel really stupid now” look and say “I have a PTSD diagnosis. Do you really want to know how I got it?”. But I don’t suffer fools well anymore.

    11. Vicky Austin*

      Or “what’s the worst thing that’s ever happened to you *at work* and how did you deal with it?
      Just adding those two words turn the question into an acceptable one.

      1. Former Employee*

        The problem is that people have been physically attacked at work – assaulted, raped, beaten, etc. Not something someone would want to discuss.

        I would go with what others have suggested and ask about a problem with an account or project and how the person solved it. If the interviewer is looking for an interpersonal situation, then ask about a disagreement with a coworker or client and how the person resolved it.

      2. Mike S*

        That can still get iffy. I was in a management class with a couple of our police officers talking about challenges, and for some of us, it’s stuff like tardy employees. For them, it was suicides, and “helpful” coworkers calling their families before the police could notify them.

    12. Blarg*

      I mean even asking it as “at work” is still wildly inappropriate, especially in an educational setting. Workplace violence. Harassment. Traffic wrecks. Cardiac arrest. Police activity. Death of a student. Child abuse. Etc.

      During the worst day of work I ever had, I knew it would be the worst, and 15 years later, it still is. I was with a client as a support person when she found out her baby died in utero — at 40 weeks. She asked me to call her husband and tell him.

      I can’t think of a job where that story would be useful to talk about at an interview. And typing this now is making me teary. What a horrible question.

    13. soon to be former fed really*

      This is how I would have answered the question. I would have just rejected the notion that I was being asked to reveal deeply personal trauma to a stranger.

    14. paxfelis*

      “You don’t have need-to-know.”

      Which may or may not be effective. But if I was quick enough, that’s what I’d want to reply.

    15. TardyTardis*

      This sounds like someone who read through the boggart exercise in Prisoner of Azkaban and thought it was a good idea (well, at least the worst thing happening wasn’t broadcast to the entire company, at least one hopes).

  2. writerbecc*

    I could see qualifying that as “What’s the worst thing that ever happened to you professionally” but asking personally? Ugh. If forced to answer that question I’d probably start crying in the interview…not exactly the look I’d want to go for.

    1. Daughter of Ada and Grace*

      Me too, and it would be ugly crying. I likely wouldn’t even be giving an accurate answer. (I’d probably pick the death of a close friend, which was horrible, but there are worse things that have happened to me, and those are topics for therapy, not a job interview.)

      1. Librarian of SHIELD*

        The worst thing that’s ever happened to me is something that people learn after I’ve known them for a LONG time and they’ve proven I can trust them with that information. It is definitely not something I’m going to tell a stranger in a job interview.

      2. writerbecc*

        For me it’d be my mom’s passing but why the heck would I tell an interviewer about that?! Cue ugly tears.

        1. River Song*

          Once I was volunteering at my kids’ school and making idle chit chat with a school employee, when something I said made her connect who my family was. She immediately said “oh! You are so and so’s daughter. I was so sad to head of your sister’s passing last year” and I just…. like, she is a wonderful, kind person who was trying to be supportive but I was not in the head space to suddenly talk about the single most painful experience of my life while checking out first graders at the book fair. I cannot imagine someone intentionally bringing up in an interview. I certainly wouldnt assume best intentions like I did for the friendly elementary school librarian!

    2. Coder von Frankenstein*

      As others pointed out, that’s still going to trample a lot of people’s personal boundaries (think sexual harassment).

    3. Constance Lloyd*

      Yeahhh, even if I told a work appropriate story, I would be so shaken by this question that my answers for rest of my interview would suffer greatly. Being unexpectedly reminded of my worst experience and then having to decide between being so vulnerable with a stranger or lying to an interviewer* would mess with me for at least a few days and turn me off of the company as a whole.

      *Lying here is of course fine! But the power dynamic would absolutely make me panic in the moment.

      1. Librarian of SHIELD*

        Oh, 100% this. OP, if you’re kicking yourself over not telling them in the moment how inappropriate this question was, don’t be. It’s such a shocking and unexpected question for a job interviewer to ask, and you being stymied by it and not able to verbalize your discomfort is not in any way your fault.

    4. Anonymous for this, colleagues read here*

      Even so…worst things that have happened to me professionally/at work:
      Manager at restaurant called me back to the office, said you’re getting a raise, then asked my to drop my underpants.
      Customer at store screamed at me (I had not done anything wrong and even if I had…screaming) and manager just shrugged.
      Colleague told me to my face that she was not going to cover for me ever and she was going to tell the manager that, too bad if I had to leave the office suddenly because my 7-year-old child had a brain tumor and the anti-emetics for the chemo stopped working and I had to go pick him up at school. Oh, and even though we’d worked together for eight years, she got my son’s name wrong. Yeah.

      1. Wing Leader*

        Ick. I had a manager once that I clashed with all the time (because he was a lazy, selfish manager and I had no respect for him). He once gave me “constructive feedback” by insulting my physical appearance. I don’t mean something normal like, “Well, your shirt doesn’t quite fit in with our dress code so please don’t wear it.” I mean like, ” You’re incredibly ugly and I bet you’ve never had sex.” It was disgusting, painful, and incredibly upsetting. I didn’t even tell anyone because I didn’t think anyone would listen to my word over his. And no way in hell would I ever share that in an interview.

    5. Sleve McDichael*

      Just the thought of the worst thing that has happened to me will bring a silent tear or two. Every time, guaranteed. Even if I then managed to deflect or make up a different story on the spot, I would still be wiping a tear. If I answered honestly – open the floodgates.

    6. HotSauce*

      Ha! I’d throw the truth at them just to make them uncomfortable. “As a matter of fact I grew up with an abusive alcoholic for a father and I’m still learning to overcome it through years of therapy!”

    7. Curmudgeon in California*

      Even professionally…

      I had a boss, grand boss and half of a team gaslight me and harass me for six months before the grand boss fired me with a letter blaming me, one of the lowest ranked employees there, for poor morale on the team. The “poor morale” came from the top, and I was the prime target. I liquidated my 401k and didn’t even look for work for three months while I put myself back together.

      One other job I had management told us, the build-release team, on a Friday afternoon that no one could leave until the build ran successfully and the smoke test passed. The devs had already left, early, and we had to fix their garbage code. I had reservations for camping that weekend, and my manager knew it, I was supposed to leave early. I was finally allowed to leave two hours after my regular time, when they admitted that the devs screwed up. We had to sleep in our vehicle because we couldn’t set up our tent in the dark.

      Or how about the job where a colleague committed suicide over the weekend?

      There is nasty stuff that happens even in a professional context that you can’t really “deal with”, you just have to try and cope and move on with your life.

  3. Kimmybear*

    Based on the way the interviewer phrased the question, I have to wonder if they were told to ask the question but at least at some level know it’s wrong. I can imagine a situation where their boss insists that it’s an important question and must be asked. Still, might be a red flag in either case.

    1. PollyQ*

      I was wondering, but in the other direction — that the interviewer has some kind of tragedy porn fetish and he’s using his interviewing role to indulge it. IDK, it’s a terribly, terribly odd thing to do, I’d think about at least asking the company’s HR, or other contact, if it’s truly standard practice.

      1. YouCanGoHomeAgain*

        That’s exactly what I was thinking. And by prefacing it with them knowing it was a difficult question, they hoped to avoid someone going to HR.

    2. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

      @Kimmybear, I thought the same thing. I also thought that no way in heck would I ask this question, no matter how my boss insisted. The boss can go ahead and give me a lower grade at my next performance review or whatever, don’t care, not asking it, and would be happy to explain why.

      1. Clever Name*

        Yeah, even if I had to, I would add “in a professional context.” and if someone found out I edited the question I would just say I did what I thought was right. I’m not asking someone to tell me about deep-seated trauma. The world is a terrible place and most people are just trying to get by. There’s no reason to bring that into a job interview.

    3. Diplonot*

      I only hope my old-enough-to-find-suffering-fools-unnecessary self would go all Miss Manners on the interviewer’s a** and ask (in an appropriately shocked tone), “Why-ever would you ask such a thing?” And then Miss Manners would go out the window when I added, “and what kind of a place are you running here if you do?” Evidently I don’t qualify to seek That Kind of job.

    4. HorsingAround*

      “What is the worst thing that has ever happened to me? Well this one time I was interviewing for an exciting new job, but then they asked a question so incredibly inappropriate that i could hardly believe it. I dealt with it by getting up and leaving right there.” *Gets up and leaves*

      I know i’d never have the presence of mind to come up with this in the moment, but it is fun to imagine right?

  4. SaffyTaffy*

    I think if someone asked me that I would cry. Like, not just because the answer is “I threw away years of my life on a man who beat and raped me” but also because- what did you do about it? Well. I stayed. And I’m ashamed of it. It’s like the only regret I have besides moving to Spain for 6 months.
    So I guess you wouldn’t want to hire me.

    1. Anonymous for this, colleagues read here*

      so sorry, SaffyTaffy. Please don’t be ashamed — that’s on him, not on you.

      1. MayLou*

        I agree. There is shame in that situation, but it is his shame, not yours. Abusers are very good at making other people feel responsible for negative emotions or events, but the fact that he managed to shift the feeling of shame onto you doesn’t change the fact that it was entirely his fault that he did those things to you. You need not be ashamed that you had hope for the possibility of him making different choices in the future. A belief in the possibility of someone becoming a decent human being is something to be proud of. His failure to do that is his own fault.

    2. Ama*

      I actually am not sure how many people, if they answewd honestly, would say they handled the worse thing that ever happened to them well. Because, by definition, they’ve never had to deal with something so terrible. So I’m honestly not sure what they’re expecting to learn from that question, other than that people sometimes deal with impossible situations, and sometimes just getting out alive is a victory!

      1. SaffyTaffy*

        That’s a really good point, Ama, I hadn’t considered that. Thank you. Hey, thank you to everyone else for the very kind support. I’m sorry I made this about myself, but it just kind of burbled out.

        1. Allison*

          Please don’t apologize! You were raising an important point, and I’m sure speaking about your own experience of abuse helps others who have gone through it feel less alone.

        2. SimplyTheBest*

          No need to apologize. I think a lot of us read this question and immediately went to our own worsts.

    3. ampersand*

      I’m so sorry. I feel this—I stayed in an abusive marriage and also feel ashamed. Abuse is terrible because it messes with your sense of right and wrong and okayness vs. not okayness, and it’s hard to undo.

      I mentally put objectively terrible people on a very small island together that they cannot escape. So, may your ex be stuck on a tiny island with other awful people, and may he be miserable.

    4. PollyQ*

      You survived a horrible situation no one should ever be subjected to, and you got out. As the saying goes, “You did the best you could with what you had at the time.” Please try to forgive yourself for anything you did or didn’t do at the time.

    5. Stormy Weather*

      I am so sorry this happened to you. I hope you get past the shame, because his actions are on him not you. There are scads of reasons why someone might stay in the situation and I’m glad you’re out now.

      Nobody should have to talk about things that personal with an utter stranger unless they want to.

    6. Oranges*

      You stayed because he was very very good at manipulation/taking advantage of the way our brains work. Abusers have to be in order to have prey. An abuser who’s not good at keeping their victim is just a creepy single guy.

      Abusers have practiced the skill of how far they can go and what abuse/repent/behave cycle works for each victim. He tailored his behavior to keep you there and he was good at it.

      Our brains work in certain ways because we’re social creatures. He used that. You are NOT responsible for him using your hardwiring against you.

    7. Stivee*

      I’m so sorry. I guess I’d say that my dad beat me for years and when I finally called the police at 16 I ended up not following through with the process because I wanted to come home. I must also be unemployable.

  5. earg b*

    “What’s the worst thing that ever happened to you?”

    Unless otherwise stated, I’d assume that meant in a work context and not the other way around. It wouldn’t have even blipped my radar.

    1. Quoth the Raven*

      I’d read it exactly in the opposite context.

      For me, in my experience, none of the things I could offer up as the worst things that have happened to me would be remotely related to the work context, either. Not even close. Wording the question like that would not make me think of work, but of my personal life.

      And again, even if they did mean it in a professional context, it’s still terrible wording, as that experience could be related to abuse, harassment, or discrimination.

      1. Falling Diphthong*

        “Sudden death of young relative” vs “Client kept changing details”

        It’s just… you don’t compare those. It’s like apricots versus light of a given wavelength.

