It’s a trap!
No really, this question is a trap. While on the surface, what are your greatest strengths and weaknesses as an employee seem like uncreative interview fodder, a question asked merely because there is a historical precedent for doing so. These questions are as old as time, so what can they really tell you about an applicant?
As it turns out… a lot. There are many things that an employer might hope to learn about an applicant based on his or her weaknesses such as self awareness. Does she really know the areas where she needs to improve? What skills or character traits is she attempting to develop? But before we get to the tricks for conquering this trap, here are some helpful things NOT to say:
Making a joke
Many forums will advise you to greet this question with a joke — “I’m simply too good looking” or “pickles are my greatest vice– I just can’t stop eating them!” but I do not advocate this approach. You are being hired to do a specific job, not to serve as the office comedian, and while a sense of humor may be a welcome character trait, if you’re actually funny, you can do better than this tired trope. Another one I have seen is “keep a piece of paper in your pocket that says ‘I am always over-prepared’ and hand it to the interviewer when asked this question.” Don’t do this. Just don’t.
Disguising a strength as a weakness
The oldest trick in the book. “Sometimes I just can’t stop working. I take it home with me because I’m suuuuch a perfectionist,” or “I am just way too organized. A single folder out of place simply won’t do!” or “I’m punctual to a fault,” or my favorite… “I care too much.” Come on, do you think these interviewers were born yesterday? What employer wouldn’t want a hard working, organized, punctual employee? The point of this question is to see whether you are self-aware and if you understand the areas where you need to improve as a worker. An answer like this only indicates that you think you are somehow more clever than the person asking the questions, which is a tough approach to making yourself seem likable.
Picking a mega-cliche
“Sometimes I try to take on too much by myself, and I struggle to ask for help,” comes to mind. “I have trouble saying no,” is another. Unlike the disguising strength as a weakness strategy, these two examples are legitimate weaknesses. However, I don’t think either of them are going to win you any points with the interviewer, nor are they likely to reveal any truths about your character. If you are a woman, you should especially be cautious with these example cliches, because both of them read doormat in a serious way.
Being a little too honest
Look, you want to be your authentic self, but something like “I do not play nicely with others, it’s my way or the highway” will never fly. Neither will “I have a terrible procrastination problem” or “I am lazy.”
Okay, so on to the helpful stuff: what should you say your greatest weakness is? The answer is not so simple, but here are some general tips for taming this beast of a question:
Talk about experience
If you are young and relatively new to the job market, this is a no-brainer. You lack experience and it’s best to own up to it, rather than putting on airs of overconfidence. It helps to be specific in this regard too. Don’t be afraid to get technical. “I have never used this particular software before, so it may take some time to master. However, I consider myself a fast learner and I’m sure that there are online courses to give me a jumpstart,” would be a satisfactory answer. Or, if this is your first job, “I lack experience in an office setting, so it will be a steep learning curve, but I’m ready to rise to the challenge.”
Pick a weakness that is not a direct duty of the job at hand
If you are applying for a job as a data entry specialist or plan to be working at home, then mentioning that you are a bad public speaker won’t hurt. If you are going to be in a position of physical labor, then mentioning that you are still working on computer proficiency will likely not pose a problem.
Strive for improvement
Something like “I am always trying to hone my ability to multitask” might be a good one or, if you’re getting into management, you could say, “I don’t have a lot of experience handling difficult employees, as my last teams worked very well together.” In any case, it is a good idea to follow up your weakness with something that demonstrates your commitment to positive self growth or collecting new skills.
And, as always, be mindful of implicit bias on the part of the interviewer. Women may have to work extra hard to make sure that our answers do not slot us into a stereotype. Bear in mind how your answer will reflect upon you. As I mentioned, “I have trouble saying no” reads “doormat”. “I have trouble prioritizing” reads “I have poor work/home balance.” “I tend to take things personally” reads “I’m emotional.” Of course, these assessments are awful, especially since they are things that anyone would struggle with– work and home balance is hard! Who isn’t emotional?! However, it is important that you be cognizant of the interviewer’s personal judgements and shield yourself against inadvertently confirming any miscast stereotypes.
To all of you, happy interviewing!