Answering The Weaknesses Question

by | March 10, 2009

What's your greatest weakness?

This query has been an enduring weapon in the hiring manager's arsenal, but most people still have trouble with the dilemma it poses: answer too frankly, and you'll torpedo your prospects. Give a canned answer and you'll seem phony, or worse, evasive ("My greatest weakness is that I'm a perfectionist and work too hard."). In search of a better way, Vault asked several HR managers and career experts for answers to this interview toughie.

"It's a tricky question," admits Andrea Kay, a syndicated career advice columnist and author of Interview Strategies That Will Get You the Job You Want. "I would suggest, number one, that you be ready for it, anticipate it, because it is still a question that gets asked over and over again."

Some HR managers suggested the old approach of naming a fault that's not really a fault.

"I am impatient, and I like to get things done and done quickly and get frustrated when politics and red tape slow down projects," was how a recruiting and staffing manager for a Florida-based trucking company answered.

A related strategy: name a "weakness," but link it to more egregious faults demonstrated by others.

"When I was asked that question, I responded that 'My weakness was getting frustrated when "leadership" fails to make decisions or lead,'" said the director of human resources at a manufacturing company in Wisconsin. "I've also answered the question with 'I get impatient when organizations or groups say they want something, don't take the initiative, or make the decision to make it happen, pass it off to someone else, and then criticize how it's done.'"

Jerry Houser, the director of the Career Development Center at the California Institute of Technology, says students should consider a skill, mention the down side of this skill, describe how they keep that weakness in line, and then give an example.

"This can be done with each skill anyone has," Houser said. "A weakness is just the flipside of a strength taken too far. Great customer service may mean being tootalkative. Ability to concentrate for long periods may result in seemingunfriendly. Being realistic can become uncreative. Juggling many projectsmay mean lost details or follow-up. Strengths and weakness are situational.You have to know how to read your environment and use or moderate yourskills in context."

Of course, you can always chose not to answer the question at all or ask the interviewer to rephrase the question, in hopes of drawing out the real concerns about your qualifications and temperament.

"I always tell clients, if they're comfortable enough in their own skin while they're being interviewed, to respond with either of these," said Ruth Luban, a career counselor and author of Are You a Corporate Refugee? "'My resume, and our discussion thus far, are about my strengths and what I can bring to this position. I'd prefer to focus on what you're looking for, rather than respond to a negative question,' or 'What would my weakness have to do with this job?'"

But be warned: each of these strategies can have drawbacks. The first can seem too pat. The second might be seen as condescending. The third might be regarded as evasive, even dishonest.

If you're not comfortable with any of these strategies, try mentioning real weaknesses, but only those that have nothing to do with the job they're applying for.

"I would say, if they asked me what my weakness was, that I'm not good at math, because I'm not, and it has nothing to do with anything I will ever do," Kay said.

Or name a real weakness, but one you're taking steps to improve.

"Pick something you've decided you need to get better at, like, 'I need to know more languages. All I speak English, so I'm going to make it goal to learn Spanish and French,'" Kay said. "It's saying I'm really aware of what it is that I need to be doing, and I take action on it."

Again, try to name only weaknesses that have little to do with your prospective job.

"Not everybody's great at everything," Kay said. "But you don't want to say "I don't get along well with people. You don't want to open up a can of worms, or go down a path that gets you in trouble. Don't talk about people issues."

So why do HR folks continue to ask this question, with all its attendant perils? Is it fair?

"Absolutely!" said the Wisconsin HR director. "It's thought-provoking and if posed correctly is one of those questions that can open the door for further discussion." He adds, "It's especially useful for further probing of a very strong, decisive, dominant type personality, then I use it to see if they are as in tune with their weaknesses as they are with their strengths."

But other HR folks had differing opinions.

"The only thing it could possibly measure in a positive light is the candidate"s diplomacy quotient," says one HR staffer. "I quit asking the question long ago."

Filed Under: Interviewing


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