Wednesday, February 07, 2007

the worst interview question

In my opinion, the worst interview question is "what is your greatest weakness?" The same goes for nigh-identical questions like "what are you bad at?" and "in what areas do you need improvement?". Interviewers can expect three responses: 1) a smooth-talking prospect manages to evade the question with as much finesse as a politician, 2) a desperate prospect offers a half-serious response guaranteed to be palatable ("I'm too willing to work weekends, darn it!"), 3) an honest/naive/confrontational prospect, who may in fact be a better employee than prospects 1 and 2, answers objectively thereby digging his own unemployment grave. In any of these cases, has the question done anyone any good?

The last person you should ask about his or her weaknesses is the person under consideration! It's like asking a person to self-incriminate. In Freakonomics or game theory terms, there is no incentive for answering honestly in such a situation. Answer honestly, and the interviewer, who is the other player in the game, may either 1) use the honest answer to stop considering the prospect altogether for a payoff of about -2000 or 2) accept the honest answer but have a diminished view of the prospect for a payoff of about -250. Lie or answer evasively, and the interviewer may either 1) accept the lie or evasion at face value ("gee, I can work him over the weekend, great!") for a payoff of about 250 or 2) reject the lie or evasion and have a diminished view of the prospect's honesty/self-reflection for a payoff of about -250. Lying or evasion is clearly the way to go!

Bad interviewers, bad!


  1. Maybe the goal of the question is not to identify a weakness in the candidate but to evaluate their ability to deal with awkward questions.

    This may not be of as much value if your interviewing for a systems engineer or some other backroom job. But if the role could involve client contact then the ability to role with the punches and answer negative or even antagonistic questions coherently is vital.

  2. ...Jeremy is right!

    You need to take their antagonistic question and turn it into an excuse to make them look good!

    So say...
    "That's a great question. Usually people get stuck on questions like that but I think it forces us candidates to demonstrate our client interaction skills. Was that suit custom tailored?"

    OR you could get feisty and test them back since you have to work with them too... say
    "I don't have any weaknesses, do you?"

    Throw it back at em'.

  3. Stuart7:12 AM

    It's not so much a challenge to answer honestly - though one hopes you would but more a chance to show you do care about yourself enough to recognise you aren't perfect.

    As a supervisor of staff I ask a similar question at every review and if they say they have nothing to work on then I send them away to re-think and re-schedule the discussion for when they do.

    As I said, none of us are perfect.

  4. Anonymous7:44 AM

    The question is asked to assert the authority of the management, who can be unreasonable and illogical and you must kowtow in humiliation. If you hear that question, make sure that it was a fluke and not a revelation of what kind of mess awaits you in the company. Certainly do turn the question around. Read the book "Voltaire's Bastards" to get a picture of modern management as mercenary for the owners. Understand that and the goofy questions suddenly make sense.

  5. I'm with Stuart.

    And if I'm an interviewer and ask this question; and you respond like yoyoyo suggested? Well, you'll get to try again with another company before you get the job with me.

    Come on. Management may do some stupid things, but they can tell when you're evading a question.

    And you do have a weakness. Why shouldn't it be OK to ask about it. Interviewing is as much an opportunity to learn about "FIT" than anything else.

    What if you aren't honest about your weaknesses and it ends up being a area that is critical to job success?

  6. Anonymous8:12 AM

    I read an article where an HR person said this is pretty much a throw away question, exception that some people answer honestly. "I fall asleep at my desk a lot..."

  7. Good point, jeremy. My jobs have been in-company software support positions at places that don't sell software, so I simply don't interact with company clients, or if I do it's a rarity. I respect employees that do that daily, because it would drive me up the wall, I'm sure.

    I appreciate your perspective, stuart and angrygreg. My analysis is incomplete. There's actually four game plays: 1) lie/evade, 2) answer semi-seriously with an answer that is actually a strength, 3) answer with a huge weakness, 4) answer with a true but mild weakness. If the manager is like stuart or angrygreg, the average payoffs for 1) and 2) are much more negative than I estimated, so in the end 4) may work the best - less chance of that "endgame" -2000 payoff :) .

    Ugh, politics is a necessary evil.

  8. I've got a canned answer that I use: I teld to be hard on people that I manage, because I want to get the maximum out of them. However, its to the benifit and we'll go out for ice cream later

  9. You know, I think people would get more information out of people less if you asked them: What is your greatest weakness, and instead "What is your greatest mediocrity?"

  10. Another one of my favorites in this same vein is We've all had to bend or break the rules. Tell me about a time when you've had to do this. The "correct" response is about the same as for the weakness question. You want to find some minor rule that you broke or some policy that clearly had multiple interpretations. This is also mostly used as a weeder question. People who answer with something honest like "I use office supplies for personal reasons" can expect to be immediately dropped. I have heard stories of some extremely honest answers given to this question.

