The MOST Dreaded Question You’ll Face in Your Next HR Interview…And How To Answer it!

By Alan Collins

“Tell us about your biggest weakness?’

Let me be a clear…

I’m personally NOT a big fan of asking this in an interview. 

I think it’s a stupid and a lazy question. And even though it is, that’s no excuse for being a disrespectful jerk in responding to it.

Many interviewers consider this area fair game to probe in interviews.  Others even consider this question one of their favorites.   So if you really want that particular HR job, you don’t have the luxury to side step it.

Therefore, you should be prepared.

But how do you talk about your weaknesses
when you’re trying to sell yourself?

Good question.

First of all, here’s what not to do: Don’t try to offer up a strength and position it as a weakness — “I’m a perfectionist,” or “I’m a workaholic,” or “As much as I try, I just can’t leave the job at the office.”

Those responses label you as a rookie who’s blowing smoke.

Just about everyone knows about them.

It’s what most career coaches and interview textbooks tell you to do.

You can probably get away with it with rookie interviewers.   But savvy, experienced hiring managers and recruiters will immediately see right through these answers as disingenuous bull.  And they’ll out you quickly as a phony trying to evade the question.

So, what should you do instead?

Well, let me warn you upfront that my approach to this question is unconventional.

But I believe it’s the right one.

Here’s the deal: when I’m interviewing you, I’m not your enemy.  So don’t treat me like one by trying to snow me with crap.

If you’re a good fit for the HR role I’m interviewing for, I want to find that out and hire you … and if you’re not a good fit, I want to find that out too so that I don’t put you in a job that you’ll struggle with and even risk getting fired from.

It’s not good for me.  And it’s definitely not good for you and your HR career — and that’s what is MOST important.

Assuming you want to land a position where you’ll thrive, this should be your goal too — and honesty is more likely to get us both there.

With that in mind, it means you should come clean about weaknesses.

And guess what, I’m not going to be shocked to discover you have some —  we all do.

The question is just how your weaknesses fit with this particular position…something we should both be interested in.

Here’s part one of formulating your answer: Think seriously about your weak points or an areas that you’ve been working on developmentally. 

What have you struggled with in the past? What have past managers encouraged you to do differently? If you could wave a magic wand and add something to your list of strengths, what would it be?

And here’s part two: What are you doing about it?

Your answer in the interview
should consist of BOTH parts.

It might sound something like this:

“A few years ago, I found that I wasn’t as naturally organized as I wanted to be. Without a system to keep track of my major HR priorities, I’d lose some momentum on them and fall behind. 

So now I make ”to do”  lists on my smartphone religiously and check them every morning and every afternoon to make sure that absolutely nothing is slipping through the cracks and that all my priorities stay on track.   I carry my phone with me everywhere, because I know that without that current priority list, I won’t be as organized as I need to be.”

Or this: 

“I used to become frustrated and impatient when the work of other people negatively impacted my own HR projects and initiatives. 

Now I’ve come to understand that everyone has a unique contribution to make and I make an extra effort to help my colleagues with problems they may encounter in order to expedite our overall progress.   I’ve learned that this more cooperative approach will deliver a much better end result in the long run for both my own project and the organization.” 

I like these two examples because each one takes a developmental area you’ve been working on  — disorganization in the first, impatience with people in the second — areas that normally would raise a huge red flag, and instead shows how you are neutralizing them as an issue.

Now, occasionally your interviewer might follow up with:  “That’s a great description of how you overcame a weakness. Tell me about one you’re still struggling with.”

If this happens, you should still use the two-part formula — follow up the weakness with what you’re doing to work on it.

It’s okay that you’re not perfect yet.  No one is. The question is just how it will impact the job.

I know this absolutely flies in the face of a lot of the advice out there about not showing any real weaknesses.

But I think that plays to the wrong goal.

If you’re desperate and your goal is to land anything in HR fast!…then you’ll reject what I’ve recommended.

And that’s fine.

However, if you want to succeed massively in HR, your goal shouldn’t be to just land any old HR job.

It should be to get the right  job for you.

One that you’ll absolutely excel and thrive in.

One that excites you, consumes you and one can’t wait to jump out of bed and get to each day.

