‘What’s your biggest weakness?’ — groan!

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Anthony Haynes

Anthony Haynes writes: The question “What’s your biggest weakness?” remains common at interviews.

When the question was asked of contenders fro leadership of the Conservative Party in the UK, the BBC took the opportunity to ask for advice to candidates from various angles — for example, those of recruiters, careers experts, employers, and candidates.

My response — and it’s very much a personal view, rather than that of FJ Wilson talent Services — is that this question dismays me.

In fact, make that stronger: it sickens me and angers me.

Let me explain.

First, there is often a power imbalance at interviews, in favour of the prospective employer. The question “What’s your biggest weakness?” is an expression of that imbalance. The thinking is, “They’ve come here to impress us with all their virtues but we have the power to make them talk about the opposite”.

Second, the question has a voyeuristic element: it’s designed to force the candidates to  perform. Everyone involved knows that candidates are unlikely to reveal major weaknesses, so the question isn’t really being asked to elicit information from candidates: rather, it’s to see how they get out of the predicament.

The above two points are what sicken me: these aspects of the question are exploitative.

Which brings me to a third — and, from the point of view of talent acquisition, the most important — point. Asking “What’s your biggest weakness?” turns the interview into a game. The candidate’s role is to find a gambit that lies within the rules — in effect, to find a Goldilocks solution: an answer that is genuine and not entirely trivial but that is also far from grave.

And, of course, like other games, such as draughts, it’s possible for a player to get to know the rules and practise, thereby gaining an advantage over competitors.

If you’re are considering including this question in an interview, ask yourself two questions:

  • “What exactly is this testing?”
  • “How does that relate to our criteria for this role?”

If, for example, the person specification shows that employer is looking for someone who’s been given good advice (perhaps by the BBC) on what to do with an old chestnut, fine. But, of course, it will say no such thing.

This is the point that angers me. Talent acquisition matters, so when they use interviewing as a tool in the process, they need to use not as a parlour game, but instead use it as wisely and perceptively as possible. Interview time is precious.

One final point: there’s an employer-branding aspect to all this. I suggest that the BBC missed the interesting question, namely how does What’s-your-biggest-weakness? present the employer to their candidates?

The answer to that is, surely, “As an unprofessional recruiter — one who has run out of ideas and lives in a  world of cliché”.

We can do better than this.


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