In the May 19, 2020 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter a reader grapples with the biggest weakness and with trick questions.

Question

weaknessIt just happened again. An interviewer asked me one of those trick questions. “What is your biggest weakness?” I actually researched this one. There are all kinds of recommended answers you can memorize. It’s also true that it might be an honest question to get you to talk about yourself, or it might be a trick and they’re looking for some particular kind of answer. I stopped trying to psych this out. But I would like to know what you think.

Nick’s Reply

I don’t believe in rehearsed or “canned” answers to interview questions. Every candidate, manager, job, company and situation is different. Each requires an honest answer to sincere, relevant questions.

That’s assuming the company and the manager are honest, sincere people who ask questions that actually assess your fitness for the job. But we all know that many employers rely on a list of prepared interview questions that they ask so routinely, you wonder why. Such interviews feel stiff and there’s no real conversation going on about the job or how you would do it. Many of these questions fall into a category I call The Top 10 Stupid Interview Questions. (Disclosure: There are more than 10!)

Your biggest weakness

I don’t believe in canned questions in job interviews. But, there’s one Top 10 interview question that really irritates me because it’s so loaded, so stupid and so common that it’s worth discussing. And that’s the question you’re raising here:

What is your biggest weakness?

The clever rationalizations behind this question are myriad. I’ve heard every explanation there is for asking it. My favorite: “It’s a good open-ended question that will tell you lots about a job applicant.”

Give me a break. It yields no more than asking what animal the applicant would like to be. If the question was ever legitimate and sincere, it’s been worn out from overuse. When some wag came up with the best answer I’ve ever heard – “Chocolate!” – it was time to stop asking it.

I don’t want to suggest an answer to this question, because there is no single answer. But, I’d like to discuss why I think the idea of “weakness” is worthless to an employer, and perhaps that will change your perspective about interviews in general.

What weakness?

This question doesn’t show up just in job interviews. A prospective client once asked me what my biggest weakness is. This is how I answered it – as honestly as I could.

There are a million things I can’t do, but they don’t reveal any weakness. Weakness is the unwillingness or inability to tackle a challenge. I suggest you first judge my willingness to help you, then my ability.

I can and will tackle anything that’s worth doing, and any task that’s part of the job if you hire me. But weakness is not part of my work equation.

What matters is my motivation to quickly develop the strength I need to perform a task or handle a problem. I’m good at figuring things out and learning whatever is necessary so I can perform the work I’ve committed to do. That’s what has made me successful.

Success requires intelligence, motivation and persistence. Those are my strengths, and they enable me to get a job done. I can hop up on a fast learning curve and ride it without falling off.

There is no weakness; only things I haven’t done yet. If you want to know what I can do, show me what you need done – and I’ll show you how I will use my skills and abilities to do it.

There’s a very powerful interview tactic hiding in plain sight in this approach. Can you find it?

Reveal your strengths

It’s something few job applicants ever ask an employer: “Show me what you need done.”

This is powerful because you cannot effectively show that you can do a job — and get hired — unless you know exactly what the work is. You must ask  because most employers will not tell you of their own accord. Only then can you explain and show how exactly you will do the work — even if there are aspects of the work you’ve never done before. Talking it through with the manager reveals your strengths — your ability to understand, plan, learn, and execute.

If you have the intelligence, motivation and persistence to do what needs to be done, and if you are good at learning, then you have no weakness.

Instead of trying to answer that question with a clever rejoinder, try having a conversation like this instead. Asking what exactly the manager needs gives you a chance to show you have no meaningful “weakness.” Then you can show your strength is figuring things out.

What other Top 10 Stupid Interview Questions have you been asked? How do you answer the “biggest weakness” question? What’s the most important question to address in a job interview?

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85 Comments
  1. If I had already decided that I was not going to work at this place even if there was a pandemic on, I might say
    “Oh, so you value creativity highly here, do you?”
    Or it might be fun to reach into my bag and pull out the question and my answer. Even better, four answers, and let the interviewer pick one.
    Seriously, a person who is unable in real time to tailor questions to someone’s resume and the conversation is not someone who is going to be good to work with.
    If I did need the job, I like your suggestion. I agree that there is no way of giving a real answer. I’ve never had the pleasure of being asked it.
    Maybe I should write a column with the ten funniest answers to the question.

    • Scott – Here are some of the dumb questions with answers I would like to give. But most of them would end the the interview.

      I actually said 2 of them in the past. Read them and I will let you know which 2 at the end.

      1 – Tell me about yourself? – April 15 19 something and my father filed their taxes expecting a refund. To celebrate they had sex, and 9 months later I was born.

      2 – Why did you leave your last job? – I didn’t, you are looking at my resume, it says unemployed.

      3 – What is your current salary? – Happy to say once you tell me what your making. If I don’t think you are making enough, then why would I come here to make less than you?