      2. Oh No She Di'int*

        Right. The way the interviewer set up the question (“This is a very difficult question”) primes you to think about those kinds of experiences. After all, why would asking about the worst professional experience be considered a “difficult question”? In that case it would be a version of a fairly standard interview question–not well worded, but easily diverted by the applicant in an inoffensive way.

        1. TootsNYC*

          I have sometimes asked people “what was their worst miss / best catch, and what made it particularly bad or good?” and I often preface it by saying, “I know this might be hard to think of right off the top of your head, but…” and then I’ll often say, “or just any miss / catch that you remember.”

        2. Liane*

          “After all, why would asking about the worst professional experience be considered a ‘difficult question’?”

          Here’s some possible Difficult Answers, direct from the AAM archives (in no particular order):
          *Boss refused to allow me time off for my college graduation even though he said I was his best employee.
          *My supervisor, who is somewhere on the Thoughtless > Heartless Scale, caused my beloved horse to spend her last hours frightened & in terrible pain because he “forgot” to give me an urgent phone message.
          *I got fired by HR because my coworker/her lover got sick after stealing my extra-spicy lunch & had several horrible days before the owner found out the truth and made things right
          *I got called “baby-mama” and the C-word repeatedly and it took months before the worst offender was “punished” with ONLY a short stint in sensitivity training
          *A dear relative died on 9/11. I was at a meeting and there was this $%&*^$@#@! who made a “joke” about 9/11 victims

          That’s before we get to people who have been sexually harassed, were fired for being LGBTQ+.

          1. Oh No She Di'int*

            Right. But my only point was that if an interviewer did ask specifically about a worst professional experience, in general, they’re much more likely to be looking for a response about the time a big project was late or when a co-worker mishandled sensitive data or something along those lines, i.e., the kind of thing that TootsNYC would be looking for. As I said, I think that would be a poor way to word it, but I think it would be reasonable as a candidate to assume and proceed as though they are looking for work-related experience. Again, if they specifically meant a professional experience. That’s why the prelude followed by the question in this case was so problematic.

      3. Marion Ravenwood*

        Agreed. If you’re not caveating it with ‘at work’/’in a professional context’ – and even then that still opens you up to things like bullying, harassment, getting fired etc – then my brain instantly goes to ‘what’s the worst thing that happened to you *ever* in your life?’

    2. Dr. Rebecca*

      Even then, the results are probably going to not be great.

      Example, because it’s anonymous: my worst thing that happened to me in a work context is a toss up between my boss human trafficking me by taking my lodging out of my wages (thus leaving me with paychecks that regularly came to $12 a week) and then firing and evicting me on the same day, and the time I accidentally sliced my arm open to the fat layer and my boss bandaged it and made me keep working instead of sending me to get stitches, and then denied me worker’s comp. Or was it the time that my dad’s neighbor called to tell me he’d had a massive heart attack and I needed to get to the hospital, and the next day my boss banned the use of cell phones on the factory floor? Difficult to say, really…

      1. Dr. Rebecca*

        Now, I’ve had enough distance between all the events that they are, respectively, a good example of when to flee a situation, a curious looking scar on my arm, and my dad recovered and is doing wonderfully almost twenty years on, so that’s just a cranky memory. But, yeah, the worst that can happen in a job? Still potentially REALLY traumatic.

      2. Blueberry*

        Yeah, none of those are things you should have had to endure (OMg, were these the saem demon boss?! I am so, so sorry) let alone relate in an interview.

        1. Dr. Rebecca*

          Two demon bosses: First was one boss, second and third were a different one. And thank you.

          First boss is dead and his legacy in town has been dismantled. Second one is still in business, but if the place were on fire I would stand on the top of the nearest hill with popcorn to watch it burn down. I still have hopes of outliving the business and the boss.

    3. Leela*

      Even in a work context this can be a landmine for people, and frankly it severely disadvantages groups who are more likely to be discriminated against or harassed. Someone whose answer is “someone stole my idea!” and someone whose answer is “I was sexually assaulted at work, and when I brought it forward I was heavily retaliated against, eventually forced to leave and it bled out my savings so I couldn’t afford to leave a terrible living situation” are NOT having the same experience being asked that question

    4. Lepidoptera*

      In a work context you can still suffer from a number of the unpleasant experiences that Allison mentioned.
      For instance, in Manitoba there have been a recent rash of liquor store robberies and a number of workers have been assaulted, some quiet seriously. This is a work context and something that could probably qualify as “the worst thing that has happened to them at work”

    5. Anne Elliot*

      The worst thing that ever happened to me at work was when a beloved colleague dropped dead. I wouldn’t be any more open to discussing that just because it happened at work.

      1. Anongineer*

        Agreed. I had a beloved coworker who was murdered while on a project site. Technically the worst thing that I’ve dealt with at work, but never something I’d want to share in an interview. Even now I tear up thinking about it, I imagine having to talk about it would make me full out cry.

    6. TootsNYC*

      I’m normally a bit like you in situations where people are asked to share.

      But the whole “I know this is a difficult question…” bit would have totally set this up as the “worst thing…ever.” Meaning in your whole life.

      (I’d be sitting there saying, “nothing.” Like, I’ve had a very nice life. It’s had its difficulties, but I can’t think of a “worst thing ever” that I’d be willing to share. I mean, I’ve been laid off; had a boss that was unfairly critical; had a clinical depression; my mom passed away too early–but none of those qualify for “worst thing ever.”)

    7. Librarian of SHIELD*

      Here’s the thing, though. I’m a survivor of adolescent trauma. As an adult, I spent two years working for a manipulative, abusive jerk and I’ve got a whole litany of stories I could tell about awful things she said and did. But if someone asks me “what’s the worst thing that’s ever happened to you?” I’m not going to think, “Right, this is a job interview, so they want to know the worst work-related thing that’s ever happened.” The traumatized bit of my brain is going to take over at that question. That question turns me into a broken, terrified teenager, and I can’t think past that to get to any other possibility. Even if I can think quickly enough to get to a work-related story, I’ve just been forced to relive a series of traumatic events and it’s probably going to take days for me to level out and be okay again.

      1. Lady Heather*

        That’s a really well-worded explanation of what I would experience – and what I do experience in other, similar situations. Thank you.

        1. Librarian of SHIELD*

          You’re welcome. I’m glad it resonated with you and simultaneously terribly sad that we both have to know this.

      2. Aquawoman*

        This. The worst thing that ever happened to me left me with some PTSD. And even though that is *mostly* healed, just reading ABOUT the question is upsetting to me.

    8. Antilles*

      I would as well – if I’m at an interview, I’m naturally assuming the questions are work-related and intended to talk about my skills/lessons learned/whatever.
      I’m also kind of surprised at the people jumping to “what if your worst story is [horrific trauma here]”? Despite the interviewer setup, I really don’t think the intent of the question is to find out some detailed tale of discrimination or sexual harassment or layoffs causing you to fear homelessness or whatever. And besides, nobody’s cross-checking your life history to verify whether you have a ‘worse’ story than the time marketing promised to deliver 800 teapots in three days when it should be three weeks.
      I would just treat it like a poorly worded version of “what’s the biggest challenge you faced”/”tell me about a time you failed” and describe an unsuccessful project or a sales mishap or something of that sort.

      1. A Silver Spork*

        Depending on your interview, or your field more broadly, questions like “what do you do in your free time” and “tell me about your greatest role model” could very well be part of the standard interview agenda. It’s a sort of “get to know you” crossed with a bit of “do you fit in our culture” – I think it’s weird, personally, but that’s how it is.

        And if someone asks me about the worst thing that ever happened to me… I might be good at compartmentalizing, but I, and most people, am not THAT good, so my mind will go to “oh, maybe it was the time my brother tried to murder me, or maybe when I got stranded in a foreign country and couldn’t find my passport, or it could be one of the suicide attempts, or that time I woke up in the hospital with no memory of the previous day”… which will not put me in a good interviewing mindset.

        You can talk all you want about intent, but, well… when the impact is that people are being forced to relive some of their worst trauma, those good intentions mean jack.

      2. StrikingFalcon*

        It’s not that people think they are obliged to answer with the worst traumas of their life just because it’s are the most accurate answer to the question, it’s that the way the question is phrased, especially given the preface it was given, will call up extremely unpleasant memories for a lot of people. Trauma by definition stays with you, and just the memory of something very traumatic can totally knock you off your emotional keel, especially if it is recent. I wouldn’t actually answer that question with my worst trauma but I also don’t want to think about it during an interview. It’s not an appropriate question.

  6. McWhadden*

    I still think it would be totally unprofessional if it were framed as the worst thing to happen professionally.
    “Tell me about a professional challenge you faced and how you dealt with it?” would be fine. But for “worst thing” in a professional context lots of people have been assaulted sexually or otherwise at work, harassed, seriously bullied.
    And for many a serious illness was the worst professional set-back
    They shouldn’t have to relive those things.

    1. Another Librarian*

      I totally agree. I was asked a version of this question for an internal posting once. A colleague and good friend from my department had committed suicide the previous year while the rest of us were at a training. It was pretty obvious what the worst thing to ever happen professionally to me was…

    2. Sabina*

      I use to work in a law enforcement related field. The worse thing that happened to me in that position was dealing with the violent death of a coworker. So, no, not a good question…

    3. Jellyfish*

      Agreed. I have about three contenders for “worst” thing at work, and they’re all pretty awful. None of them involve me improving professionally or learning anything constructive.

      “Describe a time when…” questions allow people to select their own level of unpleasantness and tailor the answer accordingly. I can talk about A time when I dealt with something unexpected, had a negative interaction, disagreed with my manager, etc. Those are very different stories from the worst things I’ve ever encountered while working though.

    4. CoveredInBees*

      Yeah, the worst things that happened to me were: got physically attacked by someone we think was going through a psychiatric emergency and testifying about a coworker placing a camera in the office bathroom and downloading videos of me on the toilet. Will I be telling an interviewer about this? No. I will not.

      You talk about handling professional challenges and that’s it.

    5. TootsNYC*

      Or maybe “what was the hardest thing you’ve ever done, and why was it hard? And how’d you do it?”

      The “worst thing that ever happened TO you” doesn’t tell you anything about ME.
      If someone was mugged, raped, in a horrible car accident–that really tells you nothing about them.

      “Hardest thing” and “toughest challenge” would tell you what I consider to be hard, and how I handled it. That might tell you something useful about me. The fact that the hardest thing was confronting someone, and not working horrible hours? That’s indicative of something.

      1. Annony*

        I really like that phrasing! And I agree that it would tell you a whole lot more about the candidate.

      2. TootsNYC*

        In an interview for a high-level job in which I could reasonably expect to have to lay people off, and would have to discipline people, etc., they phrased it this way:

        “As you think about doing this job, what would keep you up at night?”

      3. No Tribble At All*

        I’m still uncomfortable with this unless you specify most difficult thing in your professional life. The toughest challenge I’ve faced– you really want to hear about my struggle with severe depression?

        1. Blarg*

          Years ago I applied to Teach for America when it was still relatively new. An essay question was something around “overcoming a challenge.” My naive 21 year old self wrote about battling a chronic illness. Such a bad prompt for young people who may not realize that their pride in graduating from college despite medical issues is not all that appealing to an employer who is just doing the math on how much work you might miss or whatever. Glad it didn’t work out in the long run but at the time I was devastated and embarrassed to not even get an interview (I was the only person I knew to not be invited).

          1. Blue*

            Right. I mean, I don’t feel like I really have an obvious Worst Thing – I’ve been quite fortunate in that way. But any of my possible answers are going to be around my multiple disabilities and the ways people have treated me because of them, and the cold hard truth is that none of that is going to make me appealing to a prospective employer.

          2. TootsNYC*

            I’m not so sure that was such a bad prompt; I’m assuming Teach for America would be interested in personal challenges as well. It’s just your own inexperience that led you to answer as you did.

            And though it was embarrassing for you, it may have been the right outcome.

        2. TootsNYC*

          Oh, I don’t know…
          If this were asked in a job interview, why would I think they wanted to know about my personal life?

          Isn’t “at work” the default? what makes our Letter Writer’s situation easy to misunderstand is the “ever” part of it.

    6. Annony*

      And what do they hope to get out of that question? Judge how much adversity you have faced? I don’t see how asking about “the worst thing” is ever going to be more helpful than “a professional challenge”.