And most importantly, one that will set you up the rest of your career in HR for success.  Not failure.

This approach helps you do that.

So do your homework.  Take stock of your weaknesses.  Prepare in advance for this question. Use the “two-part” strategy above for answering it.

You might even want to run your answer by a few of your trusted colleagues to make sure it sounds reasonable.

Then go into your interviews with confidence.

And you’ll handle the “weakness” question just fine.

And you’ll handle these lazy interviewers just fine…without being a jerk.

Onward!

Your feedback is welcomed. Please click HERE to add your comments or thoughts on this article…or to add any of your insights that may have been omitted.

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Want even more strategies that can help you crush your next HR interview, then check out:  HR INTERVIEW SECRETS: How to Ace Your Next Human Resources Interview, Dazzle Your Interviewers & LAND THE JOB YOU WANT!

For more details go HERE.

AND

Once you’ve landed your new HR position, if you’ll be leading a new HR team and want to get off to a fast start in your new organization, you’ll certainly want to check out:

THE NEW HR LEADER’S FIRST 100 DAYS:  How To Start Strong, Hit The Ground Running & ACHIEVE SUCCESS FASTER As A New Human Resources Manager, Director or VP.

For more information about this book, go HERE.

About the author: Alan Collins is Founder of Success in HR, Inc. and the author of a variety of best selling books for HR professionals including HR INTERVIEW SECRETS and THE NEW HR LEADER’S FIRST 100 DAYS.  He was formerly Vice President – Human Resources at PepsiCo where he led HR initiatives for their Quaker Oats, Gatorade and Tropicana businesses.

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76 Responses to “The MOST Dreaded Question You’ll Face in Your Next HR Interview…And How To Answer it!”

  1. Marcia LaReau Says:

    Alan, thank you for this article.
    Every jobseeker needs this advice.

    To support your premise, I believe that the meaning of the question, “What is your greatest weakness?” has changed. As jobseekers and HR are becoming more savvy in the interview process, I submit that the new meaning to this question is, “Are you self-aware? Will you be honest with me about yourself.”

    Alan, I’ve used your approach for two years…simply be honest. But you took this to a new level in this article…what is something in the present.

    Thank you for your insights and for your willingness to bring it to HR professionals and other jobseekers as well.

  2. Mike Nichols Says:

    But what if your weakness could also be viewed as a strength by the “right” recruiter? For example; I have been unemployed since 2002 due to a physical disability. However, in addition to my previous experience, which by the way one never truly forgets, I have had lots of time to rest and lots of time to think. I have attended college since 2008, have engaged in online discussions (such as this one) have spoken in church, and cultivated a successful 24 year marriage raising two boys. Can these achievements not be considered KSA’s?

  3. Melissa Says:

    I have been asked this many times.
    Great to have an article that addresses this question.
    Having professionals address it, I am glad to have some references.

  4. John Nilon Says:

    Fabulous article. Honesty and diplomacy are so important to landing the RIGHT job. I would like to add that awareness of the interviewer’s skills are an important component to choosing one’s answer. Know your audience!

    Even the most senior professionals can encounter poor interviewers. Uncovering an unskilled interviewer may reveal a candidate is being considered for the wrong position. More likely the poor interviewer is a low-level screen.

    I’ve been coaching a VP from a fortune 50 company. He is passively exploring options and was recently recruited by a mid-tier company for a more diverse role. He encountered two low-level interviewers before he was elevated through the process. The low-level interviewers were not equipped to handle the honesty of a seasoned executive and hence received more general answers to their “stock” questions. Once the individual had been elevated to higher-level interviews, and introduced to the CEO, the conversations took a more open and in-depth turn.

    Those low-level interviewers may only focus on weakness and have no ability to recognize self-awareness, humility, confidence, and a drive to improve.

    Alan’s guidance makes perfect sense in the right context, especially the scenarios he provided. In the wrong context a candidate could screen themselves out before they have the opportunity to face kryptonite. Superman needs to know if he’s facing the mastermind, or just a foot soldier. Not many foot soldiers are going to be equipped with krytponite.