      4 – What don’t you like about your work? Duh, my resume says I am unemployed, and I hate listening to my wife say “GETA JOB” 24/7.

      5 – Describe a tough period in your career. Watching my boss being led away in handcuffs by the FBI, and realizing I hadn’t updated my resume.

      6 – Do you think size really matters (regarding working on projects)? Only to my paycheck

      7 – Where do you see yourself in five years? Sitting in this conference room having Chocolate Cherry Cake and Ice Cream with all of you celebrating my 5th work anniversary.

      8 – What’s your greatest weakness? Not running out of this room screaming because I had to listen to you ask this stupid question as if it means anything.

      9 – We have many talented candidates, why should we hire you? Why haven’t you already make a decision?

      10 – How would you describe yourself in three words? Cannot stand stupid

      11 – You are stranded on a desert island and can only take three items with you – what are they? A Sat Phone and a case of water, won’t need the 3rd.

      I actually did give the answers listed to number 7 and 11. The answer to #7 broke up the room, I was being interviewed by 5 at one time.

      By the way, I had been at an interview about to leave, they did not make me an offer, I on the second floor overlooking the atrium and as I looked down, #5 actually happened, the CEO was arrested by the FBI, and at that moment, I thought about all the other employees and came up with that answer, everyone was in shock.

      • I like them. I guessed #11 – a good answer to a stupid question, actually.

      • Reading all these questions I’ve got a deja vu of Beauty Pageant context!

  2. A HR worker at one previous employer told me that nine out of ten says “I am stubborn” to that question – because they have learnt that being stubborn also can be framed as a positive thing.

    I have found that the best is to answer with something job related, a skill that I do not have. “I am a good geologist, but not very good with geophysics”. Which is true, and not a problem to say, because no candidate is a perfectly complete pink unicorn. This keeps the discussion on track, and I can use it as a bridge to discuss things I would like to learn and develop, and to emphasize the things I can do, and how they benefit the company.

  3. I award you Joseph Fabian, the Kierkegaard prize for wittiest riposte.

  4. I get that that the job search is tough work, but these are Stupid Interviewer Tricks. It would make me wonder what kind of company hired such a lazy person, and would I want to work there, if this is the face that they show to the public.

    • @Jim: I’m afraid we’d have to shut down most companies if we eliminated those that ask stupid questions.

  5. I agree entirely Jim….lazy, uneducated, flying by the seat of their pants interviewers. Also kudos to Joseph Fabian – Nick C might have a job for you if you are still looking!! Interviews should be a two-way conversation to glean the most relevant information from each other. Experienced employees do not want to answer kindergarten questions.

  6. I’ve actually been asked “If you were a plant, what kind of plant would you be?”

    My answer: Barrel cactus.

    Why? Because I’m short, round, really prickly on the outside, but if you get past that I’m sweet mush on the inside. (Which, actually, is a fair description of me.)

    Snarky answers I wish I could give:

    If you were an animal… “A lion.” Why? “So I could rip the throat out of people who ask dumb questions.”

    Five years. “On a yacht having won $100 million in the Powerball, being fed grapes by naked underwear models.”

    Weakness? “Cheese tortellini with a good basil pesto.”

    What motivates you? “My motivation calls me ‘daddy’ when I get home.” (Which, actually, is the complete truth.)

    • I actually tend to answer the motivation question like this:

      I am a problem solver. I like a good mystery – it’s like a puzzle and there’s great satisfaction in figuring things out. But, ultimately, my motivation calls me “Daddy!” when I get home.

      I’ve had some smiles and understanding nods. I’ve also gotten some very sour looks, as though the *gasp* idea that I might value my family more than that particular job is horrific to them. (These are companies where people work 60, 70, 80 hours a week to “get ahead.” Anecdote: I was having lunch with a possible HM (networking, not an interview) and we discussed his former subordinate who had gone to work for Apple. That engineer was working 60-plus hours a week, and that HM chuckled and said “He’s probably the slacker there.”

      NO. THANK. YOU.

    • LOL…thank you for the great laugh. all of those are great!

  7. I personally have not had many of these poop tests, at least in more recent years. Part of it might be the types of industries I’ve applied to or worked in, or the many disengaged, obtuse, and dismissive interviewers I’ve encountered. It’s pretty much “you’re excused” shortly after walking in the door. I agree with Jim, if that’s the lazy type of employee and image they present, I don’t want to work there.

  8. I don’t like a lot of questions I’ve been asked in interviews, but I may still want the job. It’s not helpful to say that if they ask a question I don’t like, then I shouldn’t consider the job. I want the job because I want an income, first and foremost. It would be ideal to also have every other check-in-the-block (great organization, great coworkers, great HR office that recruits only great people, etc). But that is not always realistic. An example is government jobs I have applied for: the interviews are highly structured, the questions are very robotic and unimaginative, I will not work with 3 out of the 4 people that conduct the interview, but I still want the job. There are great benefits and I have a skill set that fits certain jobs. So please stop saying if the interview questions are stupid, why would I want the job!!