    7. Raquel*

      Came here to say exactly this. Even modified by the word “professional,” to ask someone to recount and thereby relive the “worst” thing that’s happened is inappropriate and can dredge up emotions that should NEVER be experienced during a job interview, even if–especially if–said emotions occurred because of a work-related trauma.

    8. I'm just here for the cats*

      Yeah, in no context is this a good question. If they had said professionally I would say, take your pick:
      * Being called out by my supervisor for laughing and being cheerful with a customer on the phone
      * Having to be verbally abused by customers in a daily basis. Including sexual harassment but not “allowed” to hang up the phone.
      * Daily crying and panic attacks in the bathroom.
      * Having your name called out over loud speaker for being away from desk because I have IBS and was stuck in bathroom.
      * Being gaslit by several team leads
      Note this was ALL the same company

  7. Spidey Cents & Sensibility*

    I would not work for them, but, before I left I would answer their lil ‘gotcha!’ question with every horrible detail and a snot flinging, tear staining, hair pulling session that would make them question their very existence.

    1. Faith*

      For real. If given half a moment to think about it, I’d have responded with “well, I’m not really sure how to rank the death of my parent vs. being essentially homeless until my other parent married someone who became emotionally and physically abusive to all of us vs. a friend and I being sexually assaulted in broad daylight by a group of guys we barely got away from, but maybe you could tell me which is the worst? Or is none of that traumatic enough for you?”

    2. Saraquill*

      I’m not comfortable discussing the worst thing. I’m still “lucky” enough to have some awful things happen that made national news and I have no issue discussing. I’d be sorely tempted to go into graphic detail.

    3. designbot*

      yeah, I’d be really tempted to just drop a social bomb there. Like, “Oh, you want to talk about the time I nearly died, and it was months before I could even eat a bite of food without pain? Or maybe you want to hear about the time a guy followed me from the train stop to beat and rob me? Or possibly you want to talk about my infertility. No? I’ll go then.”

    1. Close Bracket*

      This is where my inability to read into things is a gift. I would have put this question into the same bin as all those general questions, which is the bin of Not Stated But Understood to Refer to Professional Events, like, “tell me about yourself.” They don’t want to hear about my childhood, they want to hear about my career. I would have unfazedly answered with a professional challenge.

  8. HRParksHere*

    What the what?!?
    So many ways to get that same info without that question!! Examples:
    Tell me about a time a time a project at work didn’t go as planned. What happened and what did you do?
    What is the biggest error you ever made at work and what did you do about it?
    Tell me about a work disappointment and how you dealt with that?
    Apparently this question is seeking out your level of emotional intelligence (did you think something that was just inconvenient was tragic and how did you react) and your resilience(how did you resolve the issue). I will take a personal answer to a question when the Candidate can’t think of a business one (happens with people new in their careers) but even then I try to steer them towards a school project or a team sport they participated in.

    I abhor the practice of asking prewritten questions. It’s here to stay it seems. I can ask you all of those questions on a STAR form or behavioral interview form without ever going down the wrought question list. I point the conversation in the direction to take me to that information. Candidates relax and tell you more than they do with the pre fab questions too. Sometimes a little to much more …:( yikes.

    1. Hills to Die On*

      One question I had in an interview once was ‘what’s the worst thing anyone ever said about you at work and what did you do?’

      1. Goliath Corp.*

        Oh god, these questions! “My abusive boss said she was ‘constantly surprised by how little I know,’ and I responded by crying in the bathroom.”Would I lose points for crying or gain points for not quitting?

        1. JediSquirrel*

          You would definitely come in ahead of the person who responded by drinking in the bathroom. But if they’re trying to figure that out, it’s a terrible organization.

      2. Fiona the Baby Hippo*

        these questions are also so uninteresting and unhelpful because even if we were in a universe where it actually told you something useful w/o being exploitative… what if no one has ever said anything bad about you at work? I’ve been likely lucky in this regard, but the worst things anyone ever said about me was when I was an intern and all I could do was take it. (This was also 10 years ago so it’s not going to tell you much about me as a worker now!) More recently I’m sure people have had said bad things about me that never got back to me, but I don’t know them!

        1. hbc*

          Now that you mention it, if I answered honestly about the worst thing someone told me at work, it’d look like a “My weakness is I’m a perfectionist” line. A former boss told me that I was the smartest person at the company. Sounds nice, but he was using it as a way to excuse a tantrum-throwing underperformer’s behavior. Not saying that I was rubbing it in or anything, just that me being right so much was very difficult for him. Seriously.

      3. ellex42*

        Oh, I like this one.

        It was “You have an excuse for everything.” And I completely ignored it and them because it was clearly a pathetic attempt at emotional manipulation.

        And if that’s the worst thing anyone at work ever says to me/about me, I’m perfectly happy with that.

      4. Curmudgeon in California*

        Eegad! How about if the answer to that is “My supervisor said to me ‘You’re a nice girl, but I don’t believe women belong in tech.’ What did I do? Nothing. I just sucked it up and tried to do my job in spite of the sabotage and gaslighting.”

  9. Liz*

    I would respond “oh hm, the worst thing that ever happened to me in a professional context was ____….oh wait, you meant in a personal context? Wow, that’s surprising. Can you tell me why you’re asking that?” Basically a variation on Alison’s message.

  10. A Simple Narwhal*

    Woof what a terrible question! Maybe the interviewer meant for it to be a work-related question, but it absolutely should have been qualified as such. It’s also weird that they prefaced it with “I know this is a difficult question”, like they knew it was inappropriate or that they were explicitly looking for personal answers.

    1. Former Young Lady*

      Yup. In this context, “I know this is a difficult question” is the equivalent of a churlish schoolyard bully saying, “If I ask you something, do you promise not to get mad?”

  11. Minocho*

    I’m removed enough from my worst experience ever, and angry enough about them asking such an inappropriate question, that I want to just go ahead and throw the whole ugly mess at them in all its glory, with brutally clear and direct language, and see how they liked recovering the interview from that.


    1. Threeve*

      “You wanna see the scar?”

      (Not actually from the worst experience of my life, but it’s a very impressive scar).

    2. Sunglow28*

      “Well, I just had my third baby die and I now believe that the universe is a shitty and unfeeling, random place in which luck takes away joy from good people. I’m available most weekends and evenings.”

    3. Claire*

      My automatic response to unexpectedly discussing my trauma is to shut down emotionally and become very dry and factual, so…I hope they’re ready to hear an exhaustively detailed recounting of my sexual assault and subsequent mental breakdown!

  12. Well Then*

    Horribly inappropriate. I wonder if the employer is a cause-based organization…you do see things like this pop up. Employees/volunteers are presumed to be there because of a deep commitment to the cause, and they often do have a personal connection to it, so giving your “story” in service to the cause can sometimes be an unspoken expectation. It’s really coercive and terrible, but unfortunately it persists.

    1. Allison*

      OP here. I was interviewing with a private school to teach online summer classes. No cause to speak of, unless the cause is to get more privileged kids into Ivy League schools.

      1. McWhadden*

        Well, then, I hope you answered “my imaginary crew team didn’t win the fake regatta after we had pretended to work so hard. But I’m a survivor so I just brushed it off and my parents paid to have me join an imaginary lacrosse team instead.”

      2. Well Then*

        Wow, that makes it even more ridiculous! Glad you were able to think on the spot and make something up. I honestly don’t know what I’d say if I was asked that. So bizarre.

  13. Optimus Prima Donna*

    They prefaced it with, “I have a very difficult question, but it’s one we’re asking all of our candidates:

    This isn’t a case where they want to know how you’d overcome challenges at work and are simply putting it to you in a clumsy, careless way. It’s not like they said, “What are your future goals?” and when you said, “Well, I want to start a family soon” they go, “Oh crap, we don’t meant that kind of goal! Hey, let’s STOP asking that question and replace it with, What are your career aspirations in the coming 2-3 years?”

    No, no, no. They know what that question may trigger and are deliberately asking it because they want to know if there’s deep shit that might pop up….without actually asking a potentially illegal question.

    1. Annony*

      That preface is like when people start with “Not to be rude, but” or “Nothing personal, but”. The need for a preface shows that you should not finish that sentence.

      1. Marion Ravenwood*

        “Not to be rude” is one of the phrases that makes my blood boil. It’s very, very closely related to “I’m just being honest”, which in my experience is code for “I want an excuse to say something mean about someone”.

    2. Thankful for AAM*

      Q: “They prefaced it with, “I have a very difficult question, but it’s one we’re asking all of our candidates:”

      A: and they answer you?

    3. JediSquirrel*

      That’s still highly unethical. Mental health is still covered by health privacy laws, AFAIK, although IANAL.

      This question is just trash, and reflects poorly on the organization asking it. There is no way to justify it.

      Oh crap, we don’t meant that kind of goal! Hey, let’s STOP asking that question and replace it with, What are your career aspirations in the coming 2-3 years?

      This is a specific, work-related question that is totally appropriate. Trying to find out if someone has some deep trauma that may or may not come up in the workplace is the exact opposite of that.

      1. Optimus Prima Donna*

        Hmm…I re-read my comment and think that my emphasis didn’t come through.

        I meant to say that they know exactly what they are doing and are doing it anyway. It’s not a case where it’s poorly constructed delivery. It’s a shit question, they know it, and they are flinging it to candidates on purpose because they want the answer.

  14. Leela*

    I would take this as a massive red flag! If they feel that entitled to not think about boundaries or how they’re coming off to candidates, imagine how much worse it’s going to be once you actually start.

    This seems like something your manager would ask before dating your father and then demanding that you go to couples therapy with them…

      1. Bunny Girl*

        I’ve had a couple interviewers where the people ask inappropriate or ridiculous questions and it’s normally around that time that I decide I don’t want to work for them so I just give bat sh** insane answers to amuse myself. Like the guy who asked me about what sort of animal I would be and he got five minutes of nonsense about how my spirit animal was a rabbit given to me by my native ancestors during a quest.

    1. Fiona the Baby Hippo*

      this reminds me of one of my childhood friends who was an amputee from birth. People always ask her what happened to her leg and she comes up with new answers for everyone to confuse them.

      1. Former Young Lady*

        “How’d you get that scar on your eyebrow?”

        “One day I was walking downtown and I saw a man with a scar just like this one. I asked him how he got it and he pulled out a knife…” (Reach into pocket, grin.)

  15. Kella*

    The wild part of this to me is if the worst thing that ever happened to you was something traumatic during your childhood, “How did you deal with it?” is both a terrible question and a useless one. “I learned to walk on egg shells and hide from my abuser when they were angry because I was a child and had no other option” is going to tell them absolutely nothing about how you handle challenges as an adult. Not that learning how you responded to trauma as an adult is really going to be that informative of how you are professionally. But like, woah.

    1. Allison*

      My worst thing happened when I was 18 and there’s not a damn thing I could have done to prevent it. I dealt with it by crying a lot and nearly dropping out of college. So…hire me?

    2. Leela*

      Until you posted this I’d completely forgotten about the “how did you deal with it” part because I was so blindsided by the question, and I’m not even the one it was asked to!

      But this is a really good point, a lot of the worst things that have happened to someone involve them being unable to change their circumstances so it becomes much worse than something they could just leave, so there really isn’t anything to be learned except gossip that the interview has no right to ask about or know

    3. Mrs. Carmen Sandiego JD*

      Yup. And got beaten up until I left home for good, and got financial independence after my mom stole half my paychecks for half a year and I couldn’t afford healthcare or groceries because of it. The sheer helplessness. I secreted $20 each week till I had enough to start a hidden bank account of my own.

      It’s not traumatic as, say, other horrific things, but the psychological toll and unexpected triggers are many.

  16. Kerfuffle*

    I’d definitely answer this in the context of work… surely they don’t really expect you to talk about the death of a child or something

    1. The New Wanderer*

      It sounds like they’re committed to asking regardless of what the response might be, and if they’ve been asking every candidate over a period of time, at some point someone will share something like that. And it still hasn’t stopped them asking the question without specifying *work related* worst thing.

      All the things about this question are wrong. Continuing to ask it as is. Saying it’s “difficult” but doing it anyway. Asking a question that could really upset candidates. Asking a question that gives you no useable information about the candidate. It’s just the worst.

    2. McWhadden*

      I actually think they very likely WERE asking in any context not just work.
      It seems to me they were looking for gritty survivors who have overcame great odds.

