Recently our recruiting expert, Ellen Teller, was doing some coaching with a candidate prior to an on-site interview. One of the questions that the candidate said he gets asked a lot and doesn’t know how to answer is:
“What is your biggest weakness?”
That got me thinking about a few of things:
- Why do hiring managers ask this question?
- How can they improve their approach to really get at the information they are trying to obtain?
- If they continue to ask this question, how can a candidate successfully respond to this question?
Why Do Interviewers Ask the Weakness Question?
First of all, most hiring managers have not received any training on how to properly interview, select, and hire winning talent. As a result, hiring managers frequently do not have an established interview process that they use. This leads to poor interview structure and questions. In fact, there are many times that hiring managers will be interview multiple candidates for the same position and not ask each candidate the same questions!
So instead of using pre-selected behavioral-based interview questions from a competency database, hiring managers tend to make up their own questions or search the web for ideas. This leads them down the path of asking the question:
“What is your biggest weakness?”
If I had to guess, most hiring managers expect to catch candidates in some sort of confession with this question. For example, let’s say they are interviewing a candidate for a bank teller position. If they ask this question, they expect that the bad candidates will say that their biggest weakness is balancing their checkbook each month. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work quite like this.
How Can This Question be Improved?
As the hiring manager, it is a good idea to assess the strengths and weakness of candidates. Let’s go back to the bank teller interview for a minute. Here are some behavioral-based interview questions that will likely get you more authentic answers from candidates:
- Tell me about a time when you made a financial mistake. What was the situation? How did you remedy the situation?
- Think about a situation where you were stretched beyond your comfort zone? What caused your discomfort? What was the outcome of this situation?
- Looking back on your work experiences, tell me about your biggest achievement. What was it and how did you go about achieving it?
- Think about feedback that you have received from a previous manager. What did that manager think you were the best at? What suggestions did they have for areas of improvement?
Now, let me describe why I suggest these questions and what hiring managers should be assessing.
- In a bank setting, number accuracy is critical. In the first question, you are looking for a few things. One, did the candidate admit to making a mistake? If their immediate response is “I never make mistakes!” — you know they are lying. If the candidate can give an example of when they have made a mistake, you will be assessing the situation that the candidate describes, how they approached or handled their mistake, and if they learned anything from it or implemented any new strategies to avoid that same mistake in the future.
- With question #2, the hiring manager is looking to learn more about the candidates capacity i.e. what their potential is for the bank teller position? Can this person go above and beyond and potentially grow into other positions down the road or will they be limited to this particular position? Also, did the candidate feel like it was a growth opportunity or something they would prefer to avoid in the future?
- Question #3 allows the candidate to show their passion about something that meant a lot to them. This question provides the hiring manager with insights about the individuals’ strengths and passions. It also helps the hiring manager better understand the candidate’s approach to things as well as what might motivate them.
- Finally, question #4 gets the candidate to share information about what a previous manager thought about the individual’s performance. It also gets at the same information–strengths and weaknesses–but from a different perspective.
How Can a Candidate Successfully Answer?
If you are currently in the job market, there is a pretty good chance that you will be asked the “What is your biggest weakness?” question in at least a few of your interviews. As I mentioned above, most hiring managers really aren’t that skilled at interviewing. Here are a few tips just in case this one does come up:
- Do not say, “Fortunately, I do not have any weaknesses.”
- Do not come up with some canned statement that you think will make the hiring manager happy.
- Definitely avoid identifying any weakness that directly links to the job you are interviewing for. Using the bank teller position as an example, it would be a bad idea to say that your biggest weakness is money management.
- My best recommendation to candidates is to think about a personal weakness–that is appropriate to share–and that doesn’t link directly to the position that you are applying for. In my case, I could share that cheesecake is a personal weakness that I have. And the best part is that if the hiring manager is asking you this question, they will likely be completely satisfied with your “cheesecake” answer.