Sunday, September 7, 2008

How to Encourage a Candidate to Admit Their Weaknesses in a Job Interview

“This phenomenon is such a weird combination of naivete, arrogance, and lack of thoughtfulness, and it is happening so much lately that it's making me want to stab someone with a fork.”

She’s so right, the reason we want to know about weaknesses is so we can ensure a candidate is a good match for the job. If someone takes a job they’re not suited for, they’ll be set up to fail – no one wins.

But wait, before you go running for the flatware, here’s a technique I’ve been using that seems to get people to open up about their weaknesses. It’s part of the Topgrading interviewing process for hiring “A” players, pioneered by Brad Smart.

Tell the candidate right up front if they end up being a final candidate, you’ll be asking them to set up phone calls for you to talk to their last 3-4 managers. A players are usually very willing to do this, having left on good terms with previous bosses. The C players will offer up all kinds of excuses as to why they can’t do that. Amazingly, ALL of their previous managers have entered witness protection problems and couldn’t possibly be located.

As you chronologically review each job on their resume, at the end, ask for their manager’s name and write it down. Then, ask them to describe their manager’s strengths, then weaknesses. They usually have no problem at all with this. You’ll get lots of very useful information. If they talk about how every boss’s biggest weakness was micromanaging, and you tend to micromanage, this person might not be the best fit for your style of management.

When they’re done describing their manager, ask “so when I talk to so and so, and ask them the same questions about you, what do you think they’ll tell me you’re biggest strengths and weaknesses were back then?” The phrase “back then” is critical, because it allows them a chance to talk about prior weakness that may have been since addressed.

It’s amazing how candidates will open up using this technique. First of all, you’ve already told them you’re going to call, so they know they better not b.s. you. There’s also this weird kind of reciprocal thing that goes on, in that they just told you all kinds of things about their manager, so it’s like they feel obligated to share just as much about themselves.

If they have trouble coming up with what their manager will say, prompt them with “look, we all have relative strengths and weaknesses, what were yours back when you were a so and so working for so and so?” Silence works very well too. Wait. People usually feel very compelled to fill that dead air.

A players usually do very well with this question. They tend to be very self-aware of their own weaknesses – in fact, they are their own worse critic. They also have the ability to be open to feedback, learn, and then either correct them or figure out a way to work around them. Their career is a continuous path of self-improvement.

Having and overcoming weaknesses is normal and perfectly acceptable. The red flags are when those weaknesses keep emerging throughout the interview as a pattern, they’re still there, and they would set the candidate up for failure if hired.

If someone still can’t come up with a legitimate weakness – and by legitimate, something that’s not “oh, I was just too much of a perfectionist”, or, “I was a workaholic”, then this should be a red flag that the candidate either has low self-awareness, is arrogant, or they have something to hide. In any case, you’ll probably want to take a pass on this person.

Breath a sigh of relief – you just did yourself and the candidate a big favor.


Anonymous said...


I hope a million managers and HR people read this. It's practical, it gets the kind of results you are looking for, and anyone can learn to do it (if they want to:-)

Way to go!

Anonymous said...


That's a great idea! One to add to my toolbox. Thanks.


Dan McCarthy said...

Steve -
a million would be nice...

Andrew -

Anonymous said...

Everyone has a weakness, no doubt. When I'm asked this question, I usually pick up a technical area I'm weak in, say, inability to solve a certain type of differential equation.

No one has any right whatsoever to know about my behavioural weakness unless we know each other personally. I'm not going to divulge my weaknesses to a random person who
(a) may not select me and hence our association will not last for more than an hour or
(b) who may select me and be my boss for a long time and at opportune moment, use my weakness to humiliate me or deny me promotion or out of pique give me only those tasks that expose my weakness repeatedly while smiling and saying "you know, you need to improve yourself."

Never underestimate the ability of humans to use the power at their disposal irrespective of what's fair and what's not.

Rachel - former HR blogger said...

Great post. I've had my hiring managers try "What about your last performance review, what would your supervisor say." Although that rarely works either. I'll have to try your suggestion from now on!

Anonymous said...

Dan - Beauty of a post! It's great to see pros like you sharing what has worked for them when it comes to making decisions as important as who to hire for a given position.

I shared your post with my readers in my weekly Rainmaker 'Fab Five' blog shoutout as found here:

Be well Dan!

Dan McCarthy said...

thanks, Chris!

I always enjoy reading (and being included in) your Fab Five

Anonymous said...

Has anyone else noticed that most comments that point out the weaknesses of the "what's your biggest weakness" get ignored by the interviewers?

Did it occur to any of you, that people need good self-esteem to stay at least marginally happy?

Here's another point many seem to be missing: Perceptions vary between people. I am conceited. Yeah, I know I have weaknesses. Are the weaknesses I perceive the same weaknesses that you will perceive? Is my conceit a weakness? Only if it prevents me from noticing points of improvement.

Edmond G. Belanger said...