  5. Dale Bernstein Says:

    I agree that it is always well advised to think through how you would answer this type of question. We have all learned from our mistakes and become much more competent performers by doing so. The best examples are those where you have built on what you learned and have results to show for it.

  6. Jonathan Smith Says:

    Fantastic article!!!!!

  7. Oluwaseun D. Says:

    I was once at an HR interview and asked that…I remembered how sincerely tired I get when I hear the phony “I’m so much of a perfectionist” line so I just put it out there…I explained that most recently, I realised that I needed to improve my financial strength to be a better HR professional…admitted that prior to realising this, financials and quantitative cost-benefit analysis was not my forte but ‘cos I knwo HR is becoming more strategic, I had deliberately drawn up a development map which prompted my interest in financial journals, reading analysis of financials and most recently, attending a presentation that focused on linking HR & finance (all these are true by the way!!). We should all be willing to reveal our weaknesses especially if we working on getting better….you don’t want to be in a job where your skill set don’t add up or that weakness you refused to reveal hunts you on the job

  8. Sarivette Rodriguez Says:

    Excellent recommendations. This question has been asked at every single interview I have had recently. It is valid not only for HR but for any position at any level.

  9. Dr. Joel Martin Says:

    Hi Allen, I’m an entrepreneur with a transformational coaching and training business so job interviews aren’t something that I do. However, what you recommended was great info. to ask and listen for with the execs I coach. They are aware of their downsides and they are doing something about them. Shifting from a potentially victim stance to a responsible one. Thank you.

  10. Tracy Gregg Says:

    This is very authentic and helpful advice. Like everyone, I dislike answering the question in an interview, and as an interviewer, having resorting to asking it. However, you just put a great spin on it that works well for both side of the interview.

  11. Steve Lovig Says:

    Alan, another great, useful article. I agree with many of the previous comments; I’ll take exception with Jan K (above). I don’t think the question should come as a surprise for candidates, and therefore, they should not be “thinking on their feet.” It’s something candidates can (and should) practice, and like other typical interview question, be prepared for. I’ve been asked the question and I answered with the story of checking emails first thing in the morning, and how that would then determine what I worked on first. But to ensure I focused on the most important issues each day, I instead reviewed very quickly, my inbox, to see if anything came from my executives overnight. I so, I could quickly respond. If not, I closed email, and went back to working on important, strategic issues. Steve Lovig

  12. Maria Elena Amparan Says:

    The question of “Tell of of your greatest weaknesses” is so overused in interviews and not as good as behavioral based questions whereby you can have a candidate tell you of a successful incident or unsuccessful example of something they did.

    When going through the questions in a behavioral based method, you actually can have them present the situation/challenge, their analysis of a solution, how they solved or partnered with others in developing a solution and what they did to successully resolve the challenge. In the case of a failure to get a complete solution, the candidate can give you specific reasons (e.g. lack of budget or other resources).

    Same end, but much more information.

  13. Kathi Mims Says:

    While I appreciate your point of view, I am somewhat taken aback regarding your acerbic attitude regarding your candidates. With all due respect Mr. Collins, HR professionals who assume the power posture with prospective employees do not advance the positive nature of the human element in Human Resources. “So don’t treat me like one by trying to snow me with crap.” While, indeed, you may be the smartest person in the room, our job is to help discover who the candidate is that shares the room with you at the moment. If they are trying to “snow” you by the time you actually meet them, you haven’t done your job up to that point. I welcome your reply.

  14. Alan Says:

    Kathi, thanks for your comment.
    Re-read the article.
    It’s about how to handle the interview question – not about me.
    My attitude is immaterial…incidentally you’re probably right about my “acerbic” attitude.
    But that ain’t the point.
    The point is how do you deal with people who may be like me – or worse – when they ask you this question in interviews.
    Just keeping it REAL. 🙂

    Alan

  15. Mike Nichols Says:

    ” our job is to help discover who the candidate is that shares the room with you at the moment. If they are trying to “snow” you by the time you actually meet them, you haven’t done your job up to that point.”

    Kathy I agree 100%. What I got from the article is that there are Interviewers out there who would easily make me not want to work for the company anyway and at that point my responses could become quite sarcastic because I would no longer care whether I got the job or not based on the attitude of the person sitting across the desk from me. I draw Social Security disability and I am not going to give that up to work for some cracker with an attitude that needs to be stuffed in a garbage can like Oscar the Grouch!

