A Top 10 Stupid Interview Question: What’s your biggest weakness?

A Top 10 Stupid Interview Question: What’s your biggest weakness?

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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When job interviews are bad for you

In the June 7, 2016 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a job seeker expects more from employers.

Question

Push Back!When a company wants to interview me, I apply your advice and try to exert some control by asking that the hiring manager be present at my first interview. I think it’s inappropriate for an employer to ask me to invest hours of my time without that manager present. It worked recently with a small advertising company, and it actually helped the two-way respect, and I felt more confident talking about the role and compensation.

But, what to do when it’s a large conglomerate, like an Apple or GE? I’m in the hiring process with two large companies (not those) and the process has been difficult and very drawn out. While I’m sure these companies have their reasons for doing it this way, it seems to be a waste of time. I guess you always have to be prepared to walk away. Any advice?

Nick’s Reply

Good for you for pressing to have the hiring manager in the interview when you can! I’m glad you’ve seen it will work to your advantage.

Even if the outcome is that the manager rejects you, at least it’ll be early in the process and you won’t have to waste more time, and at least the rejection will come from the person in charge of the job — not some personnel jockey who doesn’t understand you or the work.

At larger companies, the problem (as you note) is that the hiring process is more rigidly structured. It’s hard to get them to do anything different — like let you meet the manager immediately. While a company may have its reasons, it’s still disrespectful and a waste of time for the applicant to get assessed by someone other than the hiring manager.

And again, you’re right – you must decide whether to walk away.

Finesse the encounter

This is where judgment and finesse come into play. If you really want to work at a company, and there’s no getting around their system, you must decide whether it’s worth the risk you’re taking by complying with a process that isn’t to your advantage. But I don’t think it’s prudent to make a binary decision: Should I comply, or should I walk away? I think it’s a matter of degree:

  • How much control should you concede to the employer?
  • At what point do you draw a line?
  • When do you walk away?

If you keep your wits about you, it’s also a matter of negotiation. It may be worth playing by some of their rules:

  • How flexible are they?
  • What concessions can you get in return for complying with parts of their process?
  • What advantage can you gain?
  • Perhaps most important, what can you learn from this initial give and take?

Collect some data

This is where getting recruited becomes fun. What should you ask for before you enter the lion’s den? You’re not required to attend an interview just because an employer asks. So collect some data points that will help you judge the employer!

  • You’ve already taken one important step: Ask to have the hiring manager present. All they can do is say no.
  • If the first interview will be with HR, ask when will the manager be involved? That is, when will you meet the manager? Get a commitment.
  • What’s the hiring manager’s name? It will be to your advantage to look the manager up on LinkedIn prior to your meeting. (Or, Get the manager’s resume before you interview for the job.)
  • What are the three main objectives of the interview? That is, what’s the employer looking for? (They likely can’t tell you, because hiring is haphazard in most companies.)
  • What are the three key things they want a new hire to accomplish in the first six to twelve months on the job? (Again, they probably don’t know — but it’s worth asking and it’s to your advantage to know.)
  • Get anything that helps you judge the employer and prepare for the first interview.

You might even go this far: Ask this question before you agree to an interview.

Judge the employer

As we’ve said, you’re not going to get all these concessions or information. But this preliminary negotiation is chock full of value. It’s partly to improve your chances in a job interview, but it’s also partly to test the employer. Yes — to test the employer. Some interviews are bad for you. Is this one of them?

  • Do this employer know what it’s doing? (See What’s up with clueless interviewers?)
  • Will they make some concessions to demonstrate respect to you — because they really want to interview you?
  • Or, does it turn out you’re just a piece of meat – and they won’t compromise on anything at all?

Additional Resources

There are many ways to test employers, to push the boundaries, and to gather useful data before you invest time in lengthy interviews:

Fearless Job Hunting, Book 5, Get The Right Employer’s Full Attention:

  • “How to pick worthy companies” — pp. 10-12
  • “Is this a Mickey Mouse operation?” — pp. 13-15
  • “Scuttlebutt: Get the truth about private companies” — pp. 22-24

Fearless Job Hunting, Book 8, Play Hardball With Employers:

  • “Avoid Disaster: Check out the employer” — pp. 11-12
  • “Due Diligence: Don’t take a job without it” — pp. 23-25
  • “Judge the manager” — pp. 26-28

Every concession an employer agrees to or declines early in the process tells you something — it’s a useful data point or signal you can use to your advantage.

Is this “opportunity” really good for you?

When I “go along” because I want a gig (with a new client, for example), I never forget that I’m looking for compromises. If I’m the only one compromising, if I’m the only one who’s agreeable, then I’ll probably be taken advantage of in the end. So, I keep testing, I keep probing, I keep asking, and I keep track of whether and how the other party will bend for my benefit.

Give and take is all part of a good relationship, and you need to know as early as possible what the other guy is willing to do for you. If the employer tells you the application and interview process is “their way or the highway,” then hop the nearest bus.

I think you have it right: Be ready to walk away, but be prudent. Even big companies will sometimes flex when they encounter a candidate they are really interested in. If you haven’t inspired that kind of desire in an employer, then why bother with the process at all? Do you really want to be another beggar at the door?

Make reasonable requests to gain some advantage. And don’t stop too early. For everything they refuse, have another request – and see if they try to meet you somewhere in the middle. That’s the sign of a company that may be worth it, even if their process is clunky.