    3. Kyrielle*

      Honestly, the worst thing that ever happened to me at work was getting a call from my boss asking for advice on an urgent problem…while I was on leave dealing with the worst thing that ever happened to me.

      …I dealt with it by answering his questions and crying some more?

      1. Curmudgeon in California*

        Ugh. I got a page about a problem while on leave for my dad’s funeral. I had to ask on the team Slack if someone else could please handle it because I was on bereavement leave.

    4. Blueberry*

      Even in the context of work, though… I don’t want to tell them about either the gunman or the harassment complaint’s fallout, not in an interview.

  17. Some2*

    Whats the worst thing that ever happened to me? Taking this interview. How am I dealing with it? By walking out.

  18. A tester, not a developer*

    The only thing I can think of that might, possibly, a teeny tiny little bit, justify asking the question is if the job is with a vulnerable/at risk population, and they want to know if you a) are comfortable dealing with trauma, or b) if you have a background with shared experiences to your client base. Asking what impacts substance abuse has had on your life as part of an addictions councillor job or something?

    …but I’m really really reaching to even come up with that, and I would have expected the interviewer to preface the question with an explanation of why they were asking. OP didn’t indicate that this was a job teaching ‘high risk’ youths or adults.

    1. Lepidoptera*

      You would hope that a place which dealt with those sorts of things would have the foresight to realize how terrible that sort of question would be.

    2. Allison*

      I’m the OP. The job was to teach summer college-prep classes to private school kids. I mean, students do sometimes reveal abuse and other trauma, but the best thing to do in those cases is to connect them to the counselor (and CPS if they’re a minor). A question like, “What would you do if a student revealed abuse to you” would be much more revealing if that’s what they wanted to know.

      1. Lepidoptera*

        Yes, yes it would.
        But if they know that’s a thing that happens with enough frequency in their work, you would think that would be in their training and they would have some documentation for employees on what to do in that situation and what resources are available for you and the client.

      2. TootsNYC*

        Or, “our students might reveal some personal trauma. How do you think you might handle that? Have you had any experiences that might shed light on how you’d comport yourself in such a situation?”

    3. Observer*

      It’s also a stupid and useless way to figure this out. “I had this terrible thing happen to me” does not tell you about a person’s ability to empathize, deal with trauma appropriately or handle stress.

      1. Librarian of SHIELD*

        Even adding the “how you handled it” part wouldn’t give the employer all that much useful information. How I handled the worst thing that’s ever happened to me has absolutely nothing to do with how I handle the various negative and/or unexpected things that are likely to happen to me during the course of my employment.

        1. Lady Heather*

          Yes. I wonder about an employer that feels the need to know how I handle being the victim of a violent crime. Is ‘surviving crimes’ a skill they require me to use on a daily basis?

    4. Atalanta0jess*

      I work in mental health, and yes we have peer counselors who self-identify as having had experience with mental health issues – but we would never ask a question like this. It’s totally inappropriate.

  19. samesies*

    I have been asked the same thing, word for word. For context, I was interviewing for a non-profit that worked with people who are some of the most disadvantaged in our society. I think the interviewer was trying to get at whether I could relate to them. Still not professional. I was able to spin it as “of course I haven’t walked in their shoes and can’t believe to imagine what some people have lived through; however I do believe my skills in xyz can apply to abc situations…”

    Anyway. OP, so sorry this happened to you.

    1. samesies*

      Decided to add – no, I didn’t take the job, and yes, that workplace turned out to be pretty toxic, and the interviewer pretty crazypants.

    2. sub rosa for this*

      I was coming in with a similar comment.

      I did get asked in a job interview once whether I’d ever been sexually assaulted. But — I was interviewing for a job AT a rape crisis center, and the position would be working directly with survivors.

      The question was asked in a 1:1 interview, compassionately, by a certified and trained crisis counselor. I suspect that, had I interviewed at the women’s shelter down the street, I might have been asked equally compassionately if I’d ever been a victim of domestic violence.

      In any other circumstance, this sort of question is freakishly unacceptable.

  20. just a small town girl*

    “Well, it’s hard to say if the hardest part was the brutal and violent rape, or the training regimen for the next eight years as I hunted down my assailant and murdered them, and then embarked on a quest to cleanse the world of all rapists. now that that’s done, I’m here to start llama grooming again!”

    1. The New Wanderer*

      Or use pretty much any Disney movie antagonist’s backstory, victim’s story from any Law and Order series, superhero origin story, Shakespearean tragedy, and so on.

      1. Sharbe*

        I was going about my business, reading all the books in town, living with my aging dad, harrassed daily by a very obnoxious man, but somehow ended up being held captive in a castle by a reclusive beast. I talked to the furniture to pass the time……..

      2. Princesa Zelda*

        “My mom died when I was a kid, and my dad didn’t support my dream to be an anthropologist. So I ran away to Denmark but I couldn’t speak the language, and also the woman who got me there tried to steal my boyfriend.”

      3. The Doctor*

        So after I left Gallifrey, I started picking up stray humans to keep me sane while I travel even though I know they’ll all just leave or die on me in a timescale that seems like five minutes to me.

        And there’s the loss of identity and having to settle into a new body when I’ve only just got the hang of the steering on the previous one.

        And then there was the time I destroyed my home planet to save the universe. Okay, turns out I didn’t actually do that but I still had to live with the belief that I did for four hundred years. And recently I found out it’s been destroyed all over again.

        Shall I go on? I’ve got a couple of thousand years to cover.

      4. Allison*

        I fell in love with a man, but my father didn’t approve. He forbade me from seeing him and even destroyed my collection of whosits and whatsits. In desperation, I visited the local sea witch, who offered me a trade…

    2. Atchafalaya*

      This. THIS!!! With a straight face, constant eye contact…except for a twitch after 7 seconds of silence before answering the question.

  21. TeapotNinja*

    This one needs to go on Glassdoor interviews section as a warning to others with appropriate commentary as per Alison’s answer.

  22. East of Nowhere South of Lost*

    This is right up there with demanding to know what caused my PTSD. You.Just.Dont.Ask.That.

  23. Spiral Light*

    I have a friend who works for Apple who got asked during the interview why he moved from City in the South to City in the North. The real reason was that his marriage had fallen apart and he wanted to get away and start over somewhere new. He gave some reason about wanting to try living in a new place. The interviewer said, “That’s nice. But what’s the real reason?” And my friend responded that he was just tired of his old town and wanted something new. The interviewer said, “That’s nice. But really, what’s the real reason?” And finally my friend told him that his marriage had fallen apart and he couldn’t deal with living in the same town as his ex-wife anymore. The interviewer then accepted this answer and told my friend that he likes to get real honesty out of potential employees so that they’ll be honest with customers and have conversations with them rather than just interactions.

    I thought it sounded bonkers.

    1. McWhadden*

      Yeah, what I’m really looking for when I go into an Apple store is someone to share my deepest trauma with.

      1. lemon*

        As someone who worked customer service for a number of years, I can tell you: there really are tons of people who want to share their deepest trauma with literally anyone who will listen, sadly enough.

      2. XtinaLyn*

        So much that.
        “Hi, I’m Frank, your Apple Genius. Can I help you?”
        “Hi, I’m Jack, and I’m here to look at the newest version of the iPad.”
        “You seem very hung up on ‘new’ things. Did something happen in your past that’s making you want to escape from familiar things, and search for a way out of your troubled and dysfunctional life?”
        “Um…noooo…just want to upgrade my tech stuff.”
        “Well, Jack, let me tell you about the time my wife left me for our plumber, and I ended up living in a cardboard box outside our local bakery, where each morning I inhaled flour as my only source of sustenance…”

    2. A Simple Narwhal*

      Oh that’s nuts and totally invasive. I don’t need my customer service person to have shared a personal tragedy to be a good employee, what a dumb excuse to go on a power trip.

      On the other hand, this is perfect testing for most retail positions because it shows your ability to deal with unreasonable people.

    3. Blueberry*

      WHAT. FFS, customers neither need nor want that kind of honesty. Someone who wants to buy a widget doesn’t need to know that!

    4. Autumnheart*

      What the hell. When you said “friend who works for Apple”, I pictured a software engineer or product manager, or someone who would at least be making a pile of money developing products that would impact hundreds of millions of people. Not some regular Joe working in the damn Genius Bar.

    5. Librarian of SHIELD*

      That interviewer is an objectively awful human being. I don’t care if he rescues puppies in his spare time and donates all of his money to soup kitchens, repeatedly asking a complete stranger a personal question when it’s very clear they’re uncomfortable giving you that information makes you not a good person.

  24. RVA Cat*

    I’d never be calm enough for this, but they deserve a deadpan “watching my mother die” and then walking out without another word.

    1. Just Another Manic Millie*

      I think that I would say, “I can’t decide if it was when my mother died, or if it was when my father died. It’s too bad they didn’t die simultaneously, because then I would know for sure.” And then walk out.

  25. Falling Diphthong*

    Je. Su.

    The things that leapt to mind for me (three right off the bat) are not things I would share with some strange interviewer. I’ve shared these at work only in the sense that I wanted to give context to the time-off I told them I was taking–and I never brought up the past ones with new people I was working with.

    For me, personal worst things >>>>>>> work worst things. And I imagine that is true of most people.

  26. Alex*

    I don’t even discuss the worst thing that ever happened to me with my partner, and it was only after years that I could finally talk about it with a therapist, a trained professional who I trust. It would be actively triggering to be asked to talk about it by a total stranger. This is so far over the line I don’t even have words for it.

  27. Andrew*

    I think I would answer by talking about the time one of my reports resigned a month before a big project was due, and then we had troubles with our freelance talent pool, and how we’d worked through those challenges, and basically just pretend they’d meant “… in a professional context.”

    1. Blueberry*

      That’s a good answer. But also, in a weird way, it’s good this is the worst thing that happened to you at work? It was something you could exert agency over and work on controlling, at least in part.

  28. Oh No She Di'int*

    If the interviewer truly did mean “worst thing ever” and not just “worst professional thing ever”, then they’ve created a no-win situation for the applicant. Either you really do tell the worst thing, which would be invasive and potentially highly inappropriate. Or you make up something palatable as the OP did, and risk coming off as pampered or disingenuous because the “worst” thing that ever happened to you isn’t really all that bad. It’s a terrible question.

  29. XtinaLyn*

    It’s such a tone deaf question. The first things that come to my mind are all DEEPLY personal, including some events that no one else even knows about. Why would a potential employer think they should be privy to that level of intimacy with a candidate??

  30. overcaffeinatedandqueer*

    I think I would make them regret asking this question! Something like, okay, do you want to hear about the sexual assault, or being rejected for being gay and thus nearly dying because I couldn’t then afford asthma meds, or maybe the time my mom basically said I was a manipulative liar and essentially gave me up because she couldn’t handle my mental health issues? (I went to live with my best friend for a time and mom signed some sort of temporary document).

  31. Master of None*

    I 100% agree this is a super inappropriate question ask either personally or professionally.

    If we put 100% positive intent behind the question –

    I wonder if this was a terrible misguided attempt to find triggers? If the position was a teaching role and the student population has a wide variety of traumas the school is aware of, it may be difficult for people to either 1.) adequately help students if they are triggered by hearing similar stories or 2.) if they are so removed from various traumas that they would not be adequate mentor to know how to help students.

    Regardless, this is a TERRIBLE way of getting this information and a better question would be “our student population is a vulnerable one with several of our students who are dealing with traumas. How effective do you feel you would be in working with this population?”

  32. OrigCassandra*

    Ain’t nobody want to hear about my kidney stone, or my divorce.

    Especially not in a job interview.

    This is a stunningly ill-advised interview question.

    1. XtinaLyn*

      “How did passing your kidney stone make you a better communicator, and how would you apply those lessons to your potential job as Llama trainer?”

  33. hbc*

    I see two possibilities. One is that they just had an employee experience a pretty terrible event, and they are in some way trying to screen for that and have way, way too limited a view on the possible answers. As in, an employee accidentally ran over her own dog, and it sent her into a spiral ending when she finally quit. “Hmm, how do we make sure this doesn’t happen to us again?” I’ve seen a lot of terrible interview questions arise from trying to avoid a really specific thing in candidates.

    The other is that they’re looking for some sort of ability to be open or vulnerable or connect with the kids authentically or whatnot. The killer is that being this blind to the impact of a question like this means they have very little empathy as an organization while they’re looking for it in employees.