    • @Patricia: I don’t question a person’s motivations if they need to put food on the table and pay the rent. I just want people to consider what they’re getting into before it happens. So much of the time, people change jobs because they took the wrong job to begin with.

  9. Interviewer: “What is your biggest weakness?”

    Candidate: “I’m too honest.”

    Interviewer: “Really… I don’t think that’s a weakness.”

    Candidate: “Frankly, I don’t care what you think.”

  10. If you want to take a job for “the sake of taking a job”, then you’ll have to deal with the consequences, good or bad. You can make your own decisions. I’ve learned personally, to become more far sighted, and to avoid becoming desperate in the first place. My views, or anyone else’s, is not a prerequisite for some silver bullet for your success or failures.
    I’ve taken jobs, whatever came along, because I needed the income to make bills. For me personally, the failure to trust my gut when I saw these red flags, and the unintended consequences, I saw immediately that I was swimming in a cesspool of toxicity, and it didn’t end well. There was an article featured on this site a few week ago about the vicious cycle of taking the wrong jobs.

  11. LOL!!! ALL true!!

  12. OH boy! Sorry to disagree. I love this question. I use it all the time BUT spun the right way.
    I typically interview service techs, trades people and admins too. What I ask is something like this:
    In relation to your work skills, what are you strongest points and abilities AND what are your weaknesses? I then repeat, where are you weakest skills wise?
    I feel this is an excellent way to have the candidate open up and think about their abilities. It tells me they may need training in some areas right off the bat.
    While their answers probably won’t be a hiring deal breaker, it reveals a bit more about their personality and ability.
    And yes, the raw question, what are your weaknesses or what animal are you most like are just drivel from the mouths of idiots.

    • Not bad, but how about wording it “what things would you like more training in / experience with?” That’s more positive, and opens the conversation to seeing if the candidate is interested in growing beyond that job.
      But this implies that the company is willing to train, pretty rare these days.

  13. Hate that question. When hiring, I ask: “To do your job best, what support and conditions do you prefer? What is essential for you to perform?”. When interviewing, I reframe the question to that and answer accordingly. It is a good thing to think about before an interview. What do you need the organization to provide so you can best earn your compensation? Also reduces the number of times where assumptions do not materialize.

    • @JJIIMM: “What do you need the organization to provide so you can best earn your compensation?:

      I really like how that one question covers 3 things. It asks about tools and resources the candidate would depend on. It suggests that the candidate understands that pay depends on performance and requests that the candidate discuss the connection. Finally, it gets at whether the candidate understands that the company and the employee must operate as one.

      Am I reading too much into it? I think it’s a great question.

      • That is a great evaluation. I have always hated how interviews can get adversarial when they should be about discussing opportunities or problem solving. The other way establishes a bad relationship of bullying and hiding.

        Keep up the excellent work, Nick!

  14. When I interviewed for my current job, I teased my soon-to-be boss that she didn’t ask me this question. She said, “okay, what is your biggest weakness?” I really did point to a dish of candy on my soon-to-be co-worker’s desk and said “that.” What my boss admitted to me impressed her was the fact that I actually googled the company, looked at their website, and then asked her questions about the company. She said no other candidate had done that. This was only 4 years ago, so a complete surprise to me, especially since I was over 55 at the time. I once worked for a professional sports team (administrative capacity) over 10 years ago. Several places I interviewed right before this job, all the guys interviewing me wanted to talk about was if I got to meet any players or other famous people (yes and yes).

  15. Q: What’s your greatest weakness?

    A: I tend to give snarky answers to stupid job interview questions.

    Q: Give me a recent example where you had to think outside the box.

    A: I’m an analyst, not a box of cornflakes. I don’t know what a box is.

    Thankfully my last interview had me answering stuff like what a search query on Google looks like at different layers of the OSI stack. That’s actually one of the better questions I’ve been asked during a phone screening interview.

    • @Tom: “Show me how you’d do this work.” Ain’t it wonderful what that question says about the employer?

  16. My favorite answer to:
    “What is your biggest weakness?”

    Answer: A fear of webcams.

  17. Years ago I was asked, “What would be your perfect job?” My reply was: “To be the President of the United States’ dog. I would have free run of the entire White House plus I could piss or shit on anyone and not get scolded, beaten, fired, or reprimanded. If lucky, I could live this dream for eight years. Considering the lifespan of a dog, that would take me into my retirement, senior years with a very nice pension.” The interviewer just looked at me for quite a while, obviously not expecting that answer. This was also the last job interview I’ve had. I figured if companies engage in such inane practices, I could easily compete against them, which I’ve done.
    To those who still engage in such insanity here’s a suggested answer to stupid questions: “I’m sorry, but based on advice of my attorney I invoke the 5th Amendment not to perjure myself.” You won’t get the job, but what a fun answer for social gatherings.
    To Tony who seems to like the question and believes it reveals a person’s skills, try reading that person’s resume better and role play a scenario whereby the person has to answer based on their skill level and experience. Your spin is still engaging in stupid questioning and the interviewee “see’s” through it and gives you what you want to hear.

