Your Greatest Weakness:
A standard question lots of employers use in job interviews asks the candidate, "What is your greatest weakness?" Candidates often opt for the strength-as-weakness non-answer, such as "I'm a perfectionist," or relatedly, "I work too hard." Few if any answer honestly ("I'll cut corners if you let me," "I treat people beneath me like dirt," etc.). Those that do probably don't get the job.

  So here are my questions for employers out there. First, what is the purpose of asking job candidates to identify their greatest weakness? And second, what is the best kind of answer? I have enabled comments. As always, civil and respectful comments only.
J. A. Paradis (mail):
As an employer, I do not use such an open-ended question. It really generates little useful information. If you want to probe an applicant, you might ask something more specific like "Tell me about a time when you had to give your boss bad news. How did you handle it?" or "Tell me about the most difficult experience you've had getting someone in your organization (not a subordinate) to co-operate with you. How did that turn out?" The specific question should be tailored to address one of the challenges you think the applicant will face in a new job or to address a potential problem revealed in aptitude testing or prior work history.
5.25.2005 2:57pm
Israel Silverman (mail):
A tool need not be 100% efficient to be cost-effective. Here, the cost is but a minute of interview time.

The best response is to deflect the question using the standard tactic mentioned: Strength-as-weakness. The interviewee does not shine, but then this was not the time to shine, simply to deflect and move on.
5.25.2005 3:02pm
Ric Spam:
I never asked such questions when giving interviews.
There are many other questions like the one above. The problem is the answers do not reveal anything. If you get the "I work too hard" answer, it just tells you the candidate read an interviewing techniques book.

I found it better to get the candidates to tell stories, which comes out of the Behavioral Interviewing technique. The stories give the candidate some time to get over any nervousness and the response lets you ask follow up questions which can tell you about the character / values of the candidate. The character / values is what you are looking at in this portion of the interview, right?

Technical questions (can they do the job), and selling of your firm to the candidate (why they want to accept your offer), are separate sections in an interview.
5.25.2005 3:08pm
Best answer: "Self-assessment."
5.25.2005 3:16pm
Trenchard Gordon (mail):
I no longer ask this question of interviewees, but I used to, simply to guage their ability to respond to impossible questions. Do they become flushed and start stammering, or do they confidently weave a plausible line of bullshit? In that respect it's like the slippery-slope questions that law profs delight in throwing at hapless students. There may be many right answers; the key is to offer yours smoothly and with confidence.

In a case of cosmic justice, I myself had to answer just such a question in a recent interview for a state judicial post. I opted for the strength-as-weakness answer, which seemed to go over well.
5.25.2005 3:17pm
Goober (mail):
Hm. There's undoubtedly little point to asking that question, because there's little point in conducting interviews anyway. They mislead the interviewer as often as they lead to any real insight, and objective criteria (grades, scores, previous experience) have always yielded more reliable judgments than objective criteria assisted by subjective assessments from interviews.

Interviewers continue to insist on interviews irrationally, because they believe they can discern something they can't.

Knowing that, the only answer that would provoke a positive or negative response out of me (when I'm compelled by my bosses to engage in an interview) would be "I steal things. A lot of things. Compulsively. Like, computers and desks and client information. And what I don't steal I'm likely to burn. Because there's an invisible leprechaun who tells me to."

If he were serious, wouldn't hire. But if he were joking... well, that's just darn funny.
5.25.2005 3:39pm
A. Nym:
I don't ask that one, but do ask impossible, open ended questions to see how people react. I hire technical people, and can usually get the measure of their skill set pretty quickly; what matters most beyond that is personality. My company is a quirky lot. When I have asked it, I usually got the stock answer, but twice got an honest response. I hired both of them. That isn't the whole reason I hired them, but it helped.

I agree with the tell-a-story technicque, too.

One of my favorites is to get people to relate how they handled failing at a task. Everyone has, and I usually open it by relating an example from my own experience, in order to break tension (I don't tell how I dealt with it, to avoid leading).
5.25.2005 3:40pm
Anonymous coward (mail):
I once used this answer:

"I don't suffer fools gladly."

While absolutely true for me, it may have been an "over-share." Don't know if it helped or hurt because I withdrew from that particular job opportunity.
5.25.2005 3:42pm
I'm in the software development industry and I do ask this question sometimes. I'm generally interviewing hard core server developers and find that the answers are often quite honest.

My primary reason for asking this question is as a check on how forthcoming and honest the candidate is being. It is one of the "book" questions and I become skeptical of candidates who provide "book" (usually "strength-as-weakness") answers. Everyone has true weaknesses and should understand at least the most troublesome of them - else it is very difficult to improve and/or work around the weakness.

