Answering the Weakness Interview Question

February 14, 2015

Picture of a notebook and pen with a running list of four strenghts and zero weaknesses.The question which often stirs the most dread in interviewees: “What is your greatest weakness?”   Interviewers may also ask it in other ways like: “Tell me about some of your areas for professional development and growth.” or “What are three weaknesses you have in relation to this job description?” or “If I were to speak to your previous supervisor, what would they say you needed to work on?”

No matter how it is phrased, you need to be prepared with a response. Many times this question is asked simply to evaluate your preparedness for the interview itself. Like everything else, there is often not one “right” or “wrong” way to answer this question, but here are some things to keep in mind.

Turning a negative into a positive can backfire.
This is the way you are supposed to answer this question, right? Say something negative that is actually a positive. We hear these answers all the time. Some examples include:

  • I tend to be a perfectionist.
  • Sometimes I work too hard and push myself too much.
  • I have extremely high standards for myself and others.

Sorry if you are reading this and genuinely identifying with these statements because you’ll have to come up with other weaknesses to share. Statements like these often come off as contrived and disingenuous.

Turning a negative into a positive can work – if done correctly!
This tactic can work if you focus on a specific skill that you are trying to improve. Important note: make sure the skill is not a critical one for the job at hand. A good formula to follow would be, “I realized my presentation skills needed some work and since it is not a major part of my current job, I sought other opportunities like joining Toastmasters and asking my supervisor for more feedback on my presentations.”

Being genuine doesn’t mean you have to be too honest.
Authenticity is the key to a good interview. You’ll want to be yourself and see if you are a genuinely a good fit for the position. It goes without saying that you should be honest at every step of the application process – interview included, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be strategic. It is sometimes shocking what an interviewee will reveal if they are feeling stressed and unprepared for the question. Individuals will offer up deal breakers like being “quick tempered” or “always late to everything.” You might laugh but these are real examples and they will raise real red flags.

Don’t shut down during the answer.
Some individuals will take way too long to answer the question and then finally assert that they can’t think of a single weakness. Well, we just discovered a couple for you – a lack of self-awareness and a lack of preparation for this interview!

Take some time and prepare for the question as best as you can. Doing an honest self-assessment about what you would feel comfortable revealing will help you on interview day. If you need help practicing, come into OITE for a mock interview.

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Illegal* Interview Questions – What They Are and How to Handle Them

June 11, 2014

A white button with the words "Illegal Interview Questions" covered by a red X.In the United States, federal and state laws prohibit prospective employers from asking certain questions that are not related to the job for which they are hiring; however, most interviewers are not deliberately trying to discriminate against job applicants. In fact, many illegal* interview questions come out unintentionally in a conversational tone. As an example, an interviewer could start the interview with some ice breaker type questions and say, “You have such an interesting name! What’s the origin?” Outside of an interview, this would be a pretty innocuous question; however, within an interview, it could be construed as trying to ascertain your nationality.

Personal information like your heritage, religion, age, and marital status can very subtly sneak into an interview. Here are a few more examples:

Subject:
Nationality
Illegal Questions:
Are you a U.S. citizen? Where were you born? Is English your first language?
Legal to Ask:
Are you authorized to work in the United States on a full-time basis? What languages do you speak and what is your proficiency level? (This can also be tested by the interview itself and/or a written exam.)

Subject: Marital/Family Status
Illegal Questions:
Are you married? Are you planning to have children? How many kids do you have? What are your child care arrangements?
Legal to Ask:
Would you be willing to relocate if necessary? Are you willing to travel as stated in the position description?

Subject: Disabilities
Illegal Questions:
Do you have a disability? Have you had any recent illnesses or operations?
Legal to Ask:
Are you able to perform the essential functions of this position with or without reasonable accommodations?

Subject: Age
Illegal Questions:
How old are you? What is your birthdate? When did you graduate from college?
Legal to Ask:
Are you over the age of 18?

Subject: Affiliations
Illegal Questions:
What religious holidays do you celebrate? What clubs/organizations do you belong to?
Legal to Ask:
Are you available to work Sundays (if the position notes this)?

What should you do if one of these questions gets asked during your interview? It can be a challenge to weigh your options quickly while you are still face to face with the interviewer. So, if there is an area which is of specific concern for you, try to prepare some possible responses. Here are four different options:

  1. Simply answer the question. Only choose this option if you are truly comfortable providing that information and don’t personally feel that it could cause an issue for you.
  2. Answer the question with a question of your own. You could say, “I’m happy to try and answer that question for you, but can you help me understand how that relates to this job first?”
  3. Don’t answer directly, but respond to the intent of the question. For example, if the interviewer asks if you are a U.S. citizen, you can respond by saying, “I think you are meaning to ask if I am legally authorized to work here and the answer is yes.”
  4. Refuse to answer the question. This last resort should only be utilized for a very egregious question.

Knowing in advance what kinds of illegal questions are apt to sneak into an interview and how you feel about answering them should be a part of your interview preparation. This can help you quickly diffuse an uncomfortable situation should it arise. Beyond what’s legal, there are also disclosures that can make you feel uncomfortable discussing in a professional setting. We will be touching on some of these issues in future blog posts.

*  Illegal interview questions, while not illegal in the strictest meaning, do have great potential to open a company or organization up to being held liable in a discrimination law suit.