Is There a Good Way to Answer the Interview Question Everyone Hates?

Photo illustration by istockphoto.com
Photo illustration by istockphoto.com

I’ve been thinking a lot about honesty and the workplace, so I was intrigued when I stumbled across this article by David Reese, The Right Way to Answer ‘What’s Your Greatest Weakness?”

I hate this interview question. Always have and always will.

I’m with reader “Brandon,” who commented:

[This] is totally pointless because you are asking a question that does not deserve an honest answer. Do you walk around and ask normal people in your life what their biggest weakness is? Or what their greatest fear is, and expect an honest answer? … I’m sure that there are other ways to try to find out if the person would succumb to groupthink and if they are the type of person who speaks up when they have a different opinion…”

Two ways to handle this question

But to heck with what Brandon and I think, this question will not go away. David Reese likes it and recruiters and hiring managers throughout the nation (maybe even the world) like it, so it’s staying — Brandon and I can go pound sand.

Now, before reading this article, I figured the author would say one of two things, because everyone who writes on this topic says one of two things:

  1. When asked this question, take the opportunity to describe your “weakness” so it sounds more like a strength. (“My weakness? Oh, I’m a workaholic who’s entirely too willing to sacrifice personal time and relationships for my career.”)
  2. Don’t do No. 1. Tell the truth, because interviewers can tell when you’re lying anyway.

Yawn.

They can’t handle the truth

But hey, this is from the Harvard Business Review. So, I was curious to know what kind of a spin Reese would put on the topic, and here’s what he had to say:

  • Insincerity won’t get candidates anywhere with him. He can sniff out someone unwilling to engage honestly and doesn’t want those people on his team. He’s willing to be honest, and he wants candidates to be honest.
  • College career centers are to blame for teaching new graduates to be dishonest.
  • Mature organizations can maybe tolerate a culture where people are encouraged to not “stick their necks out,” but this attitude is “lethal to start-ups,” which can fail before they even start if people won’t challenge bad ideas.

I thought those last two points were worth pondering, but I was a little disappointed that Reese failed to mention that most interviewers DO NOT want to hear the truth. They can’t handle the truth, and they just want the damned canned response.

If Reese wants to hear the truth, he’s an exemption. That’s my experience, anyway.

“There’s no right or wrong answer …” (Yeah, yeah …)

Here’s a true story: I’m interviewing for a job, and I’m asked about what aspects of HR I don’t like. Pretty please tell us, Crystal. There are no right or wrong answers, honest.

I say, “Well, I like just about all of HR. That’s why I’m a generalist. However, at this point in my career, I’m beginning to realize that I like developing policy a lot more than I like writing it.

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Go ahead and call me dumb. In retrospect, I think I sound dumb.

Nevertheless, that was my honest answer.

So, I don’t get the job. And the hiring manager (who wasn’t in this interview) makes some reference to my lack of interest in creating policy manuals as the reason for her decision.

Is there really a “right” answer?

Now, not only is this a perfect example of a botched message á laWhisper Down the Lane,” but this is the question that supposedly had no right or wrong answers. And Reese wants to know why career centers keep telling kids to put a positive spin on stuff?

Hmmm …

And sure, I definitely see Reese’s point about “yes” people being bad news for start-ups, but mature companies can suffer under this phenomenon as well. Maybe they’re still in business but the culture stinks, and stupid decisions that hinder excellence are being made every day. Eventually some of these companies will slip into irreversible decline as a result.

But here’s what I really want to know: Is there a right way to answer “the greatest weakness” question? If so, I wish somebody would tell me, ‘cause I’m kind of tired of screwing this one up.

Crystal Spraggins, SPHR, is an HR consultant and freelance writer who lives in Philadelphia. She also writes at her blog, HR BlogVOCATE. For the past 15 years, Crystal has focused on building HR departments in small- to mid-sized companies under the philosophy that "HR is not for wimps." She is also the CEO and Founder of Work It Out! and partners with HRCVision, a full-service HR consultant practice specializing in leadership and diversity training. Contact her at crs036@aim.com.