When I sense that I'm getting an honest answer, this increases my confidence in the candidate's understanding of their own strengths and weaknesses. For example, if I'm looking for a "down and dirty" coding and debugging machine^H^H^H^HH^H^H^ developer, I'm more comfortable with individuals who understand their own strengths and weaknesses and that don't have a self image of being an uberarchitect.

If the candidate gets to the reference check stage, I do ask the references the question about the candidate and compare the candidate's self assessment to the assessment of the reference. I also sometimes discuss the candidates self assessment of "greatest weakness" with references - and sometimes discover that the weakness, while evident to others, is not as big a deal as the candidate thinks.

The answer also gives me a little heads up on how to best initially utilize and train the candidate if they are hired.

I've had some stellar developers working for me who had glaring weaknesses - it's the job of the management team to effectively utilize such people. (I always keep in mind that Einstein wasn't equally good at all things).

However, I've never made a (no)hire decision that was based heavily on the candidate's answer to this question.
5.25.2005 3:46pm
TJIC (www):
Israel Silverman has it exactly right: if 90% of the candidates deflect the question, 5% answer it honestly with flaws that aren't too bad, and 5% answer it honestly with a deal-killer flaw, one can discard that 5%, and drastically increase the average quality of the candidate pool for a very minimal cost.
5.25.2005 3:54pm
Brant (www):
His interview going very well, having quickly become humorous, a friend of mine was asked this question. His quick response was "Duck Hunt. You know, that old game on Nintendo. I'm really bad at that." He was offered a summer associate position.

At least that's the story he told me.
5.25.2005 4:04pm
Howdy Doody:
Another good answer: "I lie in interviews."
5.25.2005 4:07pm
Maniakes (mail) (www):
My father used to use this question when conducting interviews. He says it's an invitation to hang yourself; many people with serious shortcomings will announce those shortcomings if you just ask them.

An alternate "good answer" I've heard suggested (apart from the old "positive weakness" trick) is to reply with a genuine but easily correctable weakness (e.g. "I've never worked with this specific tool your company uses").
5.25.2005 4:13pm
David A. Smith (mail):
One asks because everybody does have weaknesses, and the more one is able to recognize them, the more likely one can design or choose a job or role that minimizes them.

The best answers are forthright and not apple-polishing: "I'm impatient and sometimes speak sharply," "I have trouble when I don't feel that my input is making any difference," "I don't like meetings."
5.25.2005 4:16pm
Richard Bellamy (mail):
Job interviews, it turns out, are a lot like the SATs. Now, I always did very well on standardized tests, so never took the Kaplan course. When I read about the Kaplan method later, I realized that all of his "pointers" were stuff that I had figured out intuitively.

I never had that intuitive feeling with interviews, though, and as it turned out I had a hell of a time getting a job, despite having universally high scores from elite educational institutions.

Then, a friend recommended "Guerilla Tactics for Getting the Legal Job of Your Dreams" (which applies equally well to law and non-law type jobs), and I realized that interviewing was essentially just like test taking. There were questions, and there were right and wrong answers, and the book told you what the right answers were.

After that, I soon went on five interviews and received two job offers from them -- much better than the one offer from 50 interviews I had before reading the book.

The book gave you the "positive as negative" answer to the "biggest fault" question. It also said that the question was to elicit how you answered stressful questions. Of course, by "gaming" the system, you are not actually stressed out so it doesn't really provide the information sought.

The only problem, it seems, came years later when I was the one conducting the interview (I never asked the "biggest fault" question), and realized that the answers I was receiving from one candidate were verbatim from the same book I had read!

Although I did not have full say in the hiring decision, he was the one who got the job.

For me, now, I have a preferred order of candidates in my mind before the interviews. The interview process is "Let me look at you to make sure you do not have bad breath, body odor, and are otherwise presentable."

I have, to date, made it down to the third person on my list based on the first two failing the "presentable" test. I have no illusions that I could get any more than that out of an interview.
5.25.2005 4:26pm
Thanks to a multi-full-day stint as a job-fair interviewer in a down market, I refined that question to make it useful. "What do your peers/old bosses think is your biggest weakness?" Rattles the same folks and gets WAY more bad facts than the original form.
5.25.2005 4:41pm
Jerry (www):
Goober: I actually got the job when answering in a similar manner. (i.e., "Yes, I have stolen and gotten away with it.") According to the manager I ended up working for, the interviewer said I was "brutally honest"; in fact I felt that if their interview process reflected on their working environment, I didn't care whether they hired me or not.

