Saturday, December 12, 2009

Your Best Worst Weakness

Anyone of us who's ever interviewed for a job has been asked this age old question: "What are your biggest weakness?" It's a standard question that all of us have answered successfully; well, those of us with jobs at least. Isn't it strange that our weaknesses will actually land us a job providing those weakness are good ones?

I know interviewers love to ask this question; but is it a good question? I was kicking this issue around the other day at work after one of my supervisors finished interviewing a potential student assistant, and the more I think about this question the less I like it.

It's not that I don't have weakness or that I hate talking about them, but I just wonder how valuable the "weakness" question is when it comes time for employers to choose the right person for the job. Asking the "weakness" question could easily be paraphrased as: "Why shouldn't I hire you?" Now if you think like I do, you're thinking about pleading the 5th on this one.

Here's the standard reasons for asking the "weakness" question:
-It makes interviewees think on their toes.
-It tells interviewers what they need to watch for if they hire the person.
-It humbles the interviewees and forces them to quit boasting about themselves.

All of these are good reasons to ask the "weakness" question; only there's a few flaws in the reasoning. For example, the whole question-and the entire interview process-hinges on the interviewee telling the truth. Undoubtedly, it is stupid to lie about where you went to school, your employment history, or any criminal convictions you might have, because the interviewer can verify your answers. But how can they verify your greatest weaknesses? Sure, they can call your old bosses and find out about the quality of your work, but they've probably already done that if they're interviewing you. So when it comes down to answering "What do you feel is your greatest weakness?" why not spruce up your answer, I mean, they're asking you a subjective question anyway.

And there are even more flaws in the logic of asking the "weakness" question. Chief among these being that no one is surprised by the question anymore. The few moments interviewees spend thinking of an answer to this question is not spent introspecting their characters, but is spent deciding which of the canned answers are most likely to please the interviewer. There's a ton of canned answers out there, the standard good ones are:
-"I work too hard."
-"I'm a perfectionist."
-"I'm too detail oriented."

The problem with these good answers is that they're too good, and because they're too good everybody's heard them before. However, giving a good canned answer might be better than giving one of my true answers, which are at the moment:
-"I eat too many potato chips. I can't resist those damn things. Got any?"
-"I talk too much. I'm a very curious person."
-"You mean work related?... uh..."

These are bad answers. I know the interviewer could care less about my potato chip addiction, but it is a big weakness for me, I can't resist those damn things. And thus we arrive at the moral dilemma: is it better to tell the truth, or kinda lie and get the job? Do you see the catch-22 the "weakness" question places on applicants?

Here's my solution that removes the moral dilemma, requires little in the way of lying, and is generally a fun loving question. My question to interviewees would be: "If you could have any superpower what would it be?" You might think that's a stupid question, but it meats the three criterion the "weakness" question supposedly satisfies. The question makes the interviewee think on their toes; it tells you what to watch out for if you hire the person (after all, what if they really possess that superpower?), and it makes them stop boasting about themselves because usually, psychology tells us, that people want superpowers that compensate for their perceived weaknesses. (I'm not sure what psychology tells us that, but it makes good sense to me.)

So for all you interviewers out there, think about the moral implications of asking the "weakness" question and consider asking the "superpower" question instead. The latter will spice up the interview, but watch out for canned answers: flying, teleporting, and telekinesis. Be especially weary of people who want invisibility and telepathy--those people are most likely greasy voyeurs.

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