Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Bad Interview Question: What is your greatest weakness?

[This was originally posted at http://timstall.dotnetdevelopersjournal.com/bad_interview_question_what_is_your_greatest_weakness.htm]

For technical interviews, I think "What is your greatest weakness" is one of the dumbest interview questions ever. It's like the recruiter thinks they're being so smart and sneaky ("ah ha, this unsuspecting candidate will reveal all their shortcomings as I judge them"), but it really misses the point.


Problems with this question:

  • If the interview cannot determine your weaknesses from normal interview questions, are they really weaknesses? It is part of the recruiter's job to determine your weaknesses, and by directly asking you, they're essentially asking you to do their job for them.

  • Most people aren't even aware of their biggest weakness, especially because human nature always sees ourselves in the best light possible.

  • It's an abrasive question that puts the company in a bad light. People want to talk about their successes and how they'll add value, not their mistakes.

  • Does the interviewer actually expect the candidate to tell the complete truth about their own flaws?

  • To avoid ivory-tower syndrome, (in my opinion), recruiters should not ask behavioral questions that they themselves are not prepared to answer.

  • It's a dead-end question that prompts the recruiter to pick the "least of the evils" - if you're just discussing your negative qualities, you're not going to look like a positive candidate.

  • If I knew my weakness, I'd already be fixing them.

  • It's very dull, and shows no creativity from the interviewer.

  • This sort of question isn't going to impress a candidate. Often, the interview is really two ways, with many companies all trying to woo the star candidates.

Really lame replies:

  • "I work too hard", or "I try to hard". --> anyone who has been around can see straight through this.

  • "I do such a good job that it makes everyone else envious of how great I am."

  • "I don't really have any flaws." --> everyone has limits, which is very different than saying that you do have shortcomings, but they occur mostly in other, unrelated fields, or long ago when you first got started.

  • "I've never been in a position with enough influence to do any damage, so I'm not sure."

Possible good replies:

  • Humor: "You know, you could get a really good answer for that if you just talked to my wife." (or husband/spouse/significant-other )

  • Serious: "While I've made mistakes in other fields, like buying my first car, for years I've been putting most of my eggs into the software engineering basket precisely so I don't make huge costly mistakes anymore. But we can discuss my early car-buying experiences if you'd like."

  • Confident: "Let's have an interview and you tell me."

  • Change topic: "Here's how I've dealt with mistakes that the company has made, and turned them around to be profitable..."

  • Pick a small, past event: "When I first got started, 10 years ago, I used VSS for source control. The default single-user lock model really messed up our multi-team project. Now I'm happy that we always use Subversion."

  • Sarcasm: "My  biggest mistake ever - like single-handedly causing the stock market crash of 87 - I don't do those kinds of things anymore." (you'd need more charisma than I have to pull it off)

  • Smart Aleck: (when you don't want the job) pick a topic that's way over the recruiter's head. I'm trying to think of an impressive example, but I'm sure the readers of this blog would just tell me how simple it was.

  • Smart Aleck (when you don't want the job): "What would you consider a failure? Perhaps you can tell me some of your greatest failures so I know what kind of things you're looking for."

At Paylocity, I don't think I've ever asked a candidate this. Instead, I'll ask "what areas of development do you enjoy", or "what areas do you wish you had an opportunity to learn more about". The goal is not to trick people with dumb gotcha questions, but (for me) to figure out where their passion is. I prefer a positive approach of "what are you passionate about" as opposed to a negative approach of "what are your flaws". At Paylocity, we don't ask people to do what they're bad at, we ask them to do what they're good at - i.e. play to their strengths, not their weaknesses. Also, the interview should be an indicator of what the company is about, and what kind of company goes around asking their employees "what do you suck at most"?



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