how to talk about weaknesses in an interview

A reader writes:

I have a question for you about how to approach tricky interview questions. I’m thinking about responding to the “tell me about your greatest strength/weakness…” question (and it’s various forms) right now because I’m in the midst of interviewing applicants for a position on my team; it’s not me who’s in the hot seat right now. The responses of, “I work too hard” or “I’m a perfectionist” are getting boring and predictable.

For myself, I know that my sense of humor leans toward sarcastic and that can be poorly received by colleagues and clients. Is it “too honest” of me to admit to that as a weakness (framed as “something I am aware of and constantly seek to improve upon”) in my own future as an interviewee? I can’t take myself out of it and think objectively as the hiring manager that I am. Would it be a turn-off to you?

Well, before I answer that, I want to first urge you to stop asking “what are your weaknesses?” when you’re interviewing candidates. It’s important information to get, but the question rarely produces useful responses, as you’re seeing. (Although if you’re going to ask it, and I know that lots of interviewers do like it, then I’d urge you at least not to accept answers like “I work too hard.” Let candidates know you want a real answer and explain why — everyone has weaknesses, and you want to make sure that they don’t end up in a job they struggle in or are unhappy in.)

Better questions to get a more honest discussion about weaker points are things like:

  • “What things have your previous managers encouraged you to work on improving in?”
  • “If I talked to your current manager, what things would she tell me you excel at, and what things would she tell me that you could improve in?” (This one seems to get more honest answers, because of the implicit reminder that you will be talking to current or past managers as part of a reference check if things progress further.)
  • “What are you currently working on getting better at, and how are you going about it?”
  • “What’s been your biggest challenge in your position in the last year, and how are you approaching it?”

In any case, back to your question about citing a sarcastic sense of humor as a weakness when it comes to dealing with coworkers and clients … I think it would be a turn-off to most interviewers, possibly a significant one. Anything that says “I offend clients” is a pretty big obstacle to overcome. It’s also likely to make interviewers worry that you’ll be a negative presence in the office — one person’s snark is another person’s negativity, after all.

I’m a big proponent of having an honest discussion about strengths and weaknesses and fit — because it’s how you ensure that you won’t end up in a job that’s a terrible fit for you, where you’ll struggle or be miserable — but at the same time, I don’t recommend saying something with such a high chance of being a strike against you with most interviewers. I would work on that particular weakness privately (and do really work on it!), but have another answer ready for this question.

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