The Interview Question that Lost Me the Job

Early in my career,  I applied for a really great job. To my surprise, they offered me an interview. I killed the first interview, slayed the second, and ended up being one of the last two candidates for this sought after position. What happened in my third interview was something I will never forget. I choked when asked the question, “Tell me about a time you failed.”

Of course,  I had failed a number of times in my life, yet I couldn’t find the words to articulate any of my failures in a way that wouldn’t also destroy my chance to score my dream job. So, there I was, fumbling for words, unable to think on my toes, and watching the job slip through my fingers over one simple question. Needless to say, I wasn’t selected for the position. This, of course left me to self reflect. How should I have answered this question honestly?  I didn’t want to scare away my potential future employer by describing a time I made a mistake and cost my employer money!

This is a tricky question, but don’t make the same mistake I did. Be ready to admit your failures. It’s natural to want to impress your interviewer, so it’s tempting to try to spin a mistake to your favor, or try to humble brag about a “failure” that was actually a win.  But, that’s not what the employer is looking for when they ask this question. Humility and resilience are key to answering this question.

First, think of a recent time that you failed at something. Did you use more resources than you were allotted? Did you fail to delegate tasks or ask for help which created an excessive amount of work for yourself? Did you miss a deadline? Did you misunderstand an assignment and fail to meet expectations on a project? You don’t need to pick your biggest failure, or your most embarrassing failure, in fact that’s definitely not in your best interest. The important thing is that you pick an honest failure. There’s no reason to spend very much time describing the actual failure. Interviewers don’t ask this question to see you squirm; they ask you this question to find out how you overcome obstacles. So try to quickly get to the part where you learned from your failure, resolved your issue, or overcame the obstacle.

Most importantly, share what you learned and explain what you will do to prevent making the same mistake twice. The fact of life is that we have all made mistakes, no matter how hard it is to admit them to a stranger you’re trying to impress. Failures are often our greatest learning opportunity. Knowing this, and being able to admit to your mistakes shows maturity, experience, and a level of self-awareness that employers love to see. Don’t make the same mistake I did and go in to an interview unprepared. Think about these types of questions before your interview and be ready to think fast when unexpected questions catch you off guard. For information about interview coaching, click here.