  16. Marna Hayden Says:

    I simply ask candidates what they like best and like least in their jobs and they generally will reveal their strengths and weaknesses respectively. It is a less threatening way to learn about them. People like doing what they do well and vice versa. Then in the follow up questions, you can better define their strengths and weaknesses and whether they are a good fit for the job at hand.

  17. Diane Says:

    I strongly agree with you: I need to be authentic, because if I lie they’ll find out anyway if I get the job. I’d rather they know what they’re getting.

    I tell people that any strength, without moderation, is a weakness. After that, the approach you recommended. For example:
    – Strength: great with details. Essential for a project mgr.
    – Challenge: I could get so engrossed with details that I lose sight of larger goal. This could cause projects to fall behind timeline.
    – Countermeasure: I have a visual system that helps me stay accountable.

    If you accept the premise that any strength is a weakness if followed to extreme, the key is just to recognize your challenge– not to “not have” one.

  18. Russell Davis Says:

    This is an excellent article. Understanding ones weakness is critical in personal and professional growth, but the added piece of acting purposefully to correct or change the weakness is often overlooked. Recognition is important; appropriate action to shore up the weakness is vital to growth.

  19. Erum Says:

    Thanks Alan for this wonderful sharing

  20. Lisa Ponder Says:

    Allan: Many of my managers took that question out of our interviews years ago, but I am not so sure it is not a good one, especially for more senior leaders. Know thyself is an important part of leading other successfully. I like to see if someone can be introspective and give an honest answer to a question we should all ask ourselves on a regular basis. Next we should ask ourselves what we are going to do about it and I appreciate your approach to this personal improvement process in the interview setting.

  21. Justin Hocker Says:

    Nice statement on this issue about stating weakness, but I question those responses that took one answer from this question or any other question, and decide to disqualify the candidate based on one answer. The interview should be taken on the whole basis, not on one single response to the question. If you ask a candidate 12 questions, and one answer falls short, and thus disqualify the candidate, is that necessarily the right thing to do? Unless the question in critical to the job requirements or to the character of the applicant, I think it is wrong to base the entire selection process on one response.

  22. Manoj Says:

    Alan,

    The problem I find in interview panels is that most of them carry out selection by way of rejection (keep rejecting till the last man left), which I have always found gives us the not so right man (or the average candidate, who has not been rejected on any of the grounds).

    It is very important to identify what we are looking for in the desired candidate (all three KS&A). For example, if looking for a good driver, apart from the Knowledge and Skill, I would look for a man who does not get perturbed by the race (speed) around him. Whereas if looking for a marketing professional, I would look for the competitive edge or the ability to take risk.

    The problem is most of the HR professionals are good in identifying Knowledge and skills, but are very poor in formulating the attitudinal requirements. HR is a human science and is abstract. However most of us have quantified it creating certain liars of our candidates. You are lucky that the candidate did not reply “my major weakness is that I am a workaholic” or “I cannot accept failure easily”.

    Hence I would agree with what Francisco at 32. has said asking of this question is a sign to the candidate that that interviewer wants him to lie. Ideal is to avoid this question and focus on the desirables for the job.

    You should have picked up the candidate as he was not tutored.

  23. maureen Says:

    I don’t think this question should be used to knock the candidate off. There are cases where some candidates just go and rehearse and plan to say what they are not, and after they are hired you see a totally different person.

  24. Gloria Says:

    Dear Dr Alam,

    i enjoy reading your articles and found them very informative, thought provoking and motivating. its true that for me to grown i must also be aware of my weakenesses and try to address them.
    Keep up the good work!

  25. Jeff Hummel Says:

    Why don’t recruiters demonstrate the same transparency in revealing what they are really asking? For example, why not just ask,”What is one development area and what have you done to address it?

  26. Alan Says:

    Jeff, great point. Recruiters like every else are human and imperfect. There are some great recruiters out there who are transparent and will do as you suggest. There are others who lack training, play games or don’t know how to interview. You should be prepared for both. Be well.

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