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8 Comments on “Is There a Good Way to Answer the Interview Question Everyone Hates?

  1. That’s interesting that they didn’t hire you because of the writing vs developing policy answer. I was asked the same thing when interviewing with my current employer and I told them recruiting wasn’t my favorite thing as it feels repetitive over time, however it is something that is required of the position, I’m good at it, but not my favorite HR function to do all day! They appreciated my honesty and hired me!
    Bravo for being honest and giving a real answer!

  2. The honest approach is always better. How this honest answer is given is another issue. Every answer to an interview question should always be followed with an example. In fact, the example given in the article about enjoying the policy development but not the administrative task of writing them would have been more positive if a specific example is given how one overcame this “weakness” to successfully complete a crucial task. (this might have been done) Does not matter even if the question is “if you could be a tree, what would it be?” Specific examples with a STAR answer will overcome any stupid and pointless interview question.

  3. Yes, honesty is the best policy. NEVER. I love this question and I’ll tell you why:

    For you and I, the smart ones, we know that the best way to answer this is by inadvertently complimenting yourself with the old “I’m a perfectionist” answer. But for the not-so-smart ones who actually believe in bearing their soul in an interview this is a chance for them to reveal their true colors. I’d like to know early on who I’m dealing with and where this interview is going. I don’t want to be blind sighted at the end when you slip up and say something unintelligent to make me second guess my first impression. So I’d rather get it out of the way early.

    Another oldie but goodie is “in the last 30 days how many times have you been late and how many days have you missed?” It’s incredible how many people tell me the truth no matter how ugly the answer is just because it caught them off guard. Not because there is some truth viking hiding behind their chair with a sledge hammer waiting to jump out and knock them over the head when they’re lying, but because they’re being honest. People usually revert to honesty when they are unprepared. Be very careful what you decide to divulge in an interview, there is always a line, one that you did not draw – so prance lightly.

  4. Great question/great article – and as a coach I have had to talk about this to my clients. The bigger picture I ask them to focus on is to have an attitude of abundance rather than scarcity. If not this job, then there will always be another one. No need to manipulate your answers because you are desperate. An interview is just another conversation and it has to be a good, energetic and ,meaningful one – honesty is a given- for both sides.

    Recently I had a young man who came from a poverty stricken family – he was awesome at writing code. His dad was a daily wage laborer: no work = no food to eat. This young man had been rejected by a couple of tech companies because his English was very poor. The director of the college where he completed his engineering berated him and told him that no one would hire him because he could not communicate in English. Needless to say, he was crestfallen when he came to me for counseling. As his coach and student counselor I told him that if he believed that he would not get hired then he would be right.

    I encouraged him and told him to bring this up in the interview even if he was not asked about his weakness since it was very obvious. I told him to own up to it and let the interviewer know that he would spend his own money and go to conversational English classes by the time the hiring process would be complete. He was hired by th next MNC that interviewed him – within a couple of weeks. His humility was appreciated by the interviewer. But it might not always work out this way.

    There is no blueprint for this answer – it has to come from the heart and just like on a date, either you connect or you don’t.

  5. I think the biggest issue with this question isn’t how to answer it, but how to ask it better. I don’t ask about the biggest weakness, because I hate hearing the insipid “I’m a workaholic” response, so instead I simply ask the candidate to describe an area of their life (pertinent to the work) that they are trying to improve upon. This gives me a better idea of their priorities and awareness of their own fallibility, and generally gives me a more honest answer than “I have a hard time saying no to overtime.”

  6. I smile and tell them, “Chocolate.” It allows some humor into what is already a tense situation. Then I usually let them know that it’s something like hooking up the wires on a computer system or similar and how I’ve learned to deal with it.

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