Recruiter question #5: What do you want from me?

Thought we could delve into the realm of the interview (we'll come back to resumes...I have more questions).

One question I've heard asked before regards the dreaded question "What is your greatest weakness?". It can be seen as a "trick question" but then most are (in that there's no *obvious* answer...that's the whole point of the interview, right?). Who wants to come to an interview and talk about their weaknesses anyway? Candidates want to highlight their successes.

So recruiters, I ask you (in my best Carrie Bradshaw voice), how is a candidate to approach the "greatest weakness" question and can they ever win?

Comments (15)

  1. Wine-Oh says:

    Be honest. Anyone who can admit their weakness gets points. I know for me that when I am asked that I usually take a second to pause and formulate my answer. I think one gets points so to speak by admitting these and not coming off as they are perfect.

    Humans have weaknesses its ok. (Mine is Ben and Jerry’s but thats a different weakness)

  2. Heather’s getting into recruiters’ heads to help jobseekers. You’ll want to look at their answers to her questions. What is the first thing you look at on a candidate’s resume? What are common red flags on a resume? What will…

  3. HeatherLeigh says:

    Wine-Oh, do you bring the Ben and Jerry’s up in the interviews? My favorite is Dreyers Dreamery Mint CHocolate (with pieces of Junior mints and thin mint girl scout cookies). Sometimes it’s worth it to pay the price (stomach pain for me) of the good stuff.

    So my advice on this question is to have an honest answer but also talk about your awareness of the issue and what you have done to address it. Avoid the bs answers like "I work too hard" or "I strive for perfection". Because my next question would be "and how is that a problem exactly" and then I’d follow up with "OK, now what’s the real answer?".

  4. Wine-Oh says:

    No i leave the ben and jerry’s bit out. 🙂

    I answer it usually this way… "I am aware of some of my weaknesses and work to improve on them. Sometimes when I am very overwhelmed with work or alot is happening at once, I have to remind myself to take a quick break and re-focus. THis way I am less inclined to screw something up."

  5. Lauren Smith says:

    I think the problem with that particular question is similar to "Have you ever filed for bankruptcy?" on many mortgage applications. Legally, you’re not required to specify any information outside of a certain set time (e.g. if 7 years passes, you’re in the clear), but by answering the question truthfully you put yourself in a terribly inconvenient position. Can i really divulge my GREATEST weakness in an interview?

    I drink too much, chase too much office tail, fritter away too much time surfing the web, and frequently take ‘sick days’ when I’m feeling too lazy to drag myself out of bed. And those aren’t even my greatest weaknesses!

    The trick, I suppose, is to find something that’s not really that bad and figure out a way to spin it to make myself look good. "I tend to forget appointments." "Really? That’s not good." "So I bought a Windows Mobile Smartphone and keep myself aware of all my appointments so that I don’t forget them anymore." But really, it seems like so much more a setup than an honest answer.

    You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t with this particular question. Either you end the interview immediately with something terrible. "I lack discretion, especially when I am underinformed about a situation." or you make something up and leave the recruiter thinking you’re a professional interviewee, "I find that my tendency towards individual projects sometimes alienates me from the other people on my team, so I try to … "

    I really dislike this particular question because it seems to me to be one of those standard questions that interviewers ask without having a good idea why they are asking it.

  6. Bad_Brad says:

    I don’t like to frame it as "greatest weakness", I believe I like to call it what is your greatest "development opportunity".  I want to know that this person not just understands that he/she has a gap in his/her skills but I also want to know what steps he/she has taken or is taking to fill that gap, and perhaps more importantly, how does the role I am interviewing for fit into all of that.

    A variant on this that I will frequently ask is "what has been your biggest professional mistake to date?"  This forces them to be very specific on something that they screwed up on.  I will usually follow up with "how have you applied what you learned from that mistake?"

    I have heard some very good answers to these types of questions.  Probably the most common mistake I have heard of is "I got caught up in the title / compensation of a certain role and forgot to ask myself if I have a passion for it".  In general, there is a high correlation between being passionate for something and being happy doing it, there is a correlation between being happy doing something and performing well, and of course, there is a correlation between performing well and advancement.

    A really bad answer is for a candidate to sit there for an extended period of time and have no real story to tell.  That tells me that this person is either so self-righteous that he/she thinks his/her own you-know-what doesn’t stink, or more likely, he/she simply hasn’t done a good job of self-assessment and does not actively seek out ways to make himself/herself better.

    By the way, this whole discussion reminds me of the job interview for Homer Simpson.  Smithers poses the question of what is your greatest weakness.  The other two candidates answer, "I work too hard" and "I’m a workaholic."  Homer answers, "Well, let’s see.  I’m stupid.  I’m lazy.  I’m incompetent.  I smell.  I don’t brush my teeth every day.  I’m irresponsible.  (etc)"

  7. Jen says:

    I like to hear about a problem that has been solved or how the candidate deals with the weakness.  I love Heather’s responses to the weakness-as-strength ploy.