I guess, in some sense, it was like dating. I passed the "Tao of Steve" test.
5.25.2005 4:48pm
old grey ent (mail) (www):
I agree with Goober that personal interviews are generally not good indicators, although they are almost always required. I tended to ask the opposite question, What is your greatest strength, or What can you bring to the job, which accomplished the same purpose. I asked the weakness question in two circumstances, either when I thought I knew or suspected it and wanted to see if the candidate would concur, or when the job posed special challenges which could require substantial specialized training. In those instances when I did ask it, I would say better than half the candidates were dismissive or disingenuous; among the others, who tried to answer honestly, a number proved to be exceptional employees. If you are specifically looking for someone who is honest, intelligent, and adroit in IP relations, the question could be useful. Unfortunately, most jobs don't require those qualities. Remember how the POTUS answered the kindred question about his most serious mistake? duh.
5.25.2005 4:52pm
paulnkyla (mail):

These questions are best for weeding out entry level prospects. It indicates how prepared they are for the interview but nothing else. The best answer I got was "chocolate malts". It was both humorous and plausible. In a similar vein I had a colleague who would place a piece of scrap paper on the floor prior to the interview and note which candidates stopped and picked it up versus those that walked right over it.
5.25.2005 5:34pm
fred binkle (mail):
5.25.2005 5:35pm
Bernard Yomtov (mail):
what is the purpose of asking job candidates to identify their greatest weakness?

Same as the purpose of lots of other standard silly interview questions: to let the interviewer avoid the work of trying to figure out if the applicant would be a good hire. Much easier to ask a superior sounding trendy question than to probe experience, skill level, and so on.
5.25.2005 5:47pm
Jody (mail) (www):
In an interview during which I decided a) I didn't want the job and b) that the interviewer was just rotely reading off the questions and fairly uninterested in the process, I once answered the question with "I kill people."

I didn't get the job nor an on-site interview (good) nor any response from the interviewer (bad, or at least boring) who went straight on to the next question.
5.25.2005 5:55pm
David Hecht (mail):
When I was working for the Government, we never asked that open-ended version. But we did ask about specific stressful encounters that were typical.

The one that I thought was most revelatory was asking candidates to describe how they would discipline or fire a problem subordinate (preferably with an example from their own experience): invariably the BSers gave elaborate answers about how they'd never had to do this (or never would have to), because they were such great managers of people.

This was--needless to say--not a positive in my book: anyone who's been in a management or supervisory position for more than a very short period has had to deal with a problem employee, and if you haven't at least thought about it enough to give a plausible answer, you're unfit to be in such a job.
5.25.2005 6:18pm
MK2 (mail):
Asked this question last year, I answered with "Simple Carbs" -- had the interviewer laughing out loud. I followed that up with a fairly honest comment about how I've had to come up with techniques to limit my tendency to procrastine on projects I've found repetitive.

Got an offer -- your mileage may vary.
5.25.2005 7:24pm
AB (mail):
Doesn't every reasonable person have a professional weakness (or "development need") that he's working on? Like a fear of public speaking or a tendency to procrastinate? Seems to me like the best answer is to state the problem honestly and then talk about steps you're taking to fix it (like a public speaking class or sharper to-do list).
5.25.2005 8:56pm
chuck (mail):
I agree w/ Bernard and Paulnkyla, and I actually think "What is your greatest weakness?" is a terribly out of fashion question for a job interview. Perhaps not in law?

My company (biotech) trained us to avoid posing adversarial questions like this. Instead, we might ask things like "what area of your skill set would you most like to improve on?" Depending on the position, an interviewee can say something like "intellectual property law" or "FDA procedures" without losing face and also conveying material information to the interviewer. The answers can also start a conversation.

Maybe lawyers need to show skills at handling adversarial interactions with each other, but in science and research the emphasis is on collaboration. I need to know more importantly how to get along with a co-worker, not how to confront them or test their interview performance skills.

An interviewer's questions reveal a lot about an employer. I know if an interviewer asked me about my weaknesses, it would weigh heavily against them afterwards if they tendered me an offer. Scientists I know talk freely about lame interviews they've been on and aren't shy about naming names.
5.25.2005 9:12pm
pmorem (mail):
With A.Nym, I've also found the impossible, open-ended question to be the most useful. My best hire was the one who answered "I don't know". He ended up spending four months working on it, and produced an excellent result.
5.25.2005 9:43pm
I've always thought that the strength-as-weakness answers sound very contrived and phony, so finding a more original and sincere way out can be a positive sign for a candidate.