The reader follows up

Thanks for your response and advice. It’s definitely tough to know when to push boundaries at the biggest companies, but I really liked how you put it: At minimum, test the process a little and collect data points. This is the first time I’ve gone through the hiring process completely solo.

A big thing that I’ve learned is that every step and decision tells you something important about your relationship with that potential employer. It can be hard to understand what’s going on and to capture all the lessons as you move through the process, but your site has been really great in demonstrating how much strategy is involved at almost every step. It has really helped me be mindful of things I would have never considered. Keep it up!

Nick’s Reply

knotLike my old mentor used to say, Use your judgment every step of the way, and do the best you can. And in the end, make choices — don’t let the other guy make them for you.

One of my favorite quotes is from Henri Frederic Amiel:

“To be always ready, a man [or woman] must be able to cut a knot; for everything cannot be untied.”

It’s easy for people to get so caught up with “trying to win” at the interview game that they lose sight of the larger objective: to get a good job, the right job, working with good people in a good company, where future prospects are good. They’re so busy trying to satisfy the employer’s demands that they lose sight of their own needs. Then they get tied up in knots before they realize they’re in a bad situation.

Yes, be ready to walk away, but after you try to get your way, too. I admire your fortitude!

Do you know when to push back on the employment process? Or are you afraid you’ll anger the Interview Gods? What requirements do you make of the employer before you invest your time in interviews? If you just take any interview offered (Hey, I’m not ragging on you) — what problems have you encountered?

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Get the manager’s resume before you interview for the job

In the November 17, 2015 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader wants a resume from the employer.

Question

Don’t you think jobs should have “resumes?” Assuming an interview has been scheduled, should an applicant ask for a formal, printed description of the job to retain and review before a job offer is made, or only after an offer is presented?

submit-resumeHere’s what I’ve never understood. Employers insist on having my resume before an interview. But all the applicant has is a scant job posting, or sometimes only a general verbal description of the job. It seems having a formal, written job description would help the applicant, just like a resume helps an employer. The applicant could look closely at whether there’s a good match.

Should the prospective employer be expected to provide this type of document to the applicant? If it’s not provided, should I just roll the dice?

Nick’s Reply

You’re raising an excellent question. (But I’ve got a bigger question. Read on.) If HR needs to know all about you before an interview, doesn’t it owe you all the information about the job? (See Now THIS is a job description!)

Recently a reader told me that after an employer decided to hire him, it learned he had an advanced degree that he did not report on the resume. (He’d heard it might actually hurt his chances, so he left the degree off the resume. So it was an omission, not a falsehood.) The employer rescinded the offer because the applicant “lied”!

What happens when an employer fails to disclose all the information about a job until after an offer is made? If it’s never happened to you, I’m sure you know someone who accepted a job, only to learn it wasn’t what they interviewed for.

Many employers don’t seem very concerned that the job you interview for is not the job in the ad. This is even more important when a recruiter solicits you for a job — they usually tell you very little, except that the job is “perfect” for you. Who has ever gone on a job interview suggested by a recruiter and found that the job was “exactly” as the recruiter described it? (Gimme a break! I’m still laughing! Check out Roasting the job description.)

Where’s the job’s resume?

I think it’s prudent to ask for the formal, written job description prior to the interview, “for your records,” especially when you’re dealing with a recruiter. They want your resume, right? What’s the difference?

I’ll bet many HR people would decline to provide it because it’s “proprietary” or “not set in stone.” But, again — they want your resume, which is just as proprietary, and they want it to include everything.

How are you supposed to consider the job without the formal, written job description? What risks are you taking when you don’t have the complete story? In many cases, the big risk is that the hiring manager hasn’t a complete idea of what the job really is — and you’ll be judged on whatever performance criteria the manager invents after the fact.

Now, I’m not saying every job should be exhaustively defined. In fact, I like jobs that will evolve — but the manager and employer should make that clear from the start. Pretending doesn’t cut it, a manager who doesn’t really know what she needs doesn’t cut it, and obscuring the holes in a job definition isn’t fair. (See Don’t suck canal water if you’re confused.)

Where’s the manager’s resume?

But now let’s get really serious and question authority. Let’s make the leap to the bigger question this all begs: Why don’t employers give you the hiring manager’s resume — and resumes of people you’ll be working with? After all, you’re going to be throwing in with them. Don’t you have an obligation to your career to know who they are before you sign up?

Imagine. Because your success and your career will hinge enormously on who those people really are. Don’t you want to see their credentials?

There are several questions you must ask an employer — particularly after it’s made you a job offer. That’s when negotiating power shifts to you, because now they’ve established that they want you. What comes next is working out the terms, and one of the terms is information about your new co-workers. Politely ask to see their creds. (For more about this critical point in the interview process, see Deal-breaker questions to ask employers. Don’t be one of those job candidates who miss their chance to protect their future.)

I’d love to know how employers respond to this, because they make the hiring process so irrational and one-sided that it’s actually absurd. (For more about my take on how employers recruit, see Respecting The Candidate.) A job is a partnership, so let’s see more due diligence from job applicants, and more transparency from employers before a hire is made.

Don’t you think fewer interviews would wind up being a waste of time if you had the spec sheet for the job in hand first? Does it make sense to get the team’s resumes, too, before you meet with them to interview?

Do employers and recruiters give you clear, detailed job descriptions — as detailed as the resume they want from you? Do you ask for them? Are the jobs you interview for exactly as they were represented to begin with? What happens when they’re not? Finally: What do you really know about the manager and members of the team you’re joining?

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