Answering the dreaded ‘weakness’ question

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Q. How do you answer the biggest weakness question without sounding like it’s a strength? Like, “I’m too detail-oriented” or “I’m a perfectionist.” This question always stumps me and it keeps coming up during my interviews.

A. It’s a catch-22, isn’t it at times? You don’t want to admit to a weakness like procrastination while you’re supposed to be marketing the most stellar version of yourself. And you’re right — pointing out something like being too detail-oriented, too organized, too anything of something positive is actually a strength.

If you come right out and address a weakness like being disorganized, there’s authenticity to that. When I worked in recruiting, I appreciated the honesty of candidates. The key is not having it be a dealbreaker. They usually followed up with, “I could stand to be more organized at my desk, I’m a work in progress, and it’s getting better, but I need to be intentional about it and make it a priority.” They often said it with a sincere smile — it came off as authentic. And then we moved right along to the next question.

A more effective way for interviewers to ask this question is, “What’s one thing your boss said you should improve upon in your last performance review?”

Maybe it’s communicating or time management or something similar. Recognize something that has room for improvement (but isn’t a deal breaker. If it’s a sales position, I wouldn’t say your relationship-building skills need improvement as that’s integral to the job.)

Instead, you can say something like, “Not getting clear instructions for a task so now I know what questions to ask to gather specific information to run with it. And what I don’t know, I figure out along the way…” You can talk about something weak and then focus on how you’ve been working toward improving.

Q. I’m stumped with references. I don’t have them on my resume, but applications ask. I got downsized at my last job and my boss was awful at the job before that. I feel like I don’t have any references. Can I just leave it blank on the application? Do companies really call them anyway?

A. I’ll cut to the chase: No and yes, some do. You should have at least two, ideally three, references on your application. There’s no rule that says they have to all be former bosses. Ideally, at least one would be a former boss, but they can be a colleague, client, boss from a side hustle or volunteer gig, etc.

And it’s fine they’re not on your resume because employers typically reach out to them toward the latter part of the interview process around the offer stage and not in the earlier stages.

The key to identifying references is to prepare them for possible calls. Tell them the positions you’re pursuing and provide them with elevator pitches of talking points they can lean into, but of course, speak in their own words so it’s not scripted. References usually serve to vouch for your character, integrity, work ethic, skills and experiences.

Ask your references to debrief you afterward — if the employer called, what were their questions? Secondly, send each reference a thank you note (email or snail mail) to acknowledge their time and support.

Tribune News Service


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