    • LOL…priceless

    • @Stupid: Not many people can afford to answer that way, but more power to those that can because it may be the only way to make employers realize just how stupidly they behave.

  18. “I use my right to remain silent, because everything I say can and will be used against me”.

  19. Interviewer: What is your greatest weakness?
    Me: You tell me yours and I’ll tell you mine.
    Interviewer: What is your greatest strength?
    Me: You tell me yours and I’ll tell you mine.
    Interviewer: What is your current salary?
    Me: You tell me yours.
    Me: No, I won’t tell you mine.
    Me: No, I don’t care if you HAVE to have it.

    • @Doc: What, do you have a degree in negotiating? I think you do. You get that disclosing salary ends your side of the negotiation.

      • My wife says I have a degree in “Crotchety”. But it’s just a natural result of dealing with lots of “stoopid” over my lifetime.

      • I hate, hate, hate, hate that so many lazy recruiters these days ask either current salary (the worst!) OR the similar “what salary are you looking for?” I am looking at business capture, and portfolio growth positions, so I generally turn it back and ask a flurry of questions to determine how they plan to build the compensation structure. I had a recruiter just email me the general benefits package, so I fired off a flurry of questions. And I finally told her that it seems very premature to start compensation negotiations before I have even had an interview with the hiring manager. And then I was ghosted.

        I am kind of a script-breaker. I do it all the time when I talk with customer service and I do it in interviews. I hate scripts. We are not in a movie or play, we are getting to know each other. My best interviews were ones where the interviewer did not have a script (but probably had a couple of key questions in mind) or when I was able to get the interviewer to drop the script and just talk. My challenge is getting through the gatekeepers. The gatekeepers, who do not even fully understand the role they are hiring for, are the absolute wrong people to be screening for roles in their companies. I wonder if hiring managers at these companies have any idea how much talent they are missing out on – there are people WAY smarter and more talented than me getting screened out in favor of people that lowball themselves and don’t ask questions.

  20. Nick,

    Forever you have said that the first thing you want to do is steer the interview to showing how you can do the job profitably for the company. And that’s universal. Describing what kind of animal you’d be doesn’t do anything towards that goal.

    I had an interview where the manager pulled out a piece of paper and read about 25 of those stupid canned questions to me. I gave him 25 canned answers right back because I too can look things up. By this time I wasn’t planning on taking the job because of this anecdote:

    During the interview we discussed that although I would be working in the US, their manufacturing was in Mexico. I said, “What about when there is a new product release? Wouldn’t I have to go to Mexico frequently during that time?” “Yes,” he replied, “but don’t worry because we get you a driver and they go a different way every time.”

    Name me one job that is worth THAT. Besides White House Pooch…

    • @Larry: Well, I guess you could be an armored Uber driver in Mexico…

  21. I just wish I’d get an interview – it was tough enough before all this crap started, but now it will be nigh impossible.

    I think my best bet is freelancing. No “What’s your greatest weakness?” or “What kind of animal would you be?” garbage. The focus is strictly on what you can do for the customer: Are you a professional? Can you get the job done? Short, sweet, simple, and to the point.

    • @Askeladd: That works in job interviews, too. And if you’re ready to show you can get the job done as a freelancer, you can probably get a meeting (who needs an interview?) with a manager you can help. Consultants (the legit kind) usually do their homework by talking with people in and around a company, and in the process they not only get educated and learn where the company needs help — they meet people who will introduce them to the right manager.

  22. I once was asked if you were a superhero which one would you be. My answer was I don’t know because I haven’t read comic books since childhood and the superhero ones were so male centric that they did not leave any long lasting impression.

  23. One day, asked about my biggest weakness, I replied simply: I’d rather keep it to myself and am working on it.
    Before I got the job where I am now (and, frankly, quite happy), my then future manager in the face-to-face interview which we had, apologised after the first four questions, and explained that he was told to fill in the two or three A4 pages with answers, so he had to do it somehow. I loved his candidness them and we clicked.

    • @Malgorzata: Thanks for sharing that. I love hearing about hiring managers who just get the job done without fakes or feints. Most interviewers have no idea what candor and frankness mean.

  24. Oh boy, do I have a doozy.
    I had second interview with Expedia back in 2012 with multiple managers, director and svp of finance. Everything was going great until the last round and the two managers came in. The one manager (towards the end of that final round) got an almost glinty look in her eye and asked “If you were any kind of animal, what animal would you be?” I was immediately taken back and said “well I guess a hawk or eagle”.
    To be honest, the reason why I chose that animal is I have always admired how they soar and the freedom that must feel like. pure and simple.
    She then made some snarky remark, which really rubbed me the wrong way.