  34. My boss is dumber than yours*

    I’d be severely tempted to answer completely truthfully and over share: “My dad died when I was 24, and I responded by drinking heavily while spending my second year of Ph.D. studies writing 20-hours a day to stay numb. I don’t remember much else, but that could just be because I was pretty drunk all the time.”

  35. LabTechNoMore*

    I was asked something like this in an interview recently. “Over the course of your career, what was your worst day on the job?” I described the day I knew my last lab job was not going to work over some office drama that boiled down to me not being able to do my job (a specialty skill that no one else there possessed) because no one would take me seriously. I described it marginally more professionally than that, but used it as a segue to explain how I pivoted into tech. Which is also why I wasn’t phased too much by the question (despite much worse days on the job that aren’t interview appropriate): tech hiring is awful, in every conceivable way.

    1. TootsNYC*

      This could conceivably tell me something about you.

      You might consider that your worst day; someone else might consider a horrible deadline to be their worst day. That could tell me about your values, or about your outlook. (which is harder for youo–internal, vs. imposed from the outside)

      It could tell me what your outlook was during or after the fact, depending on how/what you tell me.

      And, it’s got a little room for you to pick which you’ll talk about. I can leave out the verbal attack from my hypercritical boss that left me reeling, and focus on the horrible deadline that was so hard.

  36. bunniferous*

    I hardly think the experience of walking in on my freshly dead grandmother in her bedroom at age nine would be relevant to the job.

  37. TootsNYC*

    Ideally, in the moment you could have said, “That’s such a deeply personal question, especially with the types of trauma people might have in their backgrounds! Can you tell me why you ask it?”

    Even not “in the moment,” you can ask this. (I’m not a fan of the idea that you can’t go back and cover the territory just because you didn’t do it the first time.)

    If they offer you the job, you can say, “I have one question I’d like an answer to before I consider this offer. You asked about the worst thing that ever happened to me–and you even acknowledged that it was a difficult question.
    “Could you tell me why this is something you felt you needed to ask? Given that you knew some people might have some pretty personal stories, and that none of us like casually talking about the worst thing that ever happened to us, it seems significant that you went ahead and asked it anyway.
    “Why did you need an answer to this question?”

    Like, who wants to think about the worst thing that ever happened to them? Especially casually, and in front of a stranger!

  38. SheLooksFamiliar*

    Argh. I’ve been asked this question or a version of it. I learned to ask, in my best polite but slightly puzzled tone, ‘I don’t understand how that is relevant to the role we’ve been discussing. Can you tell me what you are trying to understand about my professional experience?’ Some inteviewers backtracked and explained they wanted to understand how I handled intense pressure or if I had a professional setback, which was fine with me. More often than not they just repeated the question, only slower and louder. I would try to explain why they were engaging in a Very Bad Practice, since I’m in corporate staffing. What the heck, I knew I wasn’t going to get an offer, and wouldn’t have taken it if I had.

    However, there was one particularly obnoxious guy who thought this was a clever and insightful question. You know the kind. After pushing back a couple of times, I told him about my abusive parents, and that my father was a child rapist in his own home. I didn’t raise my voice – it took effort – and outlined the most ‘difficult time of my life’ and the years of intense fear, despair, and powerlessness. His face got redder, and I kept going. Finally he stammered, ‘That’s fine, I don’t need to know more.’ Couldn’t resist telling him he was probably doing great harm to candidates with this question by stirring up awful memories. I might have ended our interview by saying, ‘You have no reason to know this about anyone, and you really need to learn how to interview better!’ Gotta admit, in spite of the dredged up memories, I enjoyed seeing him get so very flustered.

    1. Aspie AF*

      You are my hero! I’ve never been subjected to this line of questioning but can only hope to handle it that well.

      1. SheLooksFamiliar*

        Thank you for the kind words, but don’t give me too much credit. I’d been actively interviewing and was sick of all the bad interviewers. This guy was a pompous jerk, and I wanted to make him squirm.

    2. Amethystmoon*

      Yeah, they absolutely need to have the professional qualifier. Otherwise they’d get my story about my mother dying. But even that, I would probably not be entirely honest about in a job interview situation. I would have to go with something relatively minor that I was able to resolve quickly, not the actual worst things.

  39. Dave*

    We don’t know what the job entails. All we know is the word adjunct. With only half the story, you are assuming the worst.

    1. Dr. Rebecca*

      Adjunct in the context of summer work with the previous work being “full time teaching” means teaching summer classes on a per-course contracted basis. I’m currently doing this work, and there’s no reason whatsoever that this needs to be asked, particularly as in higher education, with the way the US is right now, the answer might be “watched one of my students die in front of me as a result of a school shooting.”

      You’re welcome.

      1. Dave*

        Take your pick which might be the worst experience I faced as an inner city high school teacher.
        1. Watching a 15 year old girl overdose in class and later die.
        2. Having a 16 year old girl miscarry during class.
        3. Attending 19 funerals of students.
        4. Having a 17 year old boy leave a loaded gun in a desk.
        5. Being violently assaulted by a 17 year old boy while walking in the hallway on the way to class.
        6. Watching one girl take a knife and slash another girl in the face and having blood all over my shirt.
        It might be important for the interviewer to know what experiences you have before giving you a job. Some jobs are just more difficult than others.

        1. Dr. Rebecca*

          1) It’s not a competition, Dave.

          2) No, in no way is it ever appropriate to ask that question in that manner. It’s not a fair hiring criteria for people to relive their personal traumas with their interviewers on the chance they might get a job.

          3) If you think it is, please stay far away from hiring others. And maybe consider transferring positions to something that doesn’t make you so incredibly cavalier about other people’s traumas.

          4) Adjuncts are paid, on average, less than $2500 per course per semester, which means they could teach an entire 16 week course for $625 a month. Less than rent in the city I live in, which is a small midwest town with a VERY low standard of living. In no way would I answer this question for the consideration of that money. I’d have to be working for the CIA defusing bombs for that question to come close to being worth it.

        2. Claire*

          I have also had deeply upsetting things happen through my work in prisons! I fail to see how discussing the details of my sexual assault during college with a stranger makes me more qualified to deal with that.

    2. Queer Earthling*

      Are…are you actually trying to defend the interview question? Even with so many people here pointing out the serious traumas they’ve experienced and how they seriously do not want to go through remembering those in the middle of a JOB INTERVIEW?

    3. TootsNYC*

      I cannot think of ANY job opening for which this is an appropriate question.

      I wouldn’t think much of a THERAPIST who dropped this on someone!

    4. Elenna*

      Exactly what kind of job do you think this could possibly be a good interview question for? Because I’m pretty darn sure no such job exists.

      1. MsSolo*

        Yeah, I’m trying to reach for something, and the closest I can get is a role that deals with other people during or in the immediate aftermath of significant trauma (rape counsellor for children at an ICE facility would be the most upsetting job I can currently imagine), and even then you’d be concerned that you’re going to hire someone who makes things worse for their patients by over-identifying.

    5. The Gollux, Not a Mere Device*

      No, neither the LW, Alison, nor the commentariat are assuming the worst. One or two people did speculate that the interviewer might have been trying to get people to talk about personal tragedies. More people are saying things like “he probably isn’t expecting to hear about my own worst experience” and then describing horrible things that happened to them.

  40. TootsNYC*

    I tend to be someone who gets impatient with people who complain about being asked to share in a group setting; I’m thinking, “You get to pick, just pick something innocuous. Being able to come up with a white lie is a grown-up skill; time to practice it.”

    But this is just awful. This goes beyond.
    “worst thing…ever”?

  41. Chronic Overthinker*

    Yikes! (gif of Tracy Morgan No no no, hell no) That’s completely inappropriate to ask in a interview, no matter what context! I could think of a dozen different questions that deal with mistakes at work that are not at all phrased like OP’s. I mean, presumably that’s what they were trying to get at, i.e. bad thing happens at work, how did you respond?

    I wouldn’t dare talk about the worst thing that ever happened to me. That stays buried in my psyche until I am long gone.

  42. Third or Nothing!*

    The worst thing that ever happened to me was when I thought my daughter was dying during childbirth. Words cannot accurately convey the terror that grips a parent’s heart when the nurse wheels in the NICU crash cart after informing you the emergency procedure they’re about to perform may cause bleeding on the brain, then you don’t hear your child’s cries and no one will tell you if she’s ok or not.

    I don’t mind sharing that story as a way to inform people about birth trauma and encourage others who went through it that they’re not alone, but dang I’d be tempted to get all weepy and teach a lesson about why we don’t ask questions like this.

  43. Bertha*

    I’d be tempted to answer really facetiously. “The worst thing that ever happened to me? Well, you won’t believe this but when I went to Starbucks this morning, they were OUT OF PUMPKIN SPICE. But, I tried to take it with grace and didn’t even demand to speak with the manager, and I settled for mocha.”

  44. Apocalypse How*

    How I would want to answer . . .

    Interviewer: What is the worst thing that’s ever happened to you?
    Me: Working for an abusive boss. Why? Is that going to be a problem here?

    1. Triumphant Fox*

      But this is kind of it though. I do wonder if this place is so bad that it will rank among the “worst” and they want to see how I handle it. “Does work here typically involve the worst experiences of people’s lives? That’s really concerning.”

      1. Champagne Cocktail*

        Does work here typically involve the worst experiences of people’s lives?

        This is exactly where my mind went when I read the letter.

      2. Arts Akimbo*

        “Does work here typically involve the worst experiences of people’s lives?”

        Best. Possible. Response.

  45. velociraptor*

    Did we interview at the same place?! Was it a college??? I had this same question asked in an interview, and immediately thought how lucky it was that I’ve had a trauma-free life, and that this question was going to bite them in the butt eventually. I couldn’t imagine how that would go down otherwise.

    They also asked me what my spirit animal was (“An ocelot? I guess?” “No! Not your favorite animal! Your spirit animal.” “Oh. Can I still say ocelot, though?”) and to guess THEIR spirit animals (“You’ll never guess mine.” “A bear?” “No, it’s an emu!” “Guess you were right, then.”).

    I did not get this job.

    1. Dr. Rebecca*

      As the LW says they’re trying to adjunct, yeah, it was a college–might have been the same place… ;)

      1. velociraptor*

        I will be honest, I skimmed it, missing the adjunct bit, and then rushed to comment lol. I was just so astonished that someone else had to deal with such a weird and ill-conceived question!

      2. Allison*

        Sorry, adjunct probably wasn’t the right word. I do work in higher ed, which is why I used it, but this was for a summer bridge program for high schoolers. It is weird that other people are saying this question has popped up in academia…maybe it’s a misguided attempt to judge a candidate’s ability to empathize with students. The “we’re family” attitude is prevalent in education, but this took it to an extreme.

    2. Librarian of SHIELD*

      Oh, I wish someone in a job interview would ask me what my spirit animal is so I can launch into an in depth lecture on why that question is racist as hell.

      1. Gumby*

        I read a fair amount of fanfic that uses facets from The Sentinel (despite having never seen *any* of the show) so that is my primary association with spirit animals and I would so answer such a question in that vein. Like, “I’m not a sentinel or a guide, I don’t think I have a spirit animal. Is that a requirement of the job? Are we admitting in public those are things now?”

      2. velociraptor*

        I wish I had been steady enough to point all of that out. The spirit animal questions, however, came after the “what was your worst experience” so I was already off-kilter. What’s worse is this happened in an area with a large Native population and they really REALLY should have known better.

      3. Observer*

        Maybe not so racist. But, it’s one of those places where I think that perhaps “cultural appropriation” is appropriate.

        Also, it’s going to be a problem for a LOT of religious folks of other faith traditions.

        Pick your poison, as they say. TOTALLY inappropriate, whichever way to you see it.

    3. Sharbe*

      Honestly, a sea otter. It gets to float all day in the water and uses its stomach as a dinner table. Yeah, sure, there’s a chance that you get nabbed by a killer whale, but for the most part it seems like a pretty cool gig. But I don’t think this would get me a job.

      1. XtinaLyn*

        Plus, it loves to cuddles its babies and enjoys super-fresh seafood.
        (I am TOTALLY stealing this if I ever get asked that question.)

        1. zaracat*

          I see so often that people think sea otters are cute, but I will never be able to erase from my brain the images that arose from reading an article about their violent tendencies (I’m being deliberately vague here, google can fill in the details).

