13. What is your greatest weakness? This is one of the most frequently asked questions, yet interviewees typically do poorly with it. Avoid trying to score points with this question. The interviewer who asks this question will ask it of virtually every interviewee, so everyone will have to reveal a quality that is somewhat negative. Some “interviewing experts” advise people to select something which is really a strength and disguise it as a weakness. They suggest statements such as, “I guess I’m a workaholic,” or “I’m too much of a perfectionist,” or “Sometimes I’m too aggressive.” The intent is to get the employer thinking, “That’s not a bad weakness to have.” Most interviewers readily see through such ploys and the interviewee immediately loses credibility. Show yourself to be genuine and willing to reveal things about yourself.

Be prepared to discuss personal weaknesses as well as technical weaknesses. A personal weakness could be a tendency to procrastinate, while a technical weakness could be a lack of experience with Microsoft Excel.

When asked this difficult question, it is best to state a genuine weakness, but choose one which will not automatically disqualify you. It cannot be a trivial weakness, however, such as a manager saying he or she is all thumbs when it comes to keyboarding.

Usually you would indicate that you have known about this weakness for some time and have taken definite steps to overcome it. You don’t need to demonstrate that you have totally conquered it, but show that you’ve made major progress with it. Examples of weaknesses that people have used successfully include: “I’m not good at working with repetitive details,” “It’s hard for me to get to know people at first,” and “Sometimes I’m not assertive enough.” There are many possibilities, but it may take time to come up with one which is safe to use. In interviewing you can score anywhere from minus ten to plus ten on any question. On this question you are trying to remain in the minus two to plus one range. Something in the minus six range can seriously damage you, while trying to score plus five or better will jeopardize your credibility and sincerity. The goal is to provide a short answer which satisfies the interviewer, and allows you to move to other questions that you can score points on.

After you decide which weakness to use, begin developing a response. Your response must show how it is a genuine weakness. In other words, you need to show how it has hurt you. Numerous clients have used their perfectionism as their greatest weakness. That can work, but you must show how perfectionism has caused problems for you. When I asked one client during a practice interview how perfectionism had hurt her, she replied, “Well, I guess it hasn’t, but I just know that I shouldn’t be so much of a perfectionist.” I responded, “Then give me a real weakness.” She had not convinced me that perfectionism was a genuine weakness, so when I asked for a real weakness she got flustered and did poorly throughout the remainder of the interview. So, you can see how important it is to answer this question properly.

Perfectionism can work, but let me show you how it might be used to better effect than the situation described above:

I think probably my greatest weakness is my perfectionism. It seems that I want everything done just right, and it’s hard to let go until it’s almost perfect. Sometimes that means I’ll spend too much time on a project when I really should go on to other things, since it’s probably just fine the way it is. But then I’ll look at it again and realize that it could be better with just a little fixing up. Sometimes I’m through in an hour, but other times I might dig into it again and spend another day or two on it. Last year that happened on a project, and because of it, another project had to be rushed and it was definitely not the quality it should have been. So now as I’m finishing up a project I’ll just tell myself, ‘It’s fine as it is, just put it to bed.’ Or I’ll have a coworker look at it and if she thinks it’s fine, it’s usually easier to wrap it up. I know that I’ll always be a perfectionist, but I think I’ve got it pretty well under control.

Where do you think she scored? I would put her around zero, or neutral, which is right where she should be. She came across as sincere and genuine. She was willing to open up and show that her perfec-tionism gets her in trouble at times, but she also demonstrated that it is almost under control. Undoubtedly an employer would have been satisfied with her response and would have gone on to other questions.

