Sunday 14 September 2014

What employers really want to hear when they ask about your weaknesses

For some graduates, it's the toughest question in an interview: what are your weaknesses? How should you answer? And what do potential employers really want to hear?

There was a time when saying you were a perfectionist or a workaholic were the only acceptable answers to the question of weakness. But unless you are a perfectionist or workaholic (and have supporting evidence), those answers are now considered insincere. We asked some employers in the tax sector to explain what they really want to learn when they ask this question.

Leave rehearsed answers at the door

James Fabijancic, tax graduate recruitment partner at Deloitte's Melbourne office, agrees that rehearsed answers don't cut it anymore.

“We don’t want applicants telling us their weakness is working too hard or being a perfectionist,” he says. “We want to hear real stories, and importantly how applicants are taking steps to overcome any weakness and make themselves better."

He says the process of working through challenges is more important than what those challenges are as Deloitte’s culture is “built on working towards outcomes to address clients’ problems”.

Provide solutions, not excuses

Rob Basker, tax partner at Deloitte's Sydney office, says the question is less about weakness and more about how the candidate handles any situation by meeting it with a solution.

“We approach our interviews as exercises in getting to know each other, and to ask questions about situations to test what an individual has done or would do if they were in certain situations,” says Basker. “This way we can see how he/she would approach the matter in question, from thought to finish, to see if they are innovative or if they would create a 'moment that mattered' for our clients and our team.”

Addressing weaknesses is key

Other employers, such as Grant Thornton, no longer ask the weakness question, preferring instead to focus on the skills that graduates do have and building on that through professional development.

KPMG, on the other hand, is more specific. They ask candidates about what steps they have taken to address criticism they have received in the course of their work or studies, and whether these steps have resulted in change.

“We would look for a mature response where the candidate would acknowledge the criticism and recognise that people take the effort and time to share feedback to help people improve,” says a KPMG spokesperson. “If a candidate acknowledged and agreed with the criticism, then seeking out opportunities to undertake similar tasks to demonstrate improved capability and addressing the criticism would reflect positively.

“If a candidate didn’t agree with the criticism received, then we would expect a candidate to undertake a process of validating the criticism with other people as opposed to discarding the criticism as unfounded. Ultimately, a response that reveals the candidate is committed to self-improvement and continued personal development through action would be a good response.”

Again, this suggests that a question of weakness is not about the specific trait you have, but how you handle an issue.

No matter what weaknesses you have, never fear – your self-awareness in the process of acknowledging it and your capacity for self-improvement in how you address it are what employers are really interested in.

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