          1. Cara*

            A river otter once held my friend’s 6’5″ father captive at the end of their dock because he was too close to her babies. Just goes to prove you can be adorable and ferocious all at the same time.

    4. Librarian1*

      If someone asked me about my spirit animal, I’d lecture them about cultural appropriation. (I think it’s highly unlikely that the interviewers are from a Native American culture that has spirit animals….)

  46. somebody blonde*

    I think if I were asked this question in an interview, I’d probably ask right then why they asked and what they were hoping to get from it. I’d also ask them (after they answered) whether they had considered that I wouldn’t want to discuss my beloved father’s death with a perfect stranger at an interview, and also that my coping skills as a 15-year-old probably aren’t terribly relevant to whatever job this is. This question is so out-of-line that I wouldn’t mind destroying the interview rapport by questioning them on it.

    1. Observer*

      That assumes that you’d have the presence of mind. This is the kind of thing that is SOOOOO unexpected that it’s hard to process it AND come up with a really good response. The best most of us can do is not dissolve into a puddle and get out some sort of non-ridiculous answer.

      1. somebody blonde*

        Not gonna lie, part of my interview prep is prepping for inappropriate questions, because my natural tendency is actually to be super rude rather than to just answer the question (think WTF instead of “oh, could you tell me why you’re asking that?”) I have a pretty strong anti-authority streak, so my natural tendency is to ask why rather than just taking it.

  47. Kali*

    As a first responder, I get the question, “What’s the worst call you’ve ever been on?” all the time. My actual worst calls are the stuff of nightmares. Unless I’m asked by someone who is looking to get into my career, I don’t answer it truthfully – the rest get a much more sedate story that would make the general public gasp but wouldn’t get a flicker of an eyelid from other first responders. (We never ask that question of each other, because we either know, or we don’t want to know.)

    So yes, even in a professional context, as many have pointed out, this can be a fraught question. (There are plenty of ex-cops, ex-paramedics, ex-firefighters, ex-military, etc. people who have dealt with trauma as part of their every day. And that’s putting aside those who suffered harassment or bullying or people asking for their livers at work, or far worse!) I find that the just-curious people who ask me are usually the thoughtless type. I would seriously question working for anyone that asked me this in an interview. What a boundary to cross. Sheesh.

    1. Quill*

      The only ones that one of my friends who used to be an EMT will tell are about the babies born in the ambulance, largely because the stories she does tell about that are about the time someone almost named their baby placenta. Which might be an urban legend.

        1. Quill*

          According to Ex-EMT (who is also Jenny from the Fish Fry Kidnapping, yes, things happen to her) the new mother heard them saying “It’s a girl” and “the placenta is coming out” and said “That’s a pretty name, Placenta, I should name her that.”

          At which point the ambulance team that wasn’t dealing with baby and umbilical cord showed her the organ bit she’d just birthed along with her baby and said “No you SHOULD NOT.”

      1. Kali*

        Ha! It might be, although it’s not one that I’ve heard.

        But yes, I find it best to stick with funny stories or ones that are only slightly gross. I tailor to the audience, but I have a few go-to’s with crazy drunks, near-misses, or wild coincidences.

        I think that most people don’t realize how much trauma happens every day in even a small city.

    2. AnonRN*

      As an inpatient nurse at a trauma center: stuff of nightmares indeed. And I’m also not gonna share specific details of patient care/injuries for privacy reasons. So then that leaves the kind of weird bleak humor that only someone who already works in that setting would understand and otherwise sounds tone-deaf and thoughtless, like the time I asked my coworkers on the code-blue team whether we thought I had time to pee before the patient was gonna code again. (I promise you there were no family members present and I would never have asked if there were.) The assembled group got a wry laugh and we all “got it.” But it sounds insensitive and heartless if you don’t work in situations with that type of tension.

      1. Kali*

        Yes! We all have sick senses of humor, because it’s necessary to cope. So even some of my funny/good stories might sound insensitive. It’s dangerous territory to ask for any stories, really – you’ll probably get tales of corpses over your dinner salad.

    3. Arabella Flynn*

      I always ask EMTs/ER nurses “What’s the funniest case you’ve ever gotten?” They like that question a lot better, and I get to hear a hilarious story.

      1. Kali*

        We have lots of funny stories! Sometimes, what’s funny to us is horrifying to the general public though, lol. I remember being in a seminar unrelated to my job (so no other first responders in the room) where 2 panelists were former cops. They told the grossest stories, and I was the only one laughing along with them. The rest of the audience looked a little queasy. Oops.

  48. Skeeder Jones*

    I had an interview where I was asked to close my eyes, think of my earliest memory, describe it and talk about the emotions I felt at the time and how I felt remembering it. And my earliest memory was being molested by a babysitter. So… that was fun to share with 2 male interviewers. I wasn’t even thinking on my feet enough to change the memory to something else. This was for a technical writing job so there is no way this would be relevant to my work. To this day, I have no idea why they asked this question and what they were trying to learn about me but I can say I was relieved when I didn’t get the job.

    I can understand asking things like “how do you handle yourself in emergencies? And can you provide an example, but if not that’s ok”, I could understand why they might be asking about a “worst experience”. I could answer that as I’ve had a few emergencies occur on the job (I used to be the opening employer at a day care center and opened the building to discover an intruder) and I could explain how I’m calm under file, etc. But just asking about my worst experience is ridiculously personal.

  49. Inad*

    Hah! I was asked this at the interview for my current job. I love my current job, but it was definitely an indicator of some low EQs in management.

  50. another Hero*

    I’m sure someone else has said this by now, but I disagree with Alison. I don’t think they haven’t considered people’s potentially traumatic experiences as answers. I think they feel entitled to ask anyway.

  51. Ted Mosby*

    I live a pretty privileged life in that I’ve never had anything REALLY REALLY bad happen to me, so feel free to borrow the worst day of my life, where I was traveling via bus, plane, and train for fourteen hours through Europe and had a VIOLENT case of the stomach flu. I’m sure hearing about yakking on a bus heading out from Paris and having to clean it up with a plastic baggie and a few leftover napkins will teach them what a horrible question that is.

    1. Librarian of SHIELD*

      You know, I think it might be an appropriate consequence of having asked this terrible question if I made the interviewer sit through an explanation of the time I got my period in a rural part of a foreign country that doesn’t use western style bathrooms/toilets.

  52. Rebecca1*

    I can think of two, and exactly two, answers to this question that would be at all plausible.

    1. Answer with the worst medical thing that ever happened to you, in gory detail. Even if that’s the common cold, you can get a lot of mileage out of mucus consistency and quantity.

    2. The old classic, “I was in a job interview and trying to present myself at my best, when I got surprised by a question that reminded me of everything negative that ever happened to me. It was really traumatic. I am dealing with it by asking the interviewer, ‘Why would you ask such a personal question?’”

    1. KoiFeeder*

      I am not talking about the time I had a laparoscopy and the glue didn’t stick the wound shut. I will happily talk about colonoscopy prep, but I’m trying really hard to forget waking up to that discovery.

  53. Allison*

    Thanks, everyone, for the comments, and for reinforcing my opinion that this was a crazy question to ask in an interview! I wish I had had the presence of mind to call it out like Alison suggested, but I was still in interview mode, and it caught me off guard.
    Anyway, it got weirder. The woman who interviewed me called me later that day and asked me to do a remote teaching demo. She said I could teach any high school literature lesson that I had taught previously. Then, over the holiday weekend, she kept texting me to ask questions about the demo: “What story are you going to teach?” “Will you assign homework?” “Should we test Zoom to see if it works beforehand?” with about twelve hours between each question. One text came in at 9:30 at night. Like, sure, let’s test Zoom together on a Sunday night! It was bizarre. After the nighttime text, I wrote her that I was withdrawing my application because the interview question about the worst thing that had ever happened to me and the number and timing of her texts had me concerned about maintaining professional boundaries.
    She didn’t reply.
    So, bullet dodged. This is a small, very expensive school that I was interviewing for, and I wonder if it’s just developed a strange culture. But they’re only going to get very inexperienced or very desperate candidates with an interview process like this.

    1. WellRed*

      “I wrote her that I was withdrawing my application because the interview question about the worst thing that had ever happened to me and the number and timing of her texts had me concerned about maintaining professional boundaries.”

      Did you say this to her? Awesome! I bet you’re right on the money about them developing their own strange culture.

      1. Allison*

        My husband had to persuade me to do it. I don’t like confrontation, normally. But it felt good to hit send.

      2. TexasThunder*

        Or the simpler. “Worst f*cking question I can imagine. You seem like a bunch of weirdoes with appalling judgment. Get lost. Allison out.”

    2. Rebecca1*

      Expensive private school, inappropriate personal questions, and no time boundaries? That sounds like some schools I have lived near that were run by very -fringe religious organizations (various different very-fringe religious organizations— not calling out any in particular). If you are looking for something to do in your free time, dig into whether that’s the case here.

    3. Lady Ariel Ponyweather*

      You absolutely did the right thing. It’s wonderful that you told her exactly what the problem was. Hopefully they’ll take the advice to heart and make changes. I hope the right job comes your way very soon!

    4. Stormy Weather*

      Smart move.

      Personally, I don’t care for potential employers or recruiters texting me at all, and after business hours? Ah, no.

    5. Observer*

      But they’re only going to get very inexperienced or very desperate candidates with an interview process like this.


    6. rinkydink*

      I was also asked this question in a different setting and with the same justification (“What is the most difficult thing you’ve been through in your life” – I clarified and yes they did mean personal life). This was from the CEO of a tech startup that works with poor populations, so he was supposedly trying to see if I could relate.

      I’d been reading AAM long enough to instinctively know this was an inappropriate question, but it was my first interview cycle in a few years and I was nervous, so I didn’t refuse to answer (which I regret! I was so caught off-guard!). It really rattled me and made me feel uncomfortable, doubly so after regretting not standing up for myself. I’m really glad you said something to them afterwards! Thanks for standing up for us!

    7. 404UsernameNotFound*

      “… the number and timing of her texts had me concerned about maintaining professional boundaries.”

      This is the best way ever to respond. Not only is it suitably diplomatic, but in my experience “concerned” seems to be a common euphemism for anything from “mildly annoyed” to “freaking out”. Ergo, you either avoid being seen as the one to burn the bridge (regardless of the fact that the interviewer already poured several gallons of petrol over the thing and then took a flamethrower to it, several times) or she might start thinking for five seconds about what on earth she’s doing. Which seems unlikely, but one can dream.

  54. Dragoning*

    You know what? My answer to that has, historically, when I shared it with trusted loved ones, made people drop their mouths open in shock and horror and speechlessness, because there is no good response.

    And it hurts like nothing else to this day.

    I still might drop it on them, just to watch their horror, because they deserve it, and then I would never work with them again.

  55. Anonymouse*

    Question : What’s the worst thing that ever happened to you?

    Answer: What’s your security clearance again?

  56. Fiddlesticks*

    I would like to know what the interviewer would say if a candidate did, in fact, tell the story of his/her worst experience ever. I mean, what can someone possibly say in response to “I was raped by a coworker” or “My brother was killed in a drive-by shooting”?!

    HUGE red flag!!

    1. Penny Hartz*

      Good point! What the heck would an interviewer say after someone talks about some awful, traumatic event and how they’ve dealt with it?

      “Okay, thanks! Now, what kind of marketing automation software have you used in the past? Also, would you like a tissue?”

  57. The Gollux, Not a Mere Device*

    Not only is that question batshit off-the-wall and potentially very cruel, I suspect (though I am not a lawyer) that they’re setting themselves up for EEOC complaints, because some rejected candidates will be able to say “the interviewer asked me about my disability.” More candidates will have revealed information that isn’t illegal to ask about, but is illegal to take into account (like marital status or religion), and “I have a very difficult question, but it’s one we’re asking all of our candidates” strongly suggests that they *are* using the answers in making their hiring decisions.

    1. The Gollux, Not a Mere Device*

      To clarify: It’s not that being disabled is the worst thing that has happened to most disabled people. But some of the very bad things that can happen to people, like violent assaults and serious car crashes, also lead to disabilities. (Both cancer and PTSD can be disabilities in terms of the ADA, as can missing limbs.)

    2. Close Bracket*

      You are assuming that disabled people will have a “worse” (by whatever metric the interviewer is using) answer than non-disabled people, which is not an accurate assumption by any stretch.