    I got home and immediately researched the question. This question was listed as being in the top 10 worst interview questions back then. I then found a hysterical blog where someone had taken a poll of what to answer. My favorite was a guy who answered “A shark so I can bite your head off”, he then packed himself up and told the interviewers that if they were going to waste his time asking stupid questions, he had no desire to work there “How can I take your organization seriously?”. LOL

    I then attempted to give a review on Glassdoor (who by the way was created by the founder of Expedia – oh the irony) and they refused to let it post after I tried six times. Jerks.
    I have never forgotten that question or that idiot asking it.

    • The complete, more venomous answer to that that I’ve given – ONCE – and then packed my stuff and left:

      “Lion.”

      “Why?”

      “So I could rip the throats out of morons who ask meaningless pop-psychology interview questions.”

      Then I left.

      • David Hunt, Great answer! I always like your style! I’ve only been asked the “what’s your greatest weakness” question once, and that was 32 years ago. I was flown 500 miles to a job interview (first and only time ever that’s happened) for an Applications Engineering job at a sales office for a chemical process controls manufacturer. I hit it off ok with the Sales Manager, a guy who grew up in a blue collar home like me. Things went south when after lunch I was taken into the Regional Sales Manager’s office. This guy was what some refer to today as a “soy boy”. The usual high brow slap downs. He then asked the question, and I don’t even remember my reply, but I do remember his snarky and catty comeback “you don’t have much insight into yourself”. My reply “yeah, I’ve got as close and personal with you as I want”. I walked out and asked the Sales Manager to drive me back to O’Hare AP, even though my plane was departing 3 hours later. The Sales Manager tried to salvage the interview, but I just kept quiet. A month later I received a Dear John rejection letter, but by then I’d already found a job.

        • Both my parents had doctorates from the Harvard Business School. My late father taught there for 35 years (then 15 years after that elsewhere). And I’m an only child, so I learned to talk at that level, with that kind of vocabulary.

          E.g., one day in a meeting, somehow, I used the word Chthonic. It was the precisely correct word to use. Every single person in the room looked at me with blank WTF eyes. I had to explain, and also explain my upbringing as an explanation.

          Yet despite this, I am far more comfortable with a rough-and-ready working with hands crowd, and routinely reduce my “precise word” habit… because they’re salt of the earth types and I’d rather be with them.

    • If I was asked a stupid question, ie: do you ever come in late or take days off? Why would the interviewer ask that question? What would I say? Sure, I come in late, take time off and never call in? I turned the tables and asked a stupid question. Which weighs more? A pound lead or a pound of gold?
      The answer to the first question was “no”, my father taught me by example to always give an honest day’s work.
      The answer to the second question—interviewer always got it wrong and I told them to look it up. When he didn’t believe me, I told him I had to know the difference being a precious metals dealer. I still got the job, but regretted it, the manager had mental issues and treated everyone like stupid slaves. Turnover was huge in that department, but since I was close to retiring, I stayed just to see how it turned out. He is still there, and the department is still in shambles, but he has the company owners fooled. Not my problem anymore.

      • Good to read a post from a real world experienced older guy retired from the trenches.
        I like your comebacks to dumb interview questions. I’m a metallurgist by trade, so I appreciate your analogy of a pound vs a pound. I’m not surprised at all the interviewer couldn’t answer this, nor am I surprised that you landed in a toxic place, and with a whacked out manager who bamboozled the owners. Been there, done that, too many times. Amen, that clown show is not your problem anymore.

      • I would not do well with some of these questions.

        “Do you ever come in late?”

        Duh. I don’t have the power to predict when a car accident is going to happen on my usual route to work, so, yeah, sometimes I come in late because of traffic. How do you magically know that traffic will be unusually bad due to weather, accidents, or the like? Can you teach me this power?

        “Do you take days off?”

        Duh. It’s called vacation. Do you not have it here?

      • @Mike: Seems the lesson in that story is, if they reveal they’ve got issues in the interview, they’re just gonna reveal more issues after they hire you. Run.

  25. I’ve commented elsewhere on ATH that my answer to the weakness question is to make it mostly unrelated to the job but that still implies a skill that, while not required by the job, would be a nice thing to have.

    I always say my programming skills could be better. I’m an engineer, but not a software engineer nor a programmer. But, still, programming is a nice thing to be able to do to automate calculations.

    If you’re a programmer, say, oh, I dunno, your drawing skills could be better. Violin player?….your woodworking skills could be better. Auto mechanic? You have trouble with the foxtrot. (Ok, not related to the job, but you get the idea.) Heck, make it about a hobby you have if you need to deflect.

    If they push back and demand it be directly related to the job, then you can steer the conversation back to doing the work, hopefully in a such a way they forget the question. If they come back to it immediately, well, that gives you an important signal about what it’s like working there or how the rest of the interview is going to go.

    • That’s a very interesting technique. I like it!

