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I’ll soon be interviewing to fill a position here at Seabuckthorn International, and there’s one question I won’t be asking the applicants: Tell me your biggest weaknesses.

I sometimes lose focus in hostile environments, my attention to detail can become a liability in certain circumstances, and while I work well independently, I find it challenging to perform at my best in the absence of clear leadership.

It’s a question I answered (awkwardly and not without trepidation) numerous times over the years, but it wasn’t until a position a few years ago where the principals regularly used my answers against me in my day-to-day work, that I realised what a huge responsibility it is to ask that an applicant reveal such intimate and delicate self-knowledge.

Do you really think you should be walking and chewing gum at the same time? I thought you said you lose focus easily.

I suppose that the question can be usefully revealing to a good interviewer, but I’m not sure that every interviewer – particularly if that person is also the hiree’s direct supervisor – is able to set aside the anxiety and mistrust induced by the revelation, and give the new employee an opportunity to succeed or fail on her own merits.

I think the best insight an interviewer can expect from this question is the level of self-knowledge of the applicant. A dishonest, delusional or off-topic answer can be a red flag, certainly.

My co-workers are so jealous of me that they regularly sabotage my work…

I’m too nice…

 I’m too real, people can’t handle it…  

I am very depressed…  

I’m afraid of commitment…  

My therapist says I use people…

An honest, on-topic answer shows that the applicant knows his own limitations, is capable of recognising which behaviours and character traits influence his work, and has a degree of honesty and courage. This honesty and self-knowledge is a gift, and as interviewers, employers and supervisors, we have an obligation and responsibility to use this information judiciously.

In my opinion, we should be using an honest, on-topic answer as evidence of a person who is capable of self-monitoring and growth. We shouldn’t be using it like an electron microscope that helps us focus on weaknesses or defects. If the person we hire is capable and qualified enough to bring into the fold, we should be judging them on their performance and nothing else.

And if we do find an irrepressible need to bring up the employee’s answers to interview questions, it’s essential that our inquiry be diplomatically-worded and that our memory of the answers be accurate!

But you said that your detail orientation can sometimes be a liability. Don’t you think you’re getting a little carried away with that obsession of yours?

Managing people is important. But managing your employees by reminding them how sure you are that they are going to be tripped up by their own insecurities is a form of human resources insider-trading. I think it takes a very big person to utilise the answers to that question in a manner that truly helps with the hiring process without becoming a liability after making a successful hire, and I’m not sure I’m that big a person.

I’m a raging alcoholic, I steal from the till, and I can’t remember the words to Happy Birthday.

If only it were that easy.


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