    I often ask the question “Are there any areas or skills you’re working on improving” and more than once I’ve gotten the response, “There’s always room for improvement.”  That’s it.  No follow up.  It doesn’t bode well if I have to say “Such as….?”  

  8. HeatherLeigh says:

    Jen, sounds like that person gets their interview answers in Readers Digest articles!

  9. HeatherLeigh says:

    Wine-Oh, I would definitely require more specifics if I were interviewing you : )

    Lauren Smith-I don’t know about that. This brings up a good point. I think you have to consider why the company asks the question. Sometimes an interview question is about the answer and sometimes it is about how you answer. Your example with a mortgage application…they want the answer. But the reason for asking the question in an interview situation could be aimed at something different.

    Being self-critical is part of our corporate culture here. If you can’t or aren’t willing to do it, you would have a hard time at Microsoft. The question is will the candidate go there. And if they do, are they telling me something real of what they think I want to hear (yeah, the probing questions are how I tell the difference) and then I consider how they package the answer.

    So if I get the "I work too hard and I expect other people to work as hard as I do" answer, I worry that the person either isn’t in touch with where they need to develop and/or isn’t willing to have open dialogue about that. We are big on feedback here so if you aren’t comfortable with those conversations, you have to get comfortable. I’m personally thankful for them. We all have something we need to improve and having some feedback on where you might focus your energies is incredibly helpful.

    Also, the overly fluffy happy spin answers makes me wonder about what else the candidate is spinning.

    You know you could always answer the question with something that you think is kind of obvious to the interviewer. Something like "I haven’t kept abreast of changes in technology as it relates to recruiting since I have been recruiting in marketing, not technical, for 7 years. Let me tell you what I would do to ramp up". Hello problem solver!

    Oh yeah, and what Bad_Brad said.

  10. I don’t usually ask the question that way, as it is too common and a highly prepared for ‘trick’ question.  My thought is that you are unlikely to get a real answers but one that has been rehearsed to death by the savvy candidate.  Not that having a candidate who shows obvious preparation for the interview is a bad thing… I like it when you can tell that they have worked hard to get ready for questioning.

    If I am asked the question, I do the ‘take a positive, make it a negative then show how you are working to improve’ approach.


  11. eR0CK says:

    I’ve always loved when I get asked this question.  I’m not sure if it’s my ability to make bad things sound good or what!

    I normally explain my weakness, what I’m doing to change the weakness into an asset, and what progress I’ve been making thus far.  After stating the progress I’ve been making, I state examples of continuing strength and improvement that I’ve noticed.

    Never had problems with this one.  I always enjoy asking interviewers tough questions 🙂  I guess they’re not tough, but sometimes I’m scared when I know more about the company than the interviewer!


  12. Jen says:

    I’m not in HR, but I do occasionally consult in recruitment for some clients.  My favourite approach to this question came from another consultant I’ve done some work with:

    1. I always ask "what have you failed at?" If a candidate hasn’t truly botched something, they obviously haven’t been pushing themselves hard enough, and haven’t had enough experience to truly learn from their mistakes.

    2. Everyone seems to know how to tackle their weaknesses.  The problem with that is all you end up with are stronger weak-points.  Along with asking "what are your weaknesses, and how do you deal with them" (note, I dont want them to ‘spin’ the weaknesses – I just want to know that the candidate is self-aware) I make sure to ask "how do you nurture your strengths?"  His/her strengths are what a candidate is being hired for, and those who truly nurture and develop those are (in my experience anyway) the ones destined to be superstars.

  13. HeatherLeigh says:

    All good points. I think there are many ways to get to the same type of dialogue with the candidate. I like to talk about the concept of success and how it can be perceived differently by the person than by the company.

  14. When asked "What’s your greatest weakness?" I would begin my answer with "My greatest areas for development are …."

    Candidates can substitute the words "growth" for "development" — but I would restate the question in the positive and start from there.

  15. Peter says:

    It is all BS because most of the idiots I meet that work in HR don’t have the slightest clue of what real social skills  are. They are usually way up tight people that can never let their guard down and yet these are the morons in charge of hiring and firing. Most of them can’t relate on a actual HUMAN level which is ironic considering their jobs. So these HR drones get on power trips and ask stupid questions from HR workshops out the 20th century because that is their only frame of reference to the real world………you know, the world that isn’t an expense on the balance sheet. Oh, and by the way HR is not a profit center but a cost center and it would do the oh so serious a-holes a world of good to remember that! Humans aren’t a resource they a living beings. This may be the reason for all the frustration from these repressed people in HR departments. I’d like to think of them as bad Karma lightening rods!!

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