  26. I’m sorry, this is too tempting to pass by. I can’t believe the writer played straight man.

    I’ve got Marine & recruiter in my DNA so this is what comes to mind when that question pops up.

    Recruiter to Salty old Gunnery Sargent (Any Marines out there will picture one)
    “Tell me, “What’s your Greatest weakness?”
    Gunny “Honesty”
    Recruiter “I don’t think honesty is a weakness.”
    Gunny “I don’t give a shit what you think.”

  27. “I am too curious”.
    “Being curious isn’t a weakness”.
    “Then, please tell me how this question has a statistical significant ability to distinguish good candidates”.

  28. “My biggest fault? Many. I have a PhD in faults. The biggest is around eight kilometers throw. They are mostly normal, but I can reverse them.”

    If the interviewer doesn’t get the play with words, he isn’t qualified to interview me :)

  29. I used to answer – in complete, brutal candor: “I have the annoying to the powers-that-be propensity to be inconveniently right a significant portion of the time. In parallel, I don’t kiss *ss, I’m not afraid of anyone no matter how high they are, and I give my honest opinion. Oh, and did I mention I’ve been told, in multiple employers, that I scare people because of this?”

    Anecdote: Back in 2001 I had been caught up in a massive RIF. I was called by a supplier, who had helped develop a $250K annual cost savings for me, to interview. The man who founded the company was a true genius – a man who saw things years out, a man of singular vision.

    I interviewed with a number of people, the last of whom was his right-hand man. After the interview I was seated in the waiting room, which happened to be adjacent to the interview room. That man, the founder, went in and forgot (?) to close the door.

    “So, what do you think?” he asked his subordinate.

    “Jesus, A——-, no wonder he scares people. He’s just like you!”

    A related anecdote, again related to that RIF. At the plant where I’d spent four years, after that massive layoff (close to 2,000 people) the layoffs were the only topic of discussion. A friend said he heard two people talking. “Did you hear they axed David Hunt?” “What? He was one of the best engineers we had!”

    Which brings to mind a question you might ask in an interview: “How does the company handle smart people who speak their minds?”

    • “Did you hear they axed David Hunt?”. “What?”. “He was one of the best engineers we had!”.
      “How does the company handle smart people who speak their mind?”.
      I’ve asked these same line of questions over and over myself.
      “Why did they ax Antonio, one of the best Buyers/Metallurgists we’ve ever had, and he hustles (spent years in the scrap metal industry)?”. “Why did they keep Ed and Bill?”. “Ed is the biggest slacker and donut dunker we have. Spends his work hours openly day trading stocks, searching the web for potato salad recipes, and playing fantasy football”. “Bill shows up to work at his leisure, often with booze on his breath, but hey, he’s a good ole boy!”.
      Smart people speaking their minds? What some people fail to see on here is that you don’t have to be a tactless SOB and combative in speaking your mind.
      I love the interviewers who ask (often in a petulant manner), after hours of going over my qualifications, skills, and grilling me like some rogue cops “why should we hire you?”. My reply as of more recent years “well, we’ve just gone over for the last hour/hours what I bring to the table. What more can I say?” (have you not been listening to my answers?). Or I’ll deflect and counter with “why would I want to work here? What sets you apart from your competitors?”. I once had a GM at an interview at a steel service center answer me (in a very defensive manner) “we have monthly cookouts for our employees”. Huh? That means jack to you, me, or any other candidate looking for a job.
      I guess it is what it is.

      • I was once asked that stupid “why should we hire you over others” question, and I answered with, “Well, who’s my competition?” I wanted to see resumes. I said I’d be honest if I thought someone else was better than me for the job.

        They didn’t take me up on my offer.

        • Lol! That’s a great answer! I’ll try that one if I’m ever asked that dumb question again, and I hope that’s never!

        • Reminds me of the question “Are you a people person?” I responded, “Depends on the people.”

          • Or one that I got that I was told I HAD TO respond one way or the other.

            Q: Do you prefer to work alone or on a team?

            A: It depends on what needs doing; depending on the situation and task, sometimes it’s better to be alone, as my late DBA mother once told me that work is an individual action, while teams have their strength especially in bringing diverse perspectives to the situation.

            Q: (Impatient tone.) That’s not what I asked. Do you prefer to work alone or on a team?

            A: (Sighing mentally.) On a team.

            • And we all know job interviews are typically high-stress and high-stakes, but the question remains, could you not have responded with, “As I said before, it depends on the situation”? And if the interviewer pushed back and demanded an either-or answer, maybe that would be the time, instead of mentally sighing, to mentally decide that this would probably not be a good place to work.

            • Translated from HR to English:

              Prefer to work alone: You are a loner, a looser, a nerd.
              Prefer to work on team: You are a social, well rounded, balanced person, a team player.

              In reality, of course, no-one does only one of these.

            • @Chris Hogg:

              I’d already realized that given the HR mentality – and yes, @karsten, it was an HR drone doing the interviewing – that I didn’t want to work there. It was part of a “Personality Test.”

