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Difficult Job Interview Questions
August 26, 2014 10:52 AM   Subscribe

How do I answer, "What is your greatest failure" in a job interview?

I've read countless articles and none seem to help me. All they do is list the obvious such as, "Don't list anything TOO personal." or why the interviewer is asking the question.

I've made plenty of small mistakes in my life but I feel like they're not "good" enough for the interview. For example, a grammatical error, misspelling, dialing the wrong number, calculating a number wrong, etc. But nothing that lead to a disaster, they were mistakes easily caught before something happened.

I can, however, think of one BIG mistake. My company made no big deal out of it, but to me it was a huge mistake and I felt horrible. I told someone the wrong pay because I forgot about shift differential so they were making less than what they thought. It just slipped my mind some how. I think this is too big of a mistake to tell in an interview which would result in me not getting hired.

So other than that, I'm not sure.
posted by Asian_Hunnie to Work & Money (16 answers total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
I was thinking of saying maybe not meeting my quota on the number of candidates I wanted to try and recruit and just going from there on how I learned...
posted by Asian_Hunnie at 10:54 AM on August 26

Actually that mistake you mentioned is perfect.

Because the question is designed to let them know you're able to LEARN from your mistakes and do better. So describe the mixup quickly and then go into length about how you swiftly and diplomatically cleared it up and set procedures in place to never let it happen again.

Unless, of course, this is NOT what happened and the mistake just dropped from there.
posted by JoeZydeco at 10:55 AM on August 26 [10 favorites]

A mistake isn't the same as a failure. A mistake may be a symptom of a failure.

Think of something.
Think of what you learned from it.
Think of what action you took to prevent it, and how it was an opportunity for improvement.
posted by entropone at 10:56 AM on August 26 [1 favorite]

I would go ahead and talk about the BIG mistake. You can preface it by saying that most of your mistakes have been small ones like the ones you list above, but there was one time when you made a major error and it's haunted you ever since. (In other words, point out that this was such an anomaly that it really stands out for you, and you're so conscientious that it still bothers you.) And then, as with all questions like this, describe it very briefly and then focus heavily on how you dealt with it, which should include: taking responsibility; bringing it to the attention of the appropriate people the second you detected the problem; taking remedial steps to fix the problem; and modifying the way you worked to make sure nothing this like ever happened again.
posted by chickenmagazine at 10:57 AM on August 26 [5 favorites]

Nth'ing the above. The interviewer isn't really asking "What is your greatest failure?" -- the interviewer is asking "How do you recover from failure?"
posted by Etrigan at 11:00 AM on August 26 [21 favorites]

I told someone the wrong pay because I forgot about shift differential so they were making less than what they thought. It just slipped my mind some how. I think this is too big of a mistake to tell in an interview which would result in me not getting hired.

This is a fine mistake to describe, so long as you explain what you did to set things right after you discovered the error. As has been said above, the interviewer is looking for more information than just a description of the failure/mistake. I ask this question when I interview candidates, and I'm looking for a couple of things:

1. The candidate can actually think of a serious mistake that they've made. I am very skeptical of a candidate who says that they can't remember ever making a serious mistake. I wonder if they're lying, or they thought so little of it that they don't remember.

2. I want to hear ownership. If the candidate tries to explain that it wasn't really their fault or tries in any way to minimize the error, it plays negative to me. Mistakes will always happen, but great co-workers own up to them and...

3. Present solutions. I want to hear the candidate explain what they did (or what was done) to correct the mistake.
posted by DWRoelands at 11:08 AM on August 26 [7 favorites]

"I told someone the wrong pay because I forgot about shift differential so they were making less than what they thought. And it's weird -- it's been years now, but I still feel bad about it. But it taught me an important lesson to make sure I'm right before I give someone advice like that, and if I don't know the answer, I go find out and follow up. I learned it's OK to say I don't know about something so long as I commit to finding out.

It also reminds me we all make mistakes. This person was really gracious with me after my mistake, and I owe it to my coworkers to be just as understanding."

Or whatever lesson you learned from it. Mistakes are OK. Being stubborn and toxic about them is bad.
posted by mochapickle at 11:10 AM on August 26 [13 favorites]

They are just asking for a substantial story about failure, to demonstrate your character. Not your worst story, if you're not comfortable telling it.
posted by lizbunny at 11:11 AM on August 26 [1 favorite]

Here's another voice agreeing that the mistake you mention is the perfect "level" of mistake to mention. I think it's a bigger mistake in your own mind than it really is. "Too big of a mistake to tell in an interview" would be more along the lines of something that resulted in innocent people dying, which is not the case with your example.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 11:13 AM on August 26

Thanks everyone.
posted by Asian_Hunnie at 11:28 AM on August 26

I think this piece has some pretty good advice on the "greatest failure" question. I also think that according to the advice given there the story you offer in your question isn't a good one. It is a story of a failure that simply arises from a memory lapse, so it has the potential to raise doubts about your capacity for the job. I think the "failure" would be better if it were more a strategic or tactical failure. "Here is this job that I went about in an understandable way, but which later I realized was sub-optimal." Then it's not a story about your personal failings, but a story about how you have learned to improve your skills through experience.