  11. roguemystic9:07 AM

    I agree with the original post.

    On the last interview I had (in which I did get the job). I was asked this question and I hated it because there is no good way to answer it. I answered honestly but carefully. I gave them a weakness, and not one of those fake "I-work-too-hard" answers. I gave them a legit one. I don't know if it hurt me or helped me; I did get the job.

    As a part of my interview, I was given different work scenarios and asked how I would handle them. I was also quizzed on what I knew based on the content of my resume (I'm a Linux Admin).

    If you want to know someone's weaknesses,its better to create a scenario where the "real" weaknesses will show, or at least the weaknesses that the interviewer cares about will show.

  12. For "What is your greatest weakness?" I recommend something like "I tend to keep working at something until it is perfect. I can't stand leaving something as just 'good enough'." Or just "I am a perfectionist."

    It is sort of a fault, but one you ALMOST want in an employee!

  13. People get hired for what they do know, not what they don't know.

    Unless you put it in context, like "which of these areas are you weakest in", I can't really see the value of the question.

    Plus it has a negative side as illustrated above.

  14. DJ Henk9:45 AM

    I guess it all depends on the company. Judging by the other comments, most of you will be too cynical to believe me, but I allways ask something like that to get to know the candidate. Getting to know him/her is very important if you want to build a good team.

    Most of the times it goes like this: I ask the candidate to talk about a project he/she's done that made him/her proud. After a bit of talking I ask what the biggest hurdle in that project was and how he/she has overcome that. Sometimes they haven't.

    That's not a bad thing. The candidate gets a chance to be honest about a weak point en to show where he/she wants to improve. But there's no need to feel bad about it, because the good things allways outshine the bad things. After all, they are talking about a project that made them feel proud.

    This way I get a sense about the good AND the bad points and I honestly believe that its better for both of us that I know that.

  15. I always answer with "I am a perfectionist". And then we laugh.

  16. I'm afraid you miss the very point of the question.

    It's universally understood that the question itself
    is indeed about as bad an interview question there is.
    Nevertheless, the question is posed not
    because it has any inherent probative value on its own but because its designed to allow the interviewer to observe how the applicant responds, reacts under duress whether or not they're quick on their feet

  17. you cannot know what you are bad at. One of the reasons for being bad at something is because you lack the ability to see what it takes to be good at it.

  18. Anonymous10:16 AM

    Back when I was 16 I interviewed at Target. They asked a variation of this comment: "If was asked your teachers at school, what would they say your biggest weakness would be." So I answered truthfully: "I have trouble with spelling."

    My poor spelling did not keep me from getting a job as at the garden center.

  19. Anonymous10:19 AM

    i recommend reading this article:
    honesty is an important thing that every employer should seek in a job interview and since everyone has weakness a man who avoids from the question or pretends he doesn't have any is a liar or a fool.

  20. Anonymous10:26 AM

    In response to angrygreg, well, you can ask about a candidate's weaknesses, but the point was that an evasive answer is the best strategy. Your question will tend to make the honest people look bad and the dishonest ones look good. Surely that's not what you wanted.

    IMO, a better question is one that offers a dilemma. For example, what do you think is a better programming methodology -- having all the facts and all the requirements figured out before you start coding, or starting with a skeleton of the requirements and improving the program iteratively?

    Who wouldn't want "all the facts" before starting? It's not clear which approach the questioner prefers. A clever answer would be that they are both appropriate at different times -- complete documentation if you're making a space shuttle, and skeleton/iterative if you're making a small web site.

  21. Can one plead the fifth in these situations??

  22. I used to answer along the lines of having too high personal performance standards, working toward perfection, riding staff too hard, etc.

    But for a number of years I've subscribed to the notion of NEVER acknowledging weakness or deficiency in any area. So my answer is, "None that would affect my being successful in this position." That always ends that line of questioning. Impossible to know if that answer contributed in any way to my being hired or not.

  23. Anonymous11:53 AM

    You guys have it all wrong. This is a good question to be asked but your answer needs to be much more clever than what is posted here.

    Here's how you do it.
    1. Understand the key skills needed in the position for which you're applying.
    2. Mentally ensure that you have all those skills down tight (with examples and references.)
    3. Take a skill that is NOT relevant to the position for which you are applying. List it as a weakness and then quickly add: "But I wouldn't be applying for this position if I felt that was a critical skillset for this role."

    There is no reason to get confrontational or to turn the question around. Use this answer to demonstrate that you know exactly what the role requires to be successful and that you know you are not the "other" type of person that wouldn't be a good fit for the job.