      1. SimplyTheBest*

        No? That doesn’t make any sense. The Gollux is just assuming that some disabled people are disabled due to a traumatic event which may or may not be the worst thing that happened to them. Has nothing to do with comparing that “worst” to anyone else.

    3. Bagpuss*

      Yes, I thought this.It doesn’t necessarily matter whether they actually use the information to make a hiring decision – if you disclose a disability in response to their questions, and then don’t hire you, you may well believe that their choice was due to their knowledge of your disability, and raise a discrimination complaint.

  58. Obes*

    The worst possible wording for the “tell me about a time when everything was going wrong in a job and how you dealt with it” question…

  59. Book Badger, Attorney-at-Claw*

    Just because I’m a bit of an oversharer, I’d probably go in the exact opposite direction. Let me give you tons of detail about my best friend’s suicide! Allow me to describe the irony of being the one to break the news to everyone, including her parents, and the hilarious awkwardness of her funeral! I will spend AS LONG AS NECESSARY elaborating on its effect on my theretofore-improving mental health, its unexpected interference with my work and relationships, and how I’ve gotten over it as best I can through extensive verbal processing and humor! What, you didn’t want a three-hour discussion about this highly emotional topic? TOO BAD.

    1. TomorrowTheWorld*

      I would absolutely do the same, not least because I wouldn’t want to work with these people so might as well go all in.

  60. Lady Heather*

    Alison – is this question even legal? For a lot of people ‘the worst thing that happened to them’ involves medical stuff either as the thing (‘got x disease’) or as the result (‘my partner got angry and put me in the hospital’), and the ‘how did you deal with it’ will involve ‘got clinical-level anxiety/trauma/nightmares and then got a therapist’ for a lot of people as well.

    If employers aren’t allowed to ask about disabilities and medical stuff, this one seems to come very close for a lot of people.

  61. Elizabeth*

    Somehow I’m reminded of an icebreaker topic we were supposed to answer at an orientation once – “What’s the story behind your scar?” They thought it was a cute question because most people had a story like “I hit my head on the jungle gym when I was 3”, but I was sweating bullets, because the first scars of mine that came to mind were a bit more traumatic and I was appalled that they hadn’t considered that some people had been in severe car accidents, been abused, self-harmed, etc.

    1. cleo*

      How awful.

      I think there’s a whole category of questions / stories that can either elicit light, funny stories or dark, tragic ones (without much in between) – what’s the biggest secret you’ve kept? what’s the worst date you’ve been on? worst holiday meal? etc. And the people who’ve only experienced the light, “remember the time Mom dropped the turkey?” type stories tend to not think that those prompts might bring up stories of trauma etc.

    2. Alex*

      Holy crap, not to mention that they are asking you to disclose your medical history!!

      “This is where they removed cancer.”

      “This is from my heart surgery.”

      Jeez Louise!

    3. Observer*

      Scars by their nature reflect injury. The vast majority of injuries that leave visible scars are not the result of “cute” stories. And even a “I hit my head in a jungle gym when I was 3” may not feel “cute” to the people it happened to. Those memories can be pretty traumatic, even when they are not that big of a deal in the grand scheme of things.

      1. aebhel*

        Thiiis. My husband has a nasty scar on his arm from an ATV accident when he was a kid–he willingly tells outrageous lies about how he got it, but the actual story is pretty horrific.

    4. 'Tis Me*

      “I tried to carve ‘I am useless’ into my arm. It came out backwards.”

      My *father’s* response when they found out that this had happened was “I’m not sure whether to laugh or cry” – so yay, light-hearted cutesy anecdote?

    5. Allison*

      This scar? The one on my forehead? I got that when Voldemort murdered my parents and tried to kill me too.

  62. MissaPie*

    As an interviewer, how are you even supposed to remain professional and focused on actual work-related topics after having a conversation like that?

    Interviewer: “So Ms. Kahlo, what is the worst thing that’s ever happened to you, and how did you deal with it?”
    FK: “Well, it’s probably a toss-up between the horrible tram accident I had when I was young, the unwanted abortion I had to have as a result of my injuries years later, and the miscarriage after that. I dealt with it by painting, writing emotional letters to my doctor, and having an affair with Trotsky.”
    Interviewer: “Hmm… interesting coping methods. And where do you see yourself in five years?”

    I just don’t see it.

  63. Anon o Mous*

    I had similar questions posed during a mandatory team building exercise. The facilitators asked all the participants to share a “childhood trauma” (exact words used) with the entire group, which was a mix of supervisors/subordinates. We had to go around in a circle and disclose something in front of everyone. It was so uncomfortable. Later they also asked us to share something about ourselves that we (intentionally) keep hidden from colleagues.

    I think the entire exercise was based off a misguided idea that disclosing personal struggles would help colleagues empathize with each other and result in better communication between team members. While this could be true, there are so many better ways of accomplishing this that would avoid having to disclose something so personal to colleagues.

    The whole teambuilding experience also completely ignored the fact that most of the communication issues that exist in the team are structural and the result of poor leadership/definition of roles rather than interpersonal conflicts, so the fixation with personal struggles was misplaced and inappropriate on many levels.

    1. Lady Heather*

      I don’t think it works anyway.

      I was in a project for ‘intelligent social outcasts’ in grade school, and two of the others in there were in the same class at school. At some point I noticed that one of the girl was talking a lot about being bullied, and the other girl was actually being bullied.

      In my experience, empathizing exercises or any kind of platform mostly tends to give assertive people room to speak; shy people won’t. People with well-processed trauma might be able to speak; those with raw trauma won’t. Or even: people with poor boundaries will speak and people with better boundaries won’t.
      (This even happens in actual group therapy – though good group therapists will minimize it, and some group therapy models have an ‘everyone gets to share for exactly three minutes and not a second more’ approach. But it’s certainly not something a manager can do.)

      1. Happily Self Employed*

        I have had a few friendquaintances who had zero boundaries for horrific trauma stories with new people because they had each been in inpatient programs that focused on group therapy. Apparently they cycled people in and out of groups instead of having a stable membership, so everyone was conditioned to lose any sense of not knowing someone well enough to share. One, I recall, was trying to get over this but kept blurting things out anyway. Another was so conditioned to that type of talk that anything less personal seemed shallow and banal; she regularly described herself as “too real for most people.” I didn’t really have a way to verbalize how people work their way through “nice weather, how’s the sportsball team?” to discussing fictional characters and finally to the really personal stuff. In the outside world here, people want to know if you are safe to disclose personal stories. Does this new person gossip? Do they make fun of people’s weaknesses? Are they a similar social class to me or at least not snobby about my kind of people? And if you’re talking about work situations, maybe you don’t want everyone to be thinking about your trauma when they stop by your cubicle to give you the latest teapot sales figures or design changes.

    2. SimplyTheBest*

      We had an anti-bias training where everyone was supposed to talk for 3 minutes about a particular social lens through which we see the world. Which ended up being a horrific day where everyone talked about their worst traumas – dealing with anti-semitism, gay bashing, rape, etc. To be totally fair to our facilitator, I don’t think she intended for this to become an all trauma all the time activity, but that’s what she got.

  64. Ciela*

    I think if I was asked that, my response would “none of your damn business” or possibly “I don’t see how that’s any concern of yours” Seriously. WTF.

    If I can’t bring myself to discuss an event referred to only as The Bad Time with my HUSBAND, there is no way I’m telling a stranger about it.

  65. cleo*

    In my personal life, I deflect questions like that with a “Oh that’s a long, unpleasant story. I’m not going to get into it now.” And if they’re persistent, a warm but firm smile followed by “I’m sure you understand” and a subject change.

    In a job interview, I might do the same thing (if I didn’t freeze).

    “The worst thing? Oh, that’s a long and unpleasant story.” And then launch into a story about overcoming some (less personal) professional difficulty. I do have a prepared bit about how getting laid off from my teaching job of 16 years led me to my current career that I’ve never actually used in a job interview.

  66. PVR*

    I’d like to think I’d quote Brene Brown who says we should share our stories with those who have earned the right to hear it, point out that the interviewer has not earned the right to hear it and that was boundary I’d be keeping but I would be happy to share about difficulties (not trauma) I’d encountered in a professional setting and segue into that. Because in truth, I think about that a lot. When I was younger I would share my darkest moments with others almost out of a sense of obligation to explain who I am? Because that’s what you do with close friends? but now that I’m older I realize I owe no one an explanation about my past unless I want to share it and that I can and should get to be picky about who I share my stories with.

    1. 'Tis Me*

      A good friend said to me 15 years ago when we were living together that I was defining myself by what I had been through – but where did I see myself going? How did I want to define myself? I hadn’t even realised I was doing it until she pointed it out… But it really helped me regain control over my own narrative and put past trauma in the past rather than continue to give it the power to shape my life…

  67. RVA Cat*

    Could this question be outright illegal as discriminatory towards veterans and people with disabilities?

    1. Close Bracket*

      Questions are not illegal. Basing hiring decisions on protected classes is illegal.

      Frankly, I find it a little paternalistic to assume that veterans and disabled people/people with disabilities (there is no consensus on preferred terminology) would have a harder time with the answer than non-veterans or non-disabled people. There is an underlying assumption that the worst thing that’s ever happened to them is related to their status, and particularly for disabled people, there’s a lot going on underneath that assumption.

      1. SimplyTheBest*

        Plenty of people are disabled due to traumatic events (like me). The assumption isn’t that every disabled person is, but that some of us are. So yes, me talking about the worst thing that ever happened to me would open up just this issue.

        1. Blue*

          I mean, *being disabled* is not the worst thing that’s ever happened to me, I’m okay with being disabled. But most of the worst things that have happened to me have been to do with being disabled, and the ways people have treated me because of it. There is a pretty high likelihood that the worst thing that’s ever happened to any given disabled person involves either medical PTSD or ableism in some way. And the world is still such that bringing any of that up in an interview is going to hurt your chances, because employers need to be reassured that your disability is totally irrelevant and will never be an inconvenience to them.

  68. Betsy S*

    Wow. I wonder what sort of answers the interviewer could have possibly expected?

    Thinking of my own worst work experiences, I would have to say, without attempting to rank: the 9/11 attacks; the death of a colleague; and an indirect connection to an incident of gun violence. I would not try to pick one, but they all have the advantage of not being directly personal, and possibly pointing out to the interviewer what a horrible question it is.

  69. iiii*

    “The worst thing? I need to think about that a minute. In the mean time, go ahead and tell me the worst thing that ever happened to you, and how you dealt with it.”

  70. Thomas Merton*

    Maybe they’re looking for your superhero origin story. “After witnessing the murder of my parents, I swore eternal vengeance against criminals, an oath tempered by a sense of justice and whimsy. Ever since, I have fought crime by hovering slowly above the city at night.”

    But seriously, that’s a screwed-up question and I love your answer when you withdrew your candicacy.

      1. JediSquirrel*

        Technically, Batman doesn’t have superpowers, just a bunch of really nifty gadgets. I bet at least one of them would come in handy when it comes time to unjam the copy machine.

    1. MsSolo*

      I wonder if “what’s your superhero origin story” might be a softer, less triggering way of getting at the same information (but why would you need it????)

  71. bearing*

    I am grateful to OP and to Alison for bringing this question, because it’s incredibly therapeutic to read everyone agreeing that the question is ill-advised.

    I had something similar happen to me at my first “real” job interview when I was a sophomore in college, for an engineering internship. The interviewer asked me, “What was the most difficult decision you ever had to make, and how did you make that decision?”

    And then I actually blurted out, “When I was eight, my parents got divorced and made me choose who I was going to live with,” and then realized the other part of the question (“how did you decide?”) and with great difficulty managed not to burst into tears, but didn’t answer it. The interviewer was visibly disturbed and changed the subject quickly, but I doubt I performed well. (I did not get offered the internship.)

    I have felt shame about that interview for the last twenty-five years.

    1. Allison*

      There’s no need to feel shame. It’s a stupid question to ask a teenager especially, since they don’t have much work experience and their most difficult decision will likely be personal, like yours.

  72. Killemalla*

    Argh, just reading that I can feel the snark rising up in my soul, and it’d piss me off enough to be fully honest.

    ” Do you mean the sexual abuse from my next door neighbor’s 12 year old son when I was five, or perhaps my mother’s death? My husband’s heart attack? The realization that enough of my relatives have died from cancer that I know the shape of my Grim Reaper? You really have to be more specific, they’re all horrible in different ways after all.” Pause. “Or being asked to reveal all this for a job that pays not goddamn enough for the therapist’s session this is going to result in. I’d say you should feel ashamed, but I doubt you even know what those words mean in that order.”

