Wednesday, August 10, 2011

What are your weaknesses?

Thankfully, I've only been asked "What are your weaknesses?" by a couple of human resources types, and their opinions weren't a huge part of the interview, overall. But I like what Lifehacker has to say about this (dumb? ridiculous? annoying?) interview question:
The common advice is to pick a weakness that really isn't one at all, but that doesn't necessarily come across as genuine. It can even make you look a little full of yourself. The folks over at Stepcase Lifehack have a better alternative. They suggest picking a weakness that really isn't all that relevant to the job. Here's their example: 
For example, "Well, accounting really isn't my thing. I understand the basic idea behind book keeping, but I don't really get the nitty-gritty details. Of course, that's also why I'm applying for this job in human resources. I think it leverages my strengths and steers clear of the technical skills that I haven't learned yet…like accounting." 
Using this method you get to be completely honest without really hurting your chances of getting the job. Nobody expects you to be perfect, especially with skills that you don't need to do the job, and honesty can be really refreshing.
One can imagine this applied to chemistry: "Well, computational chemistry really isn't my strong point. I can do it, but I don't particularly enjoy sitting at a desk, simulating bond angles. That's why I'm applying for this position as a synthetic chemist."

Hmmmm -- might work. Readers -- what say you?

20 comments:

  1. If I was interviewing someone who answered they weren't much good at computational chemistry, I'd see it as avoiding the question.

    I do agree that a false weakness (eg. I work too hard) is a poor answer as well though.

    I think a much better approach is to give an answer and outline what you do to overcome a weakness. Say organizational skills lacking, so what did you do to make yourself more organized?

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  2. Better to frame it in terms of Belbin's team roles as far as I am concerned - for example I am a good plant, but weak completer finisher.

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  3. My thought is that an organization that is really looking to invest in someone wants to know that the person is self-aware enough to know their weakness AND disciplined enough to have a strategy in place to overcome them. Imagine the ultimate case, hiring a CEO. That person will set the tone of the entire management team and be the public face of the company yet they can't be perfect. A detailed strategy for how they avoid/overcome/counteract their actual weaknesses is essential for success in this case.

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  4. Does any of that HR "touchy-feely" crap really matter? I know there is a plethora of useless internet advice and seminars for job seekers (usually prefaced by 'Top 10') by air-wasting consultants, but is it ever used?

    My recollection of the hiring process, at smallish biotechs at least, was that a bunch of people would meet with the candidate over the course of a day (and likely listen to a talk), and then regroup (either in person or by email) and see if there was a preferred candidate: usually favorites (and least) stood out easily. I don't recall the HR rube ever doing more than filling out the paperwork for candidate X as directed.

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  5. I had the hiring manager at a major pharma ask me that question; the manager made painful noises with each question and apologized for them, so I suspect that the questions were obligatory.

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  6. In my recent experiences the managers also straight up apologized for the dumb questions HR made them ask. It's a good opportunity to form a bond, however trivial, with the interviewer over the shared suffering under the demands of the midlevel bureaucratic drones. You can answer it honestly but with a slight air of conspiratorial contempt, and that will probably make a more favorable impression regardless of what the actual answer is.

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  7. My answer is always along the lines that strengths and weaknesses are situation dependent. So I give an example of where a strength was beneficial, but then follow it up with a situation where that strength can be a weakness and vice versa. Then end it with you have to recognize when your strength is becoming a weakness and compensate.

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  8. On several occasions I was asked this question. It is an invitation "Please bullshit us or hang yourself".  

    Only once I tried to answer it sincerely - it did not work. But then I found out that it is quite easy to avoid answering it by turning it into a ridiculous joke, by saying something that's perfect by HR standards but patently absurd ("Right now during this job interview I do not remember any weaknesses. It looks like I have only strengths." Now say this calmly with a straight face.) Then I would seque into something on which I can give a passionate personal perspective - what it means to put years of your effort into a research project, what behavior helps a lab and a collaboration to function well, and what is happening to the pharma industry.

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  9. I always answer that question this way

    "I love to take a lot of responsibility because I feel confident in my abilities and that I believe I can do it right. But sometimes I take on too much responsibilities and get in over my head. Sometimes I need to be bailed out because there aren't enough hours in the day."

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  10. Apparently, chemists collectively aren't vocal enough. Lawyers have only recently been struggling with employment and they already made the Yahoo front page.

    http://news.yahoo.com/graduates-accuse-law-schools-scamming-students-021529890.html

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  11. I would say in some cases acknowledging the really obvious ones can help. In my limited experience with interviews (just graduated) I went right out and said my lack of experience. It was honest, but it really didn't tell them anything they didn't already know. Since it was true though it didn't come across like I was dodging the question.

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    Replies
    1. Taylor FletcherMay 2, 2012 at 3:28 PM

      Genius! That's a perfect response for my situation as well.

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  12. Fastball, I hit it very much.

    Curveball, bats are afraid.

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  13. Can I just say I fucking hate that interview question? I hate being asked it, and I hate asking it. And at my workplace - a National Laboratory - it is damn near impossible to get through an interview without it. Of course we also ask their strengths, because, duh, by the latter part of the interview if that's not already apparent, we've really been wasting our time.

    One question I really enjoy asking: Think of a supervisor that you had an excellent working relationship with. What did they do that made it successful?

    (You'd be amazed at how many people also feel compelled to describe their worst boss, in excruciating detail, when asked this question).

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  14. Excellent comment, A8:53p. Love it.

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  15. I would guess stating that my greatest weakness is "tolerance of foolish questions and the fools that ask them" might not be a good (and truthful) response.

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  16. @Milkshake: Great advice. No, seriously...if I'm ever asked that question, answer will be, "Not being able to beat 'Ninja Gaiden 2'." Considering the far-from-secure employment outlook for chemists, why not lighten the mood during an interview?

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  17. Maybe a better approach would be to instruct HR (or any other) interviewers, not to ask such inappropriate questions and to focus on the skills necessry to be successful in the position for which the applicant is applying

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  18. I always have one answer to that question: "Donuts" and if you are in Canada you might like to say: "Maple glazed donuts." Homer Simpsons agrees with me. -@bandy

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