In addition to showing how the trait has hurt you, you can also show how it sometimes benefits you. In the case of our perfectionist, she might add:

Of course, as a perfectionist I’m also very thorough. Last year we were having a quality problem with one of our cold cream products. Customers were calling and complaining that when they got the product home, the oil had separated and risen to the top. Our chemists and manufacturing engineers were unable to find out what the problem was and we were getting ready to shut down production. As the marketing manager for that product, solving a production problem is not my area, but I did not want to lose the market share that we had gained in the last two years. I starting researching the problem. One day I was chatting with a purchasing agent and asked him if any of the ingredients had been changed in any way. He said no, but then something clicked. I asked if we had changed any suppliers in the last four months. It turned out that we had started buying an emulsifier from a new vendor who claimed the product was identical to what we were using, but cost about 20% less. We checked the emulsifier, and sure enough it was substandard. We immediately returned to the previous vendor and the problem was solved. So I guess sometimes my perfectionism and thoroughness can pay off.

This example demonstrates that there are always two sides of a coin: The very quality that causes problems in one situation can be very useful in another. When sharing a genuine weakness, it is fair to show the other side of the coin as well.

Another way to share a weakness is to describe one which has almost been overcome:

I absolutely hate firing people. In the past I held on to a couple of people longer than I should have just because I hoped they’d turn around. I was just plain avoiding the inevitable. To prevent that from happening in the future, I’ve been holding extensive interviews with the top candidates and performing thorough background checks. That way, I hire only those with the greatest potential. If I don’t find what I want, I won’t hire second best. I’ll keep looking until I find the right person. The last five people I’ve hired have been really good choices.

You should be prepared to share three weaknesses. If one seems inappropriate for a particular job, you still have two others to choose from. You could also run into an interviewer who loves to ask about several weaknesses.

14. Have you ever been fired or asked to resign? For those who have been fired in the past, this is perhaps the most difficult question of all. Fortunately, many of your interviewers will have at some time in their career been fired. Studies indicate that about 80% of firings are over personality issues rather than competence: good chemistry becomes bad chemistry, the company changes but the employee is unable to adapt, or new managers come in with different values and expectations. Being fired is not the kiss of death to a career.

Your goal is to develop a response that demonstrates maturity. If you can handle this question with dignity and maturity, you will gain the respect of the interviewer. Cause the interviewer to realize that regardless of the reasons for the termination, you are a person with a great deal of potential. Speak in such a way that the interviewer neither questions your competency nor integrity. For this reason you must never attack your former boss or company. Everything you say must be said without the hint of defensiveness or rancor.

Another goal is to go into interviews calmly and with confidence, with no fear of this question being asked. I have worked with clients whose dread of this question was clearly communicated by their nervousness. To overcome this problem, I usually have clients work on the response and the delivery until it becomes merely another question.

If you were recently fired, one approach is to tackle the question head on. Admit that you were fired, and then without any defensiveness, explain the reasons. While explaining the reasons, be sure to describe your strengths and contributions as well. If you believe it was unfair, or simply not a good decision, say so, but avoid calling your former boss names, raising your voice, or losing your temper. People have said, “I know they had to reduce overhead, I just don’t feel eliminating my position was the best way to do that.” While not blaming yourself for the outcome, you could mention things that, looking back now, you wish you had done differently. Concentrate on describing the situation and explaining that under those conditions a termination occurred. The key to this approach is explaining things in a totally nondefensive manner. Because of the understandable concern of the employer, your task is to convince the person that this was a one-time occurrence which will not affect your future performance.

It is perfectly acceptable to indicate that you were a top-quality employee who received excellent reviews. You might indicate that you got caught in a political squeeze. In such a case, state that you understand that this is simply part of business. Sometimes you can say you supported the wrong person during a power struggle. Frequently if the boss is fired, the subordinate’s termination soon follows.

You may want to admit that had you been more astute, you would have quit months earlier. You might mention that sometime prior to the termination, the organization began experiencing serious problems. Looking back you should have started looking for another job, but out of loyalty to the company and a desire to make things work, you stayed too long. In your answer you can admit that you and your boss differed in management style and philosophy of management. You could say, “She’s a very good manager—we just had different ways of getting the job done.”

If your position has not been filled since you left, that could give you an out. You could explain that the company was having financial difficulties and that you were laid off.

