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Why I Ask Job-Seekers 'What's Your Greatest Weakness?'

I write about bringing life to work and bringing work to life. Full bio

I was a Fortune 500 HR SVP for ten million years, but I was an opera singer before I ever heard the term HR. The higher I got in the corporate world, the more operatic the action became. I started writing about the workplace for the Chicago Sun-Times in 1997, but it took me ages to find my own voice. Now I write for the Huffington Post, Business Week, LinkedIn, the Harvard Business Review, the Denver Post and Forbes.com and lead the worldwide Human Workplace movement to reinvent work for people. Stop by and join us: http://www.humanworkplace.com


- Liz, I know you hate the question “What’s your greatest weakness?” but I always ask job-seekers that question. I think it’s really important.

Great! If it works for you, you should do it.

- But you’re going to keep advising job-seekers to answer that question with a non-answer like ‘I don’t think about my weaknesses’ – right?

Listen, if you don’t like the answer that you hear from a job-seeker to any question that you ask at a job interview, then don’t hire them. A job interview is a matching exercise. You’re right — I don’t like that question at all. But you have to be you.

- I try to hire people very thoughtfully and logically. I think it’s important to do that. I think that a careful interview process is critical. I don’t understand why the simple question “What’s your greatest weakness?” annoys you. Can you tell me what bothers you about the question “What’s your greatest weakness?”

Sure! It’s an insulting question, for starters. Are you ready to tell the job applicant what your greatest weaknesses are?

- Frankly, no. Why should I? I’m the one making the hiring decision.

That’s one reason I hate that question. It comes from an unequal place. It cements the false idea that only one person in the room is making a decision. In truth, everybody in the room has a decision to make. The job-seeker sitting in front of you may not want to work for you. If you keep asking that question, more and more of them may feel that way.

- But the question is valid! Everyone is working on improving something in their life, right?

Are they? I couldn’t tell you. I don’t believe that we come to this planet with weaknesses.

- You don’t? You don’t believe in lifelong learning?

I do believe in learning, but not from the standpoint that we are defective and need to correct deficiencies. I think that people are born with everything they need to do their life’s work. We keep learning throughout life, but that learning has nothing to do with weaknesses.

- But isn’t learning just another way of saying ‘Fixing what we don’t do well?’

No, it’s not. You are an adherent of a belief system that you don’t see. You don’t see it, because you’ve believed it for so long that you think it’s just the way things are. This belief that you have about people and their defects and the need to improve weaknesses — it’s a religious belief. It’s not based on anything, but you learned it as a child and now you are committed to it.

- A religion? Please.

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