              A little background. A medical device company was opening a new R&D office and I wanted to try and work there. I’d managed to network my way to the hiring manager with whom I spoke briefly on the phone. Based on that conversation he requested my resume. He then wanted to speak with me “officially” but to do that I needed to pass the personality test gauntlet, so HR called me.

              The above was one of the questions – the only specific one I remember – but there were other ones trying to “put me in a box” to categorize and label me.

              This is, IMHO, the insanity of it. Here was a person (me) interested and enthusiastic about working for this specific company. Here was a person (me) whom the hiring manager wanted to talk with to discuss hiring them; specifically, them, after having seen my resume.

              But because I didn’t give the “right answers” I was dropped. When I tried to follow up the HM sounded very evasive, almost as if he’d been lectured to NOT use networking but only let HR do everything. I’m assuming, of course – I don’t know that for certain – but I do know multiple companies have mandates against networking and people can get into serious trouble if do it to talk with possible candidates.

              And them companies complain “We can’t find qualified people!”

        • I had the exact question asked of me about 3 weeks ago as part of the application process. The job was an analyst position, so I answered like an analyst and told them I’d need to see what the other candidates brought to the table.
          Never heard back.

          • You’re “uppity”… increasingly, employers don’t like that.

            My late mother, the first woman to get a DBA from Harvard Business School, said that people used to be hired not just on skills they had at the moment, but for capacity to grow and develop. The mentality was that people would sign on to a company and work there for years, if not their whole career, and that companies needed to develop people.

            An anecdote:

            While at Ford Motor Company I stumbled on an internal web page: “Characteristics of Leaders at Ford” – or some such. Essentially, personality traits, and actions/behaviors, that Ford wanted in up-and-coming people. Among these traits were things like:

            * Takes risks
            * Looks beyond their own job
            * Thinks systemically about the company
            * Has long-term perspective

            So, without enormous detail, I did that. And got slammed six ways from Sunday for it, with ongoing drip drip drip feedback putting me down. After a month of this I printed out this page, highlighted these things, and in response to yet another piece of negative feedback through my boss I put it down on his desk and said “This is what the company says they want in their people. What did I do? This… this… this…” pointing to the bullet points on the page. “So what do you want? Do you really want this, or do you want compliant little drones?”

            No answer. But the feedback stopped. And, I have NO DOUBT, a great big black mark was put in my record: UPPITY.

            As an aside: There was a very intelligent manager who was late in his career. He did a lot of “special projects” as a way to work without being in charge of anything specific as his clock ticked down to retirement. We’d worked on a number of projects*, were on good terms, and I asked him about it. I can still hear his voice and remember the corridor where we were:

            “David, you’re probably the most intelligent person that’s ever worked at this plant. And that scares a lot of people.”

            * One of those projects:

            https://davidhuntpe.wordpress.com/2013/12/17/fix-the-problem-iv-water-ingestion-into-a-headlight/

            • “David, you’re probably the most intelligent person that’s ever worked at this plant. And that scares a lot of people.”

              To be honest, I think that’s true in many (most?) places. A lot of people feel intimidated by those smarter than they, for some reason.

          • A brief update thought.

            Now that companies hire expect people to churn through, they’re no longer developing people. You are a tool-of-the-moment, to be used and likely discarded once the tasks needed are done.

      • Years ago I read an article I wish I’d kept. the gist of it is the author covered this
        phenomena recruiters were seeing in the UK. I don’t know the metric that determined it but on comparing notes, they came across a higher # then expected of smart but unemployed young managers

        People you wouldn’t expect to find walking the street.

        digging deeper they detected a common trait. They all had a nature to speak their minds, “tell it like it is”. And were viewed as organizational irritants.

        they gave that a name. “Oyster grit” which developed either into a pearl, or was cast out.

        The casting out seemed to be the route. They worked for people who wanted conformity, which they challenged..& in so doing irritated the executives, who couldn’t see the value of a devil’s advocate.

        • There are some ‘leaders’ of companies that want a ‘yes’ man. Not enough that have the confidence to employ people who speak there mind.

          I worked for a CEO who genuinely wanted to hear everyone’s opinion. He was an intimidating person – not just formally because of his title, but he just had a presence that dominated the room.
          Rarely did anyone voice an opposing view in our meetings, despite his invitation to do so. He and I were having a conversation once and it turned to the topic of people speaking their mind in meetings. I took a leap of faith and brought up how intimidating he was. He was shocked and denied he was, then told me I sounded like his wife.

          I explained my position a little more and he simply replied “Really?”.

          The next day there was an email from him thanking me for being so candid. Later that week he sent a great email to everyone encouraging them to speak their mind.

          A year later I found myself working for a different CEO who had the exact opposite view. I found that out the hard way. This one wasn’t intimidating, and in fact, looked like a garden gnome (but more fragile).