The best dodges I've heard are genuine problems that people used to have, and what they've done to fix them. These answers are honest, show some ability to engage in introspection, and still avoid scaring the interviewer by confessing to a major flaw.
5.25.2005 9:47pm
I like using this question for interviews of internal applicants because I generally already have my own opinion, or at least a vague sense, as to what the answer is. If the candidate gives the same answer I'm thinking of, I know that they are honest, self-aware, and likely attempting to rectify/overcome the weakness. If they give one of the strength-as-weakness answers despite possessing more substantial weaknesses that I am aware of, then I know they aren't as prepared to work on the things that are most challenging for them.
5.25.2005 11:53pm
Jack K (mail):
I agree with AB. Serious people should be continually trying to improve themselves, which is impossible without somekind of charactor assessment. For a low level person, just showing they have read an interview book or gven thought to dealing with questions could be OK. For a higher level employee, I would expect that someone should be able to say something that indicates a realistic level of self assessment. If you asked Jack Welch this question, I am sure he would have had weaknesses he was addressing at any time. I still don't think it is a great question.

Several people have said that an interview is not a good way to assess job candidates. Clearly it is not perfect, but for jobs that require some level of human interaction, or fitting in with a team, I think they are the single best of several tools. I can't imagine hiring someone without meeting them. Do you have any suggestions for hiring without interviewing? (Note: I think any structured meeting to discuss a job is an interview, although you can disagree).
5.26.2005 1:18am
Timothy (mail) (www):
I'm new to the labor force, so I've never conducted an interview, but I have been asked that question in a few. At the position I was hired for, I answered honestly: That I have a touch of OCD and will get involved in the most minute details of a project that nobody else cares about, sucking up a lot of time in the process. My (now) boss and I ended up talking about that a little, and I related a story about once working 67 hours straight on a project at the OC when I was in school just to make sure all of the pages had exactly the same template and things were exactly as I wanted them.

It's sort of the old strength-as-weakness trick, but it really is something I have to be careful of lest I spend hours trying to align the pixels on some reports that only five people see and only I care about the aesthetics of.
5.26.2005 1:32am
jaimito (mail):
Sorry to disagree with you folks, but I think it is a VERY GOOD QUESTION. People has an urge to destroy themselves, they are burning inside to tell you that they stole, faked, failed, are no good at all. All that a good interviewer has to do is give the poor tense fellow a chance to tell his shortcomings, and 90% of them will do it.

Those who answer with a prepared "strength as weakness" answer, are so obvious that their answers to this question as well as to most the other ones can be discarded as fake. They should be considered good workers who took the trouble of coming prepared. Presumably, they will be good employees.

Original and ingenious answers like "kryptonite", "chocolate", "green-eyed girls" (like the interviewer) are taken with deep suspicion. Few or no positions really require thinking individuals, most are more trouble than gain. An original answer means he is unpredictable. He may be too clever, not a team worker, may have trouble with his future boss worried about production. It is the worst possible answer.

The best answer? By-the-book standard "Work too hard", "Attention to detail", etc.
5.26.2005 8:31am
JasonA (www):
I think I read this one somewhere: "I work so fast sometimes my clothes catch on fire."
5.26.2005 9:39am
Kurt Schuler (mail):
"A slight impatience with canned questions."
5.26.2005 11:49am
DannyNoonan (www):
I've had success with, "Sometimes I cramp up during the transition from the bike to the run."

It tells them two things:
1) I do triathlons. Would you like to hear more about that? Most of my interviewers have ended up asking me about Ironman and triathlon anyway. I think they'd rather talk about that than have their 90th conversation about moot court or law review. Distinguishing yourself is key.
2) My biggest weakness can be remedied by a banana.
5.26.2005 12:52pm
Michael Giesbrecht:
When I have been asked that question I have answered that I'm overly willing to accept repsonsibility for failures that may not have been my fault. From a managerial perspective, it's always nice to have a pontential fall guy waiting in the wings.

My favorite part of job interviews, though, is when the interviewer turns the tables and asks me if there is anything I'd like to ask him. I will then ask, "When was the last time you updated your disaster recovery plan?" If the pause is long enough, say a second and a half, I'll add, "You do have a disaster recovery plan, don't you?"

Usually, you'll have a job offer before you leave.