If you think back over your career there must, in fact, be tons of such stories. I think what might be throwing you off is trying to think of "mistakes" rather than "failures." You're trying to think of "D'oh!" type moments where the mistake is something self-evidently wrong. But I think it would be better to think of cases where you adopted a tactic or an approach (perhaps in working with a challenging client or a difficult colleague or what have you) which was on its face a reasonable approach to take, but which experience has since taught you does not lead to the desired outcome. Then you have a narrative that is candid ("I set out to achieve X and didn't") but isn't about what might be construed as a personal failing or inherent flaw ("I'm forgetful / inattentive / lose track of details" etc.). And it immediately and compellingly moves into a narrative of learning from experience and becoming a better prospective employee as a result ("I realized that what you really need to do in situations like that is...").
posted by yoink at 11:32 AM on August 26 [13 favorites]

I don't think it even has to be a typical boring "small error, and this is what I learned from it!" story. You could have a hook like, well, I had this employee that was really smart and capable, but just wasn't engaged. So my goal was to turn them around.

So, ultimately, you failed, but you get to tell all kinds of stories about things you tried. Have them nodding along like, yeah, good idea, that's what I'd try too! And then what happened? You can even throw in little ads for yourself like, so then I tried this other thing (which I'm normally pretty darned good at); I was sure it was going to work!

Eh, but you can't win them all. Did my best, you know? But it still bothers me. Maybe next time.
posted by ctmf at 12:05 PM on August 26 [3 favorites]

I am always tempted to turn these questions around and ask the interviewer why they're doing this. They know I'm not going to tell them my worst failure, I'm going to tell them something that makes it look like I've learned or grown from my past, something probably fairly trivial. It's a mark of how good you are at interviewing, how much time you've spent preparing for the interview.

I also think it's a mark of an interviewer who doesn't expect to get anything out of your interview. He's listening to see if you sound like an unworkable jackass or not.

I am actually in the job interview process. I am playing a little harder this time. I am pushing people more and I'm considering answering questions like these with questions in return. Is that totally crazy?

I've already decided I'm probably not going to answer any manhole cover questions or how many violins in toronto questions or whatever. These just seem like lazy horse shit to me.
posted by RustyBrooks at 2:14 PM on August 26 [2 favorites]

A mistake is not a failure. Mistakes can be fixed. Failures remain; life may move on and, when all is said and done, the failure may prove to be inconsequential or even fortuitous, but there is still disappointment associated with the failure. While it is probably the case that the interviewer is looking for how you handle and recover/learn from failure experiences, you would be doing yourself a disservice IMO to conflate mistakes with failures. You should talk about a time when you fell short of your own expectations, failed to reach a goal, didn't get what you thought you deserved, or something similar.

When I ask questions like that while interviewing exec candidates, I'm looking for insight into what's really important to them, their understanding of why they failed, and how it has impacted their subsequent behavior.
posted by DrGail at 2:26 PM on August 26 [4 favorites]

RustyBrooks: "I am actually in the job interview process. I am playing a little harder this time. I am pushing people more and I'm considering answering questions like these with questions in return. Is that totally crazy?"
Depends how desperate you are.
posted by brokkr at 1:12 AM on August 27

I've often wondered whether interviewers who ask about "failure" are trying to get at a sense of who the applicant is ethically. Some may actually mean that they want you to talk about a "failing," or a fault you think you have. This is trickier territory than the recital of a minor mistake and how you dealt with it. A failing, fault or flaw is a personal thing, and it has an aura of permanence. I happen not to believe in personal flaws - all of this stuff is SO subjective - so a question like this is bound to make me bristle.

In interviews I used to say my biggest fault was perfectionism, because it made me sound conscientious. But it's such a standard response to one of the most famous trick questions out there, that I wouldn't risk it now for fear of getting a big laugh. Everybody's read those how-to-answer-trick-questions articles!

Interviewers who rely on trick questions tend to fall into one of two camps. Either they're aggressive power-trippers who enjoy making candidates uncomfortable, or they're genuinely unable to distinguish good candidates. This kind of interviewer lacks confidence in their own ability to just engage with the other person on terms of equality.

Trick questions during interviews are terrible for so many reasons. For one thing, the situation is already tilted in favor of the interviewer, of course, and trick questions just emphasize this. I find myself thinking: This person seems to want to trip me up. I wonder why they think it's necessary? A good interview is respectful on both sides, whatever the outcome.

Trick questions immediately change the dynamic from I'm OK-You're OK, to I'm OK-You're Not Okay. When it happens to me, I tend to take note and to anticipate that this kind of thing may be a symptom of the culture of that workplace. It's usually a big red flag in other words. Remember - as an interviewee, you're also trying to get a feel for the culture and the management style of the operation you're considering signing on with.

Great advice above. I would just add that I don't think it's necessary, in answering a question about a mistake, failure or failing, to say: "That haunted me," as if to imply you rarely screw up, or to make too much of the emotional impact of the event on your psyche. Work is not the place for too much visible emotion. Of course, we all have emotions, but it's important (especially for women in the workplace) not to reveal a tendency to be too affected emotionally by the inevitable mishap. Just state your story and what you learned from it - no self-flagellation necessary.

And best of luck!
posted by cartoonella at 6:27 AM on August 27

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