    The interviewer will appreciate your honesty and the thought process that went into this answer.

    P.S. the toughest question I ever heard was: List your 5 biggest flaws. (Ouch!)

  24. The phrasing of the question is not so hot. Both "What are you strongest and weakest at?" and "What was a memorable failure or bad decision?" are excellent questions, and favorites of mine. Ever person who avoided sincerely and candidly tackling the questions, and who we unfortunately wound up hiring, have proved to be arrogant and difficult to work with. Failure is often more valuable and educational than success. People who do not recognize this are middling.

  25. <Keanu> Whoa. </Keanu>

    I'm on reddit and there's more than 20 comments here!

    <Zoolander> That is a bit above average. </Zoolander>

  26. It's one of the best interview questions there is. Companies fail because of employees weakness's or more to the point .. gaps within their strengths.

    If you have the same weakness as everyone else at the company (the cliche 'perfectionalism'), then the company is in trouble. A few weak pragmatists would be beneficial.

    As someone else said it also allows the interviewer to put the interviewee in the introspective hot seat (yes, an interviewer will know when it's a canned response, when it's BS, when it's a creative on the spot admission, etc).

  27. Angel H.12:59 PM

    What's my biggest weakness?
    I suck at interviews.

  28. -sigh- This comment will get posted on the bottom of a long list, so it will probably never be read, but oh well.

    Here's the advice I was given by the HR director of a large company (who also hated the question, but understood that it came up a lot).

    Answer with a story of a weakness that you once had, and how you overcame that weakness. This tells the interviewer that you can recognize your weaknesses, as well as showing how you work to overcome them.

  29. Tell them that your weakness is finding words to answer questions involving topics that are design to see how to respond in stressful situations...

  30. The best answer to this question is one where you admit and then overcome the weakness. Here are some examples:

    "I am a poor speller. I know how important correct spelling is, so I always use spell check software. I also keep a list of frequently confused words - I review it regularly to avoid making non-spelling usage errors such as confusing effect and affect."

    "Despite taking classes in public speaking, I am still not very good at speaking in front of large groups. I went into a career where I work alone writing code and only need to speak in small groups with other programmers."

  31. Anonymous2:50 PM

    "O wad some Power the giftie gie us
    To see oursels as ithers see us!"

    What does it matter? The interviewer makes up his/her mind in the first 10 seconds.

  32. Anonymous3:21 PM

    I would answer "my biggest weakness is answering this question"

  33. I've had this before -- I've responded with "Expressing positive traits as if they were a weaknesses doesn't come off terribly smoothly."

    A lot of times it's a throwaway question from people who aren't sure how to interview -- but I don't work suit jobs, either.

  34. the question is a GREAT question. it tests the candidate for honesty. they're not looking for polished crap. respond by pointing out a minor weakness: i have procrastination issues i'm working on.

  35. Anonymous5:57 PM

    With a perfectly straight face, I always answer....


  36. Anonymous6:08 PM

    Alas... I am mortal.

  37. Anonymous8:10 PM

    "my biggest weakness is not being able to handle stupid interview questions."

    period. it's a paradox and can't be argued about.

  38. Anonymous10:42 AM

    I'm not a big fan of this question either!

    Even offering the "Can't bring myself to leave after putting in three hours of overtime" response sounds canned and insincere.

    Haven't tried this yet, but I might try turning it around by asking the interviewer, "Do you really want someone working for your firm who has weaknesses? I'm seeking an employer who hires employers who have strengths. Sure I'm not perfect but what I can bring to this organization are my skills in ____ and ____."

  39. Anonymous6:15 PM

    As Jeremy said, most people focus too much on the answer and not enough on the interviewee's ability to respond to being put on the spot.

    High achievers are NEVER happy with their excellent performance,but mediocre achievers are often happy with their mediocre performance.

    Your record of achievement should speak for itself. If an interviewer fails to hire you because you've identified a weakness despite your stellar record, you don't want to work for her, anyway. She doesn't understand what it takes to succeed. And if your performance history is not good enough to tolerate your verbalizing a weakness - well, that's sort of the point of the question and the solution is tougher than finding a pithy answer.

    But even if your record is not good, at least you can demonstrate grace under pressure, which is also the point of the question. Trust me, your answer is less important than your demeanor.

  40. Anonymous9:06 AM

    i am about to possibly get asked that question very soon. Nice topic. I would love to answer: "Women" :D Ohh, there are so many funny answers to this questions.... "I kill people"

  41. Closing comments on this post because of the persistent spam. I don't want comment spam to detract from the real, good comments, but I also don't want to spend my life as a spam filter.

    Way to go, asshats and jerkfaces of the Web.