What to say when the hiring manager asks, ‘Can you tell me about a time you failed?’

Be careful. Tech Hub/flickr

We recently solicited readers to submit their most pressing career-related questions.

With help from Lynn Taylor, a national workplace expert and the author of “Tame Your Terrible Office Tyrant: How to Manage Childish Boss Behaviour and Thrive in Your Job,” we’ve answered the following: “What should I say when a hiring manager asks me to talk about a time that I failed?”

This is a tricky question that can throw a wrench into an otherwise stellar job interview, Taylor says. “No one enjoys talking about work failures, and the interview is the last place you want to showcase your most memorable job blunder.”

The question may be asked in a variety of ways, referring to your worst mistake or biggest challenge, she says. “But no matter the phraseology, the goal of this behavioural question is to gauge your ability to be self-reflective, acknowledge mistakes, take risks, and learn from a setback,” Taylor explains. “Since it’s a common interview inquiry, you should have a couple examples committed to memory — and remember to focus on the lesson learned.”

Here are some tips on not failing the failure question:

Be direct.

It can be tempting to be evasive with a non-answer, such as, “I’ve been fortunate in that I’ve rarely made any major mistakes in my job.”

“A response like that would in fact qualify as it’s own misstep, because misjudgments are just part of the workplace landscape and humans have not yet been classified as infallible,” says Taylor. “Your honesty would be in question. So be straightforward and genuine with your response, and make sure there’s a silver lining.”

Use specifics.

“In order to be believable, you need to explain the scenario, choices made, what failed and why, and the takeaway, in a substantive way,” she explains. “By being too general or flip, you may appear disinterested or disrespectful.”

Employers want to know that you’re capable of taking smart risks and are not afraid of challenges. Showing that you boldly face any setbacks with tenacity to improve is a highly valued trait.

Don’t go overboard.

You can be specific and also be concise. “This is not the time to capture the interviewer’s attention with a disastrous oversight or soliloquy of self-hatred,” Taylor says. “Rehearse your answer so that you get your points across quickly and clearly. Consider using the recording feature of your smart phone to evaluate not only content, but also the length of your response.”

Interview, negotiation, meeting
Show you can handle mistakes, learn from them, and move on. University of Exeter/flickr

Be strategic.

Make sure your example illustrates a benefit to your career. Avoid talking about mistakes that never offered any redeeming value or lesson, or one that would open a can of worms.

“Also make sure that your response doesn’t hit a hot button, such as the one time you missed a project deadline when meeting deadlines is a key hiring criteria,” she says.

Focus on the lessons learned.

This is critical in acing this tough interview question, Taylor says. “Hiring managers want to know that you know how to face your mistakes, learn from them, and move ahead. They want be assured that given similar circumstances, you’d handle things differently.”

This is a chance to show how you turned the proverbial lemons into lemonade.

Example: “The client became concerned that we weren’t doing X and began getting competitive quotes. I realised that it’s important to share real issues with a client early on rather than wait. Later, that helped me regain their trust and build other business as well.”

“Despite the negative slant of this question, you have an opportunity to shine by illustrating your interest and ability to overcome challenges,” Taylor concludes.

Readers: Want us to answer your questions related to your career or job search? Tweet Careers editor Jacquelyn Smith @JacquelynVSmith or email her at jsmith[at]businessinsider[dot]com, and we’ll do our best to answer them.

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