Is There a Good Way to Answer the Interview Question Everyone Hates?

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Jun 5, 2014

I’ve been thinking a lot about honesty and the workplace, so I was intrigued when I stumbled across this article by David Reese, The Right Way to Answer ‘What’s Your Greatest Weakness?”

I hate this interview question. Always have and always will.

I’m with reader “Brandon,” who commented:

[This] is totally pointless because you are asking a question that does not deserve an honest answer. Do you walk around and ask normal people in your life what their biggest weakness is? Or what their greatest fear is, and expect an honest answer? … I’m sure that there are other ways to try to find out if the person would succumb to groupthink and if they are the type of person who speaks up when they have a different opinion…”

Two ways to handle this question

But to heck with what Brandon and I think, this question will not go away. David Reese likes it and recruiters and hiring managers throughout the nation (maybe even the world) like it, so it’s staying — Brandon and I can go pound sand.

Now, before reading this article, I figured the author would say one of two things, because everyone who writes on this topic says one of two things:

  1. When asked this question, take the opportunity to describe your “weakness” so it sounds more like a strength. (“My weakness? Oh, I’m a workaholic who’s entirely too willing to sacrifice personal time and relationships for my career.”)
  2. Don’t do No. 1. Tell the truth, because interviewers can tell when you’re lying anyway.


They can’t handle the truth

But hey, this is from the Harvard Business Review. So, I was curious to know what kind of a spin Reese would put on the topic, and here’s what he had to say:

  • Insincerity won’t get candidates anywhere with him. He can sniff out someone unwilling to engage honestly and doesn’t want those people on his team. He’s willing to be honest, and he wants candidates to be honest.
  • College career centers are to blame for teaching new graduates to be dishonest.
  • Mature organizations can maybe tolerate a culture where people are encouraged to not “stick their necks out,” but this attitude is “lethal to start-ups,” which can fail before they even start if people won’t challenge bad ideas.

I thought those last two points were worth pondering, but I was a little disappointed that Reese failed to mention that most interviewers DO NOT want to hear the truth. They can’t handle the truth, and they just want the damned canned response.

If Reese wants to hear the truth, he’s an exemption. That’s my experience, anyway.

“There’s no right or wrong answer …” (Yeah, yeah …)

Here’s a true story: I’m interviewing for a job, and I’m asked about what aspects of HR I don’t like. Pretty please tell us, Crystal. There are no right or wrong answers, honest.

I say, “Well, I like just about all of HR. That’s why I’m a generalist. However, at this point in my career, I’m beginning to realize that I like developing policy a lot more than I like writing it.

Go ahead and call me dumb. In retrospect, I think I sound dumb.

Nevertheless, that was my honest answer.

So, I don’t get the job. And the hiring manager (who wasn’t in this interview) makes some reference to my lack of interest in creating policy manuals as the reason for her decision.

Is there really a “right” answer?

Now, not only is this a perfect example of a botched message á laWhisper Down the Lane,” but this is the question that supposedly had no right or wrong answers. And Reese wants to know why career centers keep telling kids to put a positive spin on stuff?

Hmmm …

And sure, I definitely see Reese’s point about “yes” people being bad news for start-ups, but mature companies can suffer under this phenomenon as well. Maybe they’re still in business but the culture stinks, and stupid decisions that hinder excellence are being made every day. Eventually some of these companies will slip into irreversible decline as a result.

But here’s what I really want to know: Is there a right way to answer “the greatest weakness” question? If so, I wish somebody would tell me, ‘cause I’m kind of tired of screwing this one up.

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