Michael Giesbrecht
5.26.2005 3:20pm
josil (mail):
another interviewing cliche: "where would you like be in five (ten) years?" i'd like to see comments from both sides on this tired old tactic.
5.26.2005 6:55pm
Half Sigma (www):
I loved the Dilbert cartoon where Dilbert answers "my greatest weakness is that I work too hard," and the interviewer asks back "how is that a weakness?"
5.26.2005 10:15pm
John Schulien (mail):

Another approach is to say something like:

"chocolate truffles"
"fast cars"
"wine, women and song"

At some point in the interview, you have to make a personal connection with the interviewer so that he remembers you favorably. This is a really tense adversarial question, and if you can break the tension with a little humor, well ...
5.27.2005 4:00am
Dave Kroll (mail):
We use this kind of question often in screening interviews, and especially for fresh out of college jobs. I'll admit, it's one of the first ones to
get cut if we run out of time, but I do think it offers some insight.

To me, the ideal answer shows that the candidate has assessed their own strengths and weaknesses, and successfully implemented changes to improve or
compensate for the weaknesses. (We'll also ask for examples that back up their claims, and compare notes between separate interviews.)

So I agree that an honest answer of, "I procrastinate like a son-of-a gun," would be unlikely to add to the candidate's evaluation any more than a non-answer like, "I work way too hard." We would be favorably swayed by an honest but thoughtful answer, such as, "After staying up all night to successfully complete project A, I accepted that I had a tendency to
procrastinate when I wasn't under a deadline. To accommodate this, I take a task and break it into smaller pieces and assign them arbitrary deadlines to encourage myself to focus. An example is how I created a new customer report by a deadline, which saved the company $20,000..."

Though we haven't tried to break it down to this level, I'd say asking this question addresses these areas:

* Has the candidate taken the time to think about themselves? Are they aware of their limitations, and how have they gained that awareness? A candidate who is self aware rates more positively than one who finds out from a co-worker or supervisor.
* Is the candidate trying to BS us? A non-answer suggests that they may be trying to game other questions in the interview as well.
5.27.2005 7:14am
josil - "where would you like be in five (ten) years?" When I was interviewing in my senior year of college (..cough.. years ago) I always thought that was a useless question. What kid that age honestly knows what he wants that far ahead? And now, at least in my business, things change so fast that any such long range plans are speculative at best. I said as much to one interviewer, and he said the "book" response was "management", which I found strange in my field (engineering).
5.27.2005 9:01am
josil - "where would you like be in five (ten) years?" When I was interviewing in my senior year of college (..cough.. years ago) I always thought that was a useless question. What kid that age honestly knows what he wants that far ahead? And now, at least in my business, things change so fast that any such long range plans are speculative at best. I said as much to one interviewer, and he said the "book" response was "management", which I found strange in my field (engineering).
5.27.2005 9:01am
In Japan, companies are using blood type to screen candidates. Handwriting analysis and horoscopes have been the fad at different times. How is the greatest weakness question any less lame? Does the job REQUIRE some particular weakness? No? So...?

Are you such an insightful and keen observer of people that you can meaningfully assess people with this stupid question? Bullshit. You are hiring to your prejudice and selecting for people who look like you.
5.27.2005 5:08pm
Josh (mail) (www):
This would probably only work with a fairly laid back interviewer, but I honestly answered once that my biggest weakness was a cute blonde with a killer smile (at the time I was thinking of a specific blonde). I told the interviewer, "I can't say no when she pouts at me." He laughed and started telling me about his wife and daughter, which he claimed to have the same problem with. As an asside, the question I dislike most when interviewing were "ranking" questions. I got this one once. Please rank in order of importance in your life, the following: Family, Work, Religion, Health, Friends. I was dealing with two very big guys in the interview, one of them very physically fit. I put health at the bottom of my list and without thinking added, "what good is having your health if you don't have anything to live for." He was obviously not impressed by my answer, but then again, I wasn't particularly impressed by the question.
5.27.2005 7:30pm
I mention my bad back and that I have a hard time sitting still for a long time.
5.27.2005 10:14pm
Paul Vincent (mail):
office politics
5.28.2005 8:47am
Paul Vincent (mail):
office politics - specifically an intolerance for office politics
5.28.2005 8:51am
Patrick Connors (mail) (www):
No, no. Go ahead and ask me about my weakness. I'll tell you how I'll work best in your organization.

Since I have a weakness that a good manager should be able to work with (attention-deficit disorder), I tell the interviewer that I'm better with lots of small tasks than One Huge Project. I define "small" for them in terms of the position I'm up for. I tell them I don't like to be bored. I don't mention the ADD by name.

The best manager I ever had told me I wouldn't be bored and made sure I got tasks that were compatible with me. I left that position after almost three years, but it wasn't her fault.
6.6.2005 3:05pm