By the way, it is always more positive if you can say you were laid off rather than terminated or fired. It may be beneficial to work out such an arrangement with your former boss or the human resources director.

Generally a past employer has no desire to hurt a terminated employee’s career. If that’s true in your case, discuss your situation with your former boss and reach an agreement on what both of you will say when asked. Agreement is essential. Your former boss needs to know what you will be saying so he or she can back you up. In these days when people are suing their former employers for defamation of character, your company has every reason to want to help you.

If you were fired from a job several years ago, you should contact your former boss. You might explain that getting fired was the best thing that ever happened because it shook you up and you got your act together. You would go on to explain that you have been successful since that time. You might then suggest some things the former boss could say if contacted by a prospective employer. The former boss will probably be glad to hear from you and will be more than happy to assist you. Surprisingly, the negative things which caused the termination are often forgotten, with only positive qualities now being remembered.

Even if you still hate your former boss, the two of you need to talk. I have had clients who strongly resisted this and absolutely never wanted to see or talk to that person again. Once accomplished, however, I have never seen anyone regret having done it, even when the outcome was a less than total success.

If you’ve been fired, you must know what your former boss is saying about you! The issue is often taken care of in your discussion with your former boss, and can be confirmed by having the person write a letter of recommendation for you. When someone has written nice things about you, it is much harder to say bad things about you. If the recommendation seems half-hearted, have the person write it again. You are not powerless. One client had her boss revise the letter three times before she was satisfied. Her request was tactful but firm; she virtually forced him to write a better letter.

Having the discussion with your former boss and getting a letter of recommendation may be enough, but often it isn’t. Sometimes you just won’t trust your former boss. If you have any doubts regarding what is being said about you, obtain the help of someone who can find out. An executive recruiter or employment agency counselor would be good, but a friend or anyone who does hiring could do it just as well. The person making the call may indicate you are being considered for a position and should then ask what type of an employee you were. You should provide the person helping you with a job title and brief description of the type of position you would be seeking to help make this process more effective.

The person should not only write down what is said, but also indicate the tone of voice. The tone of voice can totally change the meaning of what was said. Often, it is the way a former boss gives a reference, rather than what is said, that makes the reference a bad one. Imagine someone saying, “Yes, he was a good employee.” Consider enthusiasm coming through in the voice. Then imagine the same words with a couple of pauses and a complete lack of enthusiasm. The identical words can create two distinct impressions.

There are several companies that for a relatively small fee will check your references. These are most easily found on the Internet by using a search engine and keying in the search words “reference checks.” Check with the Better Business Bureau (www.bbb.org) to increase the likelihood you’ll have a good experience. The reference check firm I previously recommended and which was quite helpful to several clients, has recently not completed the reference check reports for several people and the Better Business Bureau does not, as of this writing, consider them a reliable resource. So, buyer beware. A good reference check firm can be invaluable if you can with assurance, know they are or are not badmouthing you.

I’ve had many clients who were fired from positions. One person had been fired from an executive position. Due to his past successes he was highly marketable and began getting interviews throughout the country. He was flown to interviews in several major cities. Although the interviews seemed to be successful, he was not offered any of the positions. After three months and interviews for seven high-level positions, he discovered that his former boss was giving him negative “recommendations.” He confronted the person and it was agreed that a more favorable person would provide future recommendations. The client then quickly found another job. Numerous opportunities, however, had been lost because he waited so long to find out what was being said about him.

If you know your boss is going to be a bad reference, seek out someone else in the company to provide a reference for you. If the boss who fired you was not always your boss, list a previous boss, even if that person is no longer with the company. Sometimes your boss’s boss will do an excellent job, since he or she is not hindered by the emotional issue which may be affecting your ex-boss. Of course, whoever you use, he or she must know what you are doing and must agree to assist you.

Because of their concern regarding defamation of character lawsuits, many companies will not allow managers to give references. In those cases, people trying to check references will be referred to the personnel department where only job titles and the dates of employment will be confirmed. If your company has a strict policy of giving out only dates of employment, your task is made easier and you won’t have to be concerned about what your boss might say.