          His email was short and to the point. Something along the line of “I’m the CEO, I make the decisions.”
          A lot of talented people came and went under this CEO’s “leadership”.

        • Speaking of “oyster grit” (I like that term) I always liked this:

          Babylon 5 – Garibaldi’s corporate method
          https://youtu.be/meXCmuXoxuA

          While it’s true that an organization of ALL people like this would soon tear itself apart, an organization DOES NEED people like this.

  30. Why do some prospective employers discount experience that is more than 10 years old?

    • @Andrew: Probably because their company isn’t going to be around in 5 years.

    • Because when you want to park a warm body in a seat, why not pay as little as possible? Experience costs money. Granted it costs a lot less than inexperience in the larger picture, but a lot of companies don’t see it that way.

  31. Interviewer: Why are manhole covers round?

    Me: (laughing) That’s the shape of the people who go in them. (I then proceeded to tell them the real answer that the cover cannot fall through no matter how you angle it.)

    Got the job.

    • @Dennis: “That’s the shape of the people who go in them.”.

      I’ve heard a lot of answers to that one, but yours is new.

      • That’s actually a good cultural test, Nick.

        That’s a laugh line to pretty much anyone with a “normal” sense of humor.

        If someone doesn’t at least grin, let alone laugh – and even worse snaps “That’s not funny!” – that’s a place to run away from…

    • a broken clock is accurate twice in 24 hours.
      so we must take note that some company(s) make manhole covers where that question is close to home.

      In theory this is to see how you think A well known software company was known for this question and others e.g. how many gas stations are there in the United States.

  32. The writer just generalized with “interviewer” .Trick questions are trick questions, but I think who asks them makes a difference. If it’s a hiring manager & that’s what they resort to…that’s a big red flag. If it’s a recruiter, not’s not encouraging either, but they are less likely to dive down and ask technical or functional questions and have developed some “favorite questions” to fill the gap & put themselves into a position to compare applicants. Or it could just be an weenie told to do an interview & handed a list.

    I always liked an conversational approach to get people to relax & talk about points of interest to both of us. And I was prepared to make the discussion relevant to each individual. Trick questions are counterproductive for this purpose.

    I think the optimum word is prepared. I haven’t gotten many of those trickies in my working life & I didn’t ask any. If someone’s slinging those at you, you may have a sign that they don’t know how to interview & went on the net to get some “good questions”. And..more important no one bothered to provide some training on how to conduct an interview that doesn’t make your company look like a corporate ass.

    And don’t be surprised if HR put their hand in to mandate certain questions. I know of at least one company where all interviewers HAD to go through a standard list of questions. Hiring managers would be good troopers and do so, then put the list down and say “Now let’s talk about what I want to talk about”

    And those questions are out on the net because certain companies habitually made a point of asking them.

    And I worked with a Hiring Manager who always opened with the “Tell me what’s your greatest weakness” question. I asked him why he asked. “I like it”. But I think that’s the only one of that type he used. Go figure.

    As a job hunter I’ve gotten questions that were obviously canned asked by someone who hadn’t a clue. I don’t see any value in demeaning the interviewer especially when I see they are just going through someone’s motions. More than once I’ve taken the time to educate them by giving them the context around a good question. I mean one that is relevant to my field & the job & I can see the interviewer personally didn’t like questions that threw them off balance because he/she & I knew they hadn’t didn’t understand what they were talking about. It makes them an better interviewer for the next person in line. It’s a small world. Good interviews are a satisfying info exchange. If you take the time to ask good questions an interviewer can learn much too.

    • @Don:

      One of the pieces of feedback that I’ve gotten from interviewers after being rejected – yes, I’ve gotten some – was that I was “too rehearsed” and “too pat” and so on.

      Jeez. You can only answer “What’s your greatest weakness?” etc. so many times before it becomes a rote recitation.

      Give me a CONVERSATION. Let’s discuss THE WORK. Let me show I can DO THE WORK. That is an interview.

      • The door swings both ways on “too rehearsed” and “too pat” in interviewers. And I’ve been interviewed on the phone by people who didn’t even bother with that….just reading questions from a list.

  33. I hear too frequently the title “Talent Acquisition Specialist” that some recruiters give themselves and really make me laugh. What is the qualification for this title, what really makes somebody a “Talent Acquisition Specialist”. Like many other things in the recruiting market, it is a nonsense marketing shallow pitch. I have found during my career very few HR or recruiters that in my mind can be qualified as my picture of a”Talent Acquisition Specialist”. In some cases, I started to think that the talent gap has been exaggerated and it is the result of the ineptitude of some HR, recruiting companies, and overworked hiring managers.
    Maybe the duty of hiring “Talents” should be in the hands of the Training department but today training has been disregarded and heavily outsourced and the best scenario companies have a very weak training department or don’t have one at all.
    Another selly custom is to ask the candidate dress as he as the groom while the interviewers are dressing casually.

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