Editor's note: This article is one in a series on how to answer some of the toughest job interview questions. Read about how to answer the prompt, "Tell me about yourself" here.
When you're trying to put your best foot forward in an interview, answering the dreaded question "What is your greatest weakness?" can feel like a step in the wrong direction.
"Candidates mess this question up the most," said Tom Gimbel, founder and CEO of LaSalle Network, a staffing and recruiting firm that specializes in accounting and finance staffing and recruiting services. "They say, 'I'm a perfectionist' or 'I care too much about work.' They try to turn a positive into a weakness to look good, but that's not helpful."
Instead, use this question to deliver information that helps the interviewer get to know you better — warts and all. We asked human resources experts for their insights on handling the weakness question, and they offered advice on how to address the question and come away unscathed.
What the hiring manager wants to learn
By asking this question, "the interviewer is likely interested in hearing about your personality traits," said Sarah McEneaney, U.S. digital talent leader for PwC. "This answer can give potential employers quite a bit of insight into your level of self-awareness and commitment to professional growth."
The question also reveals potential obstacles the candidate might bring to the position, said Sue Arth, a San Diego-based career consultant who coaches people in the accounting field. She said the interviewer is really looking for answers to these questions:
- Are you self-aware?
- Can you accept feedback and do something about it?
- Are you flexible? Can you adapt to new situations and people?
- Do you have good judgment and problem-solving skills?
Good strategies for answering the question
The most important way to answer the question is to be honest, Gimbel said. "Share a mistake you've made," he suggested. "For example, you could say, 'I used to take criticism personally, but I've been working on this with my manager.'"
This type of answer is best because it presents a real weakness as well as a plan on how you're working to overcome it, Gimbel said. "The recruiter really wants to know what you're doing to fix the weakness," he said.
Don't merely mention the weakness but also "add plenty of context and a specific example or story of how this trait impacts your professional life," said McEneaney. "Explain how you have grown and learned from your weaknesses, and emphasize that you are open to new experiences and feedback."
Arth offered this example of a good answer: "I get anxious when I am given a new project to work on, especially if the objective is not clearly defined or it is something I haven't done before. In the past, I found it is better for me to write out my plan of action and any questions I have, and then verify this with the project manager. That way, I have a better understanding of the project, and it eases my anxiety to be prepared before I start something new."
What not to say
When answering the question, don't point out that you lack skills you need for the position, Arth cautioned.
"If the job requires extensive customer service, don't say that you prefer to work alone," she said. "Or if you are seeking a higher-level position and don't have all of the required skill set yet but meet most of the other requirements, now is not the time to mention it unless you have taken a class or done something to improve your skills."
Also, don't say you don't have the temperament for the position or that you have issues that directly contradict workplace expectations, Arth added. For example, avoid saying something like "'I have issues with authority and don't feel I need to be managed,'" she said. "Or 'I am shy and cannot speak up in meetings. I don't want to be judged for my opinions.'"
The best advice is to come prepared, said McEneaney. "Even if you aren't asked about your strengths and weaknesses specifically, preparing a response will give you a candid, yet compelling description of what you bring to the table and how you wish to grow in the future," she said. "By establishing the appropriate context, you can give hiring managers an honest, thoughtful answer that highlights both your self-awareness and professionalism."
Stephanie Vozza is a freelance writer based in Michigan. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Courtney Vien, a JofA senior editor, at Courtney.Vien@aicpa-cima.com.