If you were fired from a job years ago and there is no way for a company to discover that, you must decide whether you will reveal the firing or not.

I’ve given you some principles that should help you answer this difficult question. If your situation is particularly sticky, however, and you just can’t come up with a good response, I would recommend obtaining the advice of a career specialist or executive recruiter. If you seek the help of a career counselor, make sure the person has extensive experience with interview coaching.

15. Why have you changed jobs so frequently? An interviewer asks this question when something in your background has given the appearance that you’re a job hopper. If, at the end of your response, the interviewer still views you as unstable and unlikely to stay long enough to really contribute, you probably will not get the offer. If you have worked for three different companies in the last six years, you have not been the epitome of stability.

To overcome the objection, you might begin by stating that there have been good reasons for leaving each position (there’s usually no need to detail the reasons unless specifically asked) and that long-term employment is certainly your goal. If you have simple explanations such as a plant closure, a major layoff, or the company went out of business, then you should mention these things. Sometimes a person has spent fifteen years with one company and then has a string of three one-year jobs. Emphasize the long-term position and indicate that your stability in that job reflects the true you. If there are only three or four changes to account for, do so briefly.

If you have not been stable, you might point out that you are now married, own a home, or any other point that might convince a person that stability has entered your life.

16. Why have you been out of work so long? What have you been doing? This question is usually only asked of those who have been out of work for over six months. The concern is that while you seem capable, other employers have apparently discovered something negative enough not to hire you. Prepare for this question by listing on paper what you were doing at each period. Did you take a long vacation or drop out for a while?

One approach is to show that you really have not been looking for long. Numerous things can account for your situation: you were waiting on a job which was promised you but never came through, you took care of a sick relative, you were managing the estate of a relative, or you took a long vacation. You may have worked briefly for a friend who needed help, decided to work on a temporary basis for awhile, or you took a break from work to recover from your last job. You may have spent considerable time deciding what you really wanted to do and just recently made that decision. You might mention only one item that kept you from your job search, or you may mention several. Plausibility is the key to a successful answer here. Explaining the reason for a long period of unemployment, by using an example like those mentioned here, is a form of damage control. In other words, such explanations won’t help sell you, but they will reduce the concerns an employer may have about you.

You may have been looking steadily for a job for the past six or nine months. Sell the fact that you have been working hard at the job search just as you work hard at everything you do. You might indicate you have been quite selective and that this is one of the few jobs that has been attractive. If you have had offers but turned them down, mention them.

If you have been looking for over a year without success, you should seek out the help of a professional career counselor who can help evaluate any weaknesses in your search and can get you back on track.

Even if you are having trouble paying the rent, do not allow any sense of desperation to show through during your interviews. Emphasize that you are a confident person merely waiting for the right opportunity.

In these situations women actually have an advantage. When women have long gaps in employment, it is assumed that child rearing was involved, even though this may not be the case. If you have chosen to stay home and raise children, however, merely explain it without sounding the least defensive about it. There is no need to defend this choice, even if a fast-climbing career was temporarily put on hold as a result.

17. What is the biggest mistake you ever made? If asked in this way, you can decide whether to mention a personal mistake or a job-related mistake. Personal mistakes are a little safer to discuss than job-related mistakes, but be prepared to discuss either. A personal mistake could be that you wish you had selected a different college major or had not dropped out of college. As a rule, pick something that happened two or more years ago. This will enable you to discuss what you learned from the experience with more insight and objectivity.

If there is an obvious and glaring mistake in your background that the employer will be aware of, this might be the chance to deal with it. For instance, if you have three years of college but never finished your degree, this question gives you an opportunity to discuss that situation. Since you are providing information about an issue that the interviewer is already curious about, you are also defusing a possible objection before the interviewer brings it up.

Reveal a mistake, but don’t feel obligated to reveal the absolute biggest mistake you ever made in your life. Revealing a major mistake may cause an employer not to hire you, more for the lack of discretion than for the mistake itself.

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