It’s the question job applicants fear most: “So tell me,” says the smiling interviewer, “what’s your biggest weakness?”
If you think a good answer is you’re “a perfectionist who won’t quit until the job’s done right,” think again. The interviewer has probably heard the same thing from countless other applicants and doesn’t believe it’s a weakness any more than you do.
According to Vicky Oliver, author of 301 Smart Answers to Tough Interview Questions, the worst thing you can do is give your interviewer a “canned” answer, such as saying you are a workaholic.
Applicants who give such an answer may be perceived as dishonest or unoriginal. The interviewer is likely to say, “That sounds like a strength to me. What’s another weakness you have?”
Oliver is one of more than 40 career experts and hiring managers who recently gave us their best tips for handling the weakness question. Here’s a summary of their advice:
Understand why employers ask
According to Carole Martin, author of Boost Your Interview IQ, interviewers ask the weakness question to find out “What’s wrong with you?” and “What risks are we taking by hiring you?”
Some employers ask just to see how you respond. “They may not be as interested in your answer as they are in seeing how well you maintain your composure and think under pressure,” says career counselor Deborah Schneider, co-author of Should You Really Be a Lawyer?
Being honest doesn’t just benefit the interviewer, it also ensures you don’t end up in a job you’ll hate. “If you hate details and find that you lack the interest to focus on them to the degree needed to avoid mistakes, just say so,” says Joe Santana, co-author of Manage I.T.
But don’t confess something big
“Interviewees will often blurt potentially damaging information by revealing real weaknesses,” says organizational psychologist Billie G. Blair, president/CEO of Leading and Learning.
The key is not to disclose anything that can make you seem like a problem worker. For example, the experts recommend you shouldn’t say: “I’m often late,” “I have difficulty getting along with co-workers” or “I’m not good at finishing projects.”
Admit a minor weakness
“Confessing that you’re ‘impatient’ is a small weakness that often goes hand in hand with high performance,” says Oliver.
But present your weakness with a positive spin. John Putzier, author of Weirdos in the Workplace! The New Normal says instead of saying you are impatient with others, answer “I am results oriented and find that I must be more patient with those who are not.”
Admit a weakness that can be fixed
After acknowledging your weakness, tell the employer what you are doing to overcome it.
For example, if time management is your weakness you could say “Because I am busy, time management is often a problem for me, so I have recently purchased a PDA to help me become better organized,” suggests Tim Augustine, author of How Hard Are You Knocking: The Job Seeker’s Guide to Opening Career Doors.
Or “I used to get nervous about speaking in front of groups, but I have been taking public speaking classes and have become much more comfortable with it,” says Schneider.
If impatience is your weakness, Martin offers this possible answer: “I know I could improve my patience when working with people who don’t work at the same pace as I do. What I have found is that by helping members of the team who are having problems, I can move the project forward instead of being frustrated and doing nothing.”
“Practice responding to this question ahead of time out loud,” says Allison Hemming, author of Work It! and president of The Hired Guns, a recruiting firm in Manhattan. “It’ll take you a few dry runs before you sound succinct and articulate. But the hard work will pay off when you find yourself psyched rather than panicked when the weakness question does come up.”
And, finally, if you do decide to be completely honest about your biggest weakness, consider this response from Danny Kiss, a New York lawyer: “My biggest weakness? I would say chocolate, especially milk chocolate. A nice piece of milk chocolate makes me weak in the knees.”