By Anthony Balderrama,
Interviewing someone for a job is not as easy as it looks. First, as the interviewer, you're tasked with finding the person who will not only do the job well but also fit in well with the other employees. You have to assess abstract qualities that can't be found on a résumé. Because you have to repeat the process for every potential employee, you end up asking question after question to applicant after applicant.
Still, interviewers need to be told something: "What is your biggest weakness?" is not a good question. It just isn't.
Now, job seekers have to understand that interviewers want to find some way to distinguish one applicant from another. Asking questions that are seemingly impossible to answer is one way to see who can think creatively. The question is an admirable way to achieve this. However, this question isn't the same as asking, "Name three difficult situations and how you've overcome them." That question asks you to think critically about your performance, talents and problem-solving skills. Asking you to identify your weakest professional trait is like asking, "Why should I choose someone else for this job?"
Yet, it's a staple that you should assume will come up in every interview. Rather than tell the interviewer, "Well, that's a dumb question and I refuse to answer it," you do have a legitimate ways to respond and look better for it. And no, stating that your biggest flaw is being a perfectionist is not an acceptable answer, either.
Honesty, with a twist
"'What are your three strengths and three weaknesses?'... is a classic, but not too many people know how to answer this," says Kenneth C. Wisnefski, founder and CEO of WebiMax, an online marketing company specializing in search engine optimization. "As an interviewer, we want to hear strengths that describe initiative, motivation and dedication. The best way to respond is to include these attributes into specific 'personal statements.'
Similarly, weaknesses should be positioned as a strength that can benefit the employer.
"I like to hear applicants state an exaggerated strength, and put an interesting twist on it. An example of this is, 'My initiative is so strong, that sometimes I take on too many projects at a time.'"
This answer leads with a strength that employers want -- initiative -- and still acknowledges that you're not perfect. In fact, you can overextend yourself. Although you might consider this acknowledgement too honest, it works because it proves you're being honest. Plus, employers are still requiring workers to "do more with less," so you show that you are prepared to multitask.
Honesty, with progress
When you consider what your weaknesses are, think about how you have attempted to overcome them. No one is perfect, so pretending that you had a weakness and then eliminated it entirely will come across is insincere. Debra Davenport, author of "Career Shuffle," believes citing examples are the best approach.
"My preferred response for this question is to tell the truth without damaging the applicant's image -- and in a manner that doesn't make the candidate come across like they've been coached by a Hollywood PR person," Davenport explains. "Many candidates are on to this question and so have developed fluff answers such as, 'My co-workers have told me that I sometimes take my work too seriously,' or 'I can never seem to leave the office at 5:00 -- I guess I just love my work too much!'"
Employers aren't buying it, she says.
"A better response might be, 'I've had some challenges with work-life balance in the past and I realize that a life out of balance isn't good for me, my family or my employer. I've taken the time to learn better time and project management, and I'm also committed to my overall wellness. I eat right, exercise and maintain healthy boundaries for myself.'"
The answer adds some dimension to the question, and proves you've thought beyond the answer. You've actually changed your behavior to address the situation, even if you haven't completely overcome the weakness.
"[It] lets the employer know that this candidate is emotionally mature, self-directed and takes care of himself or herself ... and possesses a high internal locus of control -- a very positive attribute."
Put yourself in the interviewer's shoes
However you decide to answer, Debra Yergen, author of "Creating Job Security Resource Guide," recommends job seekers imagine themselves sitting on the other side of the desk.
"If you were doing the hiring, what would you be looking for? What would be your motivation for asking certain questions? Who would you be trying to weed out? If you can empathize with the interviewer, you can better understand what they want and need, and then frame your qualifications to meeting their needs for the position you seek."
Once you consider what the goal of the question is and figure out what your honest answer is, you'll be able to give the best possible answer to a tricky question.