  73. Pobody’s Nerfect*

    I would have held up a finger, said “Excuse me for just a moment,” stood up, and walked out forever without a backwards glance.

    1. boop the first*

      This is a good idea, or even just to ask for a fake example to get SOME idea of wtf kind of answer they’re hoping for.

  74. LogicalOne*

    Could the employer be asking the question on a work-oriented level? Maybe they meant, “What’s the worst thing that’s ever happened to you…while on the job?” Definitely could make something up on the spot if need be.

    1. Observer*

      Given the kinds of things that happen on the job, it’s still a really bad question and it still won’t help you with any useful information. Unless what they are looking for is some variation of “I was harassed / bullied / mistreated at work and I just kept my head down and did GREAT work to prove how valuable I was.”

  75. JediSquirrel*

    “What is the worst thing that’s ever happened to you, and how did you deal with it?”

    “I interviewed with this company that asked terribly inappropriate personal questions during the interview. I dealt with it by…oh, wait…”

    Gets up and leaves.

  76. Sarah*

    I’ve been asked similar questions before, and to me it always seemed like they were fishing for diversity. Like “okay, we KNOW we need to hire more diverse people, but we can’t straight up ask someone what race they are or if they’re LGBTQ+ or disabled so I know! Let’s ask them how much they’ve SUFFERED and let it come out that way!”

  77. Employment Lawyer*

    I don’t endorse this, but my $0.02 is that they are fishing to see how people respond to inappropriate questions. Does the candidate lie? Get angry? Get personal? Does the candidate have the mental agility and confidence to say “I assume you’re asking about work and not my own personal life, correct?” Etc.

    Again: this is a bad question! But I bet that’s why they ask it. (See, also, “asking people to open a locked window” and other such things.)

    1. New Jack Karyn*

      That would make it doubly bad. A terrible question to begin with, and a manipulative strategy. Enough with the game-playing!

  78. Retail not Retail*

    I’ve had many “worst things” but the things that get the most whining out of me and stand out the most are usually when I’m outdoors in the wrong clothes in some fashion. Either I’m too hot, too cold, soaked too soon, or so muddy I can barely move.

    The worst thing that ever happened to me? Well you know that mountain in the park? Well my friend and I we went hiking one day in June started early planned… but I was healing from a busted ankle and took longer to come down than go up! And then I had a six hour shift! Boy did my feet hurt.

    How did I handle that? By only going on wild hikes after work of course.

    Ma’am this is for teaching high school english.

  79. Marmaduke*

    I hate this question so much, for two reasons.

    First, because I can’t imagine trying to be professional and calm while I weigh the relative pros and cons of losing loved ones to suicide, miscarriage, sexual abuse, physical abuse that resulted in permanent disability, etc. to decide which is “the worst thing.” What criteria are we using here? The thing that impacted me the most over time? The one that was the most painful in the moment? The one that upsets others the most? The one I’d most like to erase?

    Second, all of those things are not “dealt with it” things, they are “dealing with it” things. I still have days where I have to deal with the physical and mental ramifications of at least one of those traumatic experiences, and some days my response is to use healthy calming strategies, and some days my response is to rock on the floor and cry. That’s not going to change. And none of that is any of an interviewer’s business, obviously, but the point is that even if the question were appropriate, it doesn’t have an answer!

  80. Tinker*

    One thing that strikes me when I get to thinking about this is that “worst” itself is kind of a distracting aspect of the question when the goal is eliciting stories that exhibit personal qualities.

    When I think about what I would give as the worst thing that happened to me, what I end up thinking about is more “well, was the two day long migraine worse than that time where I ate one too many special gummy bears” and less “both of those are basically ‘and then I suffered until the problem went away, not that I had much choice in the matter’ which says little to nothing about me as a person”. Even professionally, my worst experiences still generally touch on questionable subjects for interviews and don’t typically have tidy morals other than “some people are not people you want to work for” and “therapy: I recommend it”.

    The interesting stories are things that I’d mostly call candidates for second worst, perhaps, or things that are among the worst (or best, for that matter) and that I’d think of more readily when asked to describe “a bad experience” or “a challenging experience” rather than something that emphasizes a particular ranking of the experiences.

  81. Jennifer Juniper*

    Maybe the interviewer is the motivational speech lady who used her sister’s childhood sexual assault for her material. She could be gathering more material for future motivational stories for her employees.

  82. Shu*

    There has been muchvtalk about changing the question to “What was your worst experience in a professional setting” and making it better. It is, but not really all that much. I work in academia and would have OPTIONS.

    1. A 13-year-old who had her second abortion after molestation by her father had been forced to spend christmas with him, comitted suicide, I taught her twin sister.

    2. an 11 year-old-girl (special needs) was surrounded on the schoolyard and forced to undress on my day off, I was reprimanded for negligance by my suprerior and forced to take the mother’s rage… while nothing was changed to protect the girl… and I was sent off-site 75% of my time when I made a complaint, girl still is unprotected

    3. a 19 year-old demands to be allowed to go to the bathroom 10 mins after break. Upon refusal he pees in the classroom sink

    4. a message is found in the boy’s bathroom (On I will kill you all). School takes place that day, no added security.

    I have plenty more where that came from. Each touches into an area that is highly sensitive and opens doors into discussions/emotions that are just not going to work for an interview.

  83. Anon-for-this*

    I would be really tempted to truefully answer with: “Hm, I can’t decide for real, was being raped at the age of 5 worse than finding my siblings dead body? About which one do you want to hear more? And are you sure that you want to ask this question at all?” I have answered similarly horrible questions like that, though I never have in the workplace, and I still have “Classmate trying to go on a killing spree” for the less personal option in my experiences. Seriously, that one wasn’t that bad (also he failed spectacularly, as in the end everyone survived, even the critically injured, but that didn’t make it any less scary).

  84. 3DogNight*

    How on earth could this possibly be flattering to the person answering? When the worst thing that ever happened to me happened, I didn’t start to recover for a couple of YEARS. The initial handling of it was days. It was well over a year before we were initially “done” with it, and we are not done recovering yet, and this happened in 2004. This is so inappropriate to ask in a professional environment. Plus, it would give me flashbacks.
    Can you imagine, if one of their interviewees was someone who survived a mass shooting? How do you deal with the potential meltdown there? How do you make a judgement on how they would handle a professional setback, or issue based on this? Honestly, this seems discriminatory (not in the legal sense, I know, but still). What an awful thing to do in an interview.
    OP-I hope that this didn’t bring up anything in your past that gave you flashbacks, or put you in a bad place. If it did, use your support group.

  85. Schnookums Von Fancypants, Naughty Basic Horse*

    *Gets asked what’s the worst thing that happened to me*

    *Goes on long rambling story which includes “And then the trucker dropped me off at a rest stop telling me ‘When you get there, tell them Large Marge sent you'”*

  86. pcake*

    In none of the three worst things that ever happened to me (watching my mother die, complex and agonizing childbirth and a horrific car accident) was I able to do anything about them. All were horrible, life-altering and as close to unbearable as it gets.

    What would an interviewer or company possible learn about me from those?

  87. Mme Pince*

    When I was 16, I interviewed for a retail job at the mall. Having never worked anywhere before, you can imagine that I didn’t really understand how to contextualize questions and answers so they reflected work/school circumstances. I was asked something along the lines of what is the most difficult thing you’ve ever done. My completely naive, earnest answer was about seeing my dad flounder and make poor decisions and accepting that I couldn’t help him. My interviewer was a little bit floored, but I also think the answer being so overwhelmingly honest counted in my favor in his book. So very weird and inappropriate in retrospect, but also funny. That was one of the best jobs I’ve ever had (despite the sometimes overly casual management style). Half of my friend group 18 years later are people who worked there.

  88. Notasecurityguard*

    God I’d love to get that question because I’d immediately know I wasn’t taking the job so I’d show them why it’s a terrible question by just honestly answering it.

    “Well professionally probably the time a guy got shot in the head 20 feet away from me. Or the lady who rammed her car into a telephone pole at about 40 miles per hour. Or the domestic violence incident. Personally it’s my father’s cancer diagnosis followed by my uncle’s death from stomach cancer when I was 13 followed by finding my girlfriend of 6 years with another guy’s dick in her mouth. Does that help you assess my job skills at all?”

    (Btw for people freaking out about the first part, I work in law enforcement so all that stuff is kinda normal)

  89. Joa*

    A place I used to work was strongly encouraged to use this exact question by a consultant that was hired to help develop effective hiring practices. His premise was that once minimum requirements were met, an organization should make final hiring decisions primarily based on personality, interpersonal dynamics, and soft skills – and that this question was a key way in determining that.

    I remember this causing an argument with me (lowest ranking person in the room) on one side all by myself and others just not seeing the problem. I pointed out many things that others have already said, about trauma and invasiveness. I asked if they really expected someone to talk about abuse, for an example. One of the organization’s board members replied that of course a person shouldn’t bring that up in an interview; that would be inappropriate for the interviewee to do. So, they wanted to ask an incredibly personal question, and then they didn’t even want people to answer truthfully! I felt like I was having an alternate reality experience, especially because that organization was generally a pretty reasonable one.

  90. Calina~*

    Worst thing that’s happened to me at work was an armed robbery where the gunman shoved his gun into my rib cage. I still get massive anxiety attacks when that date/time of day rolls around every year and it was several decades ago. And that isn’t even close to the most traumatic event in my life. This is a horrific question and they would not like how I would react if I was asked something like this in an interview.

  91. LilPinkSock*

    Gee, interviewer, would you like me to tell you the personal stuff (the many loved ones I’ve lost to suicide) or keep it strictly professional (workplace shooting when I was 21 years old)? I’ll tell you about it all in minute detail…if you’ll tell me how that helps you make a hiring decision.

  92. boop the first*

    Whoa. I would have bombed this interview if only because it would start an impossibly long and quiet gap in the conversation that I don’t think I could recover from easily! This question would stump me, badly. Regardless of which context, I don’t even have a distinct answer….

    And how I deal with the worst things??? Probably nothing there that I can put a positive spin on. I guess I’m still alive but I never saw that as a positive thing, so… um… well I guess I never missed a day of work!

  93. Free Meercats*

    I’d answer truthfully and watch their faces.

    “I’d have to say it was the time I found a dead body when I was 16. It was about a month after the great Rapid City Flood of ’72 and the car was hidden in some vegetation and had been missed by the search parties. I was visiting some boyhood haunts and saw it, so I went to investigate.”

  94. MSH*

    I was asked “What’s the hardest thing you’ve ever been through, personally” at an interview for my last job!! I was so taken aback that I actually answered honestly and TEARED UP while talking about losing my dad, and later found out my “genuine response” was part of why I got the job.

    SHOCKINGLY, the place turned out to have zero boundaries and was a high school gossip cesspit!!

  95. Meredith*

    My worst thing is likely a recurring personal medical trauma that I would be hesitant to discuss in my office place of 3 years, period (though we are a small, close office), let alone with a stranger in an interview. And trust me, I think the fact that I, and many others, can deal with personal trauma and barely miss a beat (I have taken days off and/or worked from home, which I would expect from any manager with an ounce of sympathy) and not let on to most coworkers shows a lot of professionalism! The question seems voyeuristic at best.

  96. Marion Ravenwood*

    At the risk of sounding flippant, I’d have been really tempted to say something like, “Well, 2019 was a pretty rough year for me. Where would you like me to start: losing my job, getting divorced, or losing my close friend to suicide?”

    Seriously though, unless it’s caveated with ‘the worst thing that happened to you *at work*’ (and even that potentially opens you up to something like ‘I got fired’/’boss sexually harassed me’ etc which is a whole other can of worms), then oh heck no.

  97. nnn*

    The weird thing about this question is not just that come people’s worst thing is an unspeakable horror, but that some people’s worst thing is mundane. Someone’s answer might be “I broke a bone”, and that tells you nothing about them except the fact that their luck hasn’t been worse.

  98. Not a Morning Person*

    Tl;dr. The worst thing that’s ever happened to me is being asked an inappropriate question in an interview.

  99. Rocky*

    Luckily for me, my particular brand of complex PTSD means if they asked me this question I would immediately dissociate and sit there catatonic until they called emergency services *shrug*.

Comments are closed.