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Answering this tough interview question

By Sharine Sample

Job interviews are the best way to sell yourself to a potential employer. How you answer their questions can be the determining factor in whether you are offered the position, or the employer chooses to go with another candidate.

Over the years, I’ve been part of many job interviews and have asked people a variety of questions. While doing that, I’ve noticed that one question stumps candidates across the board: “Tell me about a time you’ve made a mistake in the workplace, and what you learned from it?”

This question really makes candidates stop and think. Some have answered thoughtfully, and others have responded with the answer that every candidate should avoid: “I can’t think of one.”

Interviewers ask this question because they want to see whether you have self awareness and can take responsibility for your actions. No one is perfect. When a job applicant claims that they can’t think of a time when they’ve been responsible for a mistake, it’s a major red flag.

We’re all human and sometimes our brains freeze on us. If you go ahead and think through how to answer this question, you will be prepared to answer confidently and thoughtfully. You’ll be more likely to move to the next round of interviews or land the job. Here are a few suggestions about how to answer this challenging question:

  • Be authentic. Prospective employers are looking for genuine candidates who will speak with honesty and integrity. We do not expect you to be perfect. We want to see how you respond when – not if – you make a mistake. In your answer, describe what steps you took to correct the mistake and explain how you grew from the experience.
  • Don’t mention your past jobs by name. Remain professional. You can name the industry in which you worked or say “At a past job…”. But do not mention individuals, or the company if you can avoid it. Even if what you’re saying is accurate, it can look like you only want to air dirty laundry. By the way, the interviewer should never ask you to disclose this.
  • Give a strong example. Think about what you want your prospective employer to understand about you. Then think back through your past experiences on the job and decide which of them is the strongest example showing how you learn from mistakes. Make sure to remember that this is a two-part question. First, briefly share the backstory, then describe the mistake. Next, explain how you corrected your mistake and learned from it.
  • Don’t make it too long-winded. Be informative, but concise. Keep your answer to around one minute and no longer than two. If you go on for too long, your audience will get bored and lose track. This will make your answer less effective and impactful.
  • Never respond with “I can’t think of one.” As mentioned above, never give this answer. We all have made a mistake on the job, even if it’s only a conflict with a customer or co-worker. It’s better to give some sort of answer than no answer at all and risk looking like you are dishonest or lack self-awareness.

Along with these suggestions, think about how you can tie your answer to the job for which you are applying. If the position qualifications include working with teams, supervising others, or performing specific types of tasks, find examples in your experience that align with those requirements. This will show an employer that you are self aware enough to recognize areas where you needed to improve in order to be ready for the next step in your career. It will also show that you know how to respond ethically and effectively to a similar situation should it happen again in the future.

Owning your mistakes demonstrates character and shows the employer who you are as a person. Just the fact that you are able to answer a tough interview question demonstrates your professionalism because it shows that you came prepared. Finally, knowing that you’re ready for this challenging question will improve your confidence in the interview. These qualities will set you apart from other candidates… and hopefully will land you the job!

Sharine Sample is the Regional Workforce Development Manager at Goodwill Industries of Northwest North Carolina. Learn more about Goodwill’s employment services at www.goodwillnwnc.org.