There’s a job interview question that employers almost always ask even though they don’t expect to receive an honest answer.
It’s generally accepted that lying to an employer in order to get to hired is a terrible idea. Working relationships are largely based on mutual respect and trust, so starting one off with dishonesty can poison the association right from the outset.
However, if you answer some of the most common job interview questions honestly, the working relationship will never even begin. You won’t get hired. Some questions aren’t really about getting at the truth, they’re about your ability to spin.
The most flagrant example of this is the classic “What is your greatest weaknesses?”
This question seems like a trap. It makes everyone uncomfortable. Your goal in a job interview is to impress a potential employer with your skills and your potential to make them successful. So, the last thing you want to spend time talking about is the stuff that you don’t do well.
The thing is, employers don’t actually expect you to start listing workplace weaknesses that would make you a bad hire in response to that question. If you’re always late, have trouble meeting deadlines, can’t handle receiving feedback, or don’t work well with others, they know you’re not going to reveal any of those things in a job interview. (That’s what reference checks are for.)
So why do employers ask it?
Since they know you’re likely to just give them a polished, practiced answer, why do interviewers bother asking for your greatest weakness? I put that question to a seasoned HR professional who has interviewed thousands of candidates, and he told me quite frankly: “Because sometimes crazy people answer it… So, at least we can weed those out right way.”
In that case, you get no points for your honesty. Giving a genuine answer just makes the potential employer’s decision not to hire you easy.
But that rarely happens. Most candidates are too savvy to list actual, relevant weaknesses in job interviews. So, what employers most often gain from asking you that question is an impression of how you handle stressful situations.
They know you’re going to be uncomfortable talking about your shortcomings, and that is the point. Can you give a plausible answer that doesn’t hurt your chances of being hired? Can you deliver a prepared answer without sounding like you’re reciting a script? Can you speak frankly and articulately in a personable manner when answering a question you’d rather not have been asked.
This matters because those are vital on-the-job skills: being articulate and communicating well under pressure, remaining personable and friendly in uncomfortable situations, delivering prepared texts without sounding robotic.
Whether it’s with customers, coworkers, partners, or vendors, once you’re hired there are going to be times when you need to disseminate important information and diffuse potentially heated situations. That’s why collaboration and communications are amongst the most sought-after skills across industries.
How you should answer it
Don’t think of the ‘weakness question’ as a trap. It’s an opportunity. It is your chance to showcase how well you can communicate. So, have a prepared answer, and practice it in advance. However, be sure to delivering it in a conversational tone, as though a friend had asked you a question and you were just giving a frank and honest response.
What should that response be? It almost doesn’t matter. Just make sure whatever you say isn’t crucial to successfully doing the job you’re interviewing for. So, if you’re trying to land a gig as an accountant, don’t say you’re bad at math.
If your potential new job doesn’t involve sales, try something like this:
“In my previous role, I had to do a fair amount of cold calling new clients. I was terrible at it. I’m not comfortable delivering a sales pitch or trying to engage strangers in a conversation. It was really holding me back. I’ve since become a volunteer fundraiser for the Canadian Cancer Society. Knowing that I’m helping a good cause motivates me to get over my shyness – and I’ve become a lot more confident reaching out to strangers.”
This formula works because:
A) It shows that you’re self-aware enough to recognize a shortcoming in your skillset.
B) You are actively working on developing that skill. You’re improving yourself.
C) The weakness didn’t impact the job in the first place.
One thing you mustn’t do is claim not to have any weaknesses at all. Nobody’s perfect, so saying you can’t think of any flaws can make you look like an arrogant jerk. Or it might just give the impression that you’re just professionally unsavvy. “What is your greatest weakness?” is such a common job interview question that you should know it’s coming. Have an answer ready.
(Just not one that’s going to sink your chances of being hired. You’d have to be crazy to do that.)