Author of "Your Journey from Fired to Hired"

Answering the "Failure" Interview Question

So, you’re prepping for an interview!  Kudos to you for snagging an opportunity to sell yourself in person.  With the mass chaos of applicants applying for jobs, celebrate this win!

Now for the stressful part…interview prep.  It’s a given that you need to know your strengths and have concrete examples that demonstrate the specific skills you want to showcase.  But as interviewer with more experience than I care to mention (it makes me feel old!) I can tell you that I ALWAYS learn more from one question than any others I might ask.  And in talking to my colleagues, they feel the same way.

So you may be wondering what the question is….tell me about a time you experienced failure or made a mistake.


Failure?!?  Why that Question?

I know you’re probably rolling your eyes right now.  As a candidate you want to focus on all of the great things you’ve done.  And those are important as well, but this question tells potential employers far more than you may originally think.

The reality is we don’t really care about the specifics of the mistake or failure.  What we are looking for are the 3 critical elements mentioned by famous coach Paul Bear Bryant in the quote above.  Can you admit it?  Learn from it? And never repeat it?  Chances are high that if you can’t do the first one (admit it), then you’ll never achieve points two and three.

In fact, this one question is so telling that it frequently causes potential employers to pass on candidates they want for all other reasons. You see, your answer tells how you will handle things when they go wrong….hello, this is life and things will go wrong!


What not to Say!

Surprisingly, when asked the question many candidates are absolutely stumped and can’t recall a single mistake.  I recall one interview in particular with a top candidate.  She was interviewing well above her resume and my expectations.  And then we hit this question and the brakes went on.  She had never made a mistake.

I wanted to hire her so badly that I encouraged her to think about it over the weekend and touch base with me on Monday.  Monday came and so did her response, “I’m sorry but I really can’t think of anything.”  (Needless to say, she didn’t get the job!)

No one is perfect and hiring managers don’t expect perfection. The reality is that we make mistakes too.  In fact, it’s likely the person conducting your interview made a mistake only this morning or perhaps just last week.  And chances are they owned up it, learned from it and have already vowed never to repeat it!


What the “I’m perfect response indicates:”

While you may think it’s an appropriate response, telling a potential employer you’ve “never made a mistake” can throw up several red flags regarding your personality:

  1. Can’t accept responsibility. Hiring managers don’t want you on their team if you can’t take ownership of your responsibility when things go wrong. It’s really that simple.  Twenty or thirty years ago, managers did just that…they managed.  However, in an effort to be more competitive and reduce overhead costs, most companies now expect managers to be “working managers.” Consequently, they are busy…very busy!  And they simply don’t have the time necessary to unravel problems and determine the root cause.  Hiring managers need to know that you will take responsibility for your failures equally with your successes.
  2. Blame others. Mistakes will happen and someone is always responsible for them.  If you are NEVER the responsible one, then chances are you will be blaming your co-workers.  As an interviewer, that is a huge red flag that you may not “play well with others.”  Hiring managers know they waste an incredible amount of time refereeing between frustrated co-workers.  It’s a non-productive use of their time and consequently, they will avoid it at all costs.
  3. Not credible. This question is one of the few questions interviewers can ask that allows us just a peek into your values.  You see, if you will lie during an interview (again…no one is perfect!), then our perception is that you will lie after you are hired.  And to the hiring manager, NOTHING is more important than the ability to trust their employees.  They recognize that they can teach you many skills to perform your job, but they can’t teach you to be trustworthy.  You either are or you aren’t.
  4. Low confidence. Those with low self-confidence tend to be embarrassed about mistakes and want to keep them safely tucked away in the closet.  It’s like the game of “if we don’t talk about it, it never happened.”  Conversely people with a strong self-confidence easily admit when things didn’t go as planned.  While an employee with low self-confidence can produce great work, they also typically require constant encouragement and reinforcement which represent a great time commitment for the manager.


What to Say

So, the secrets out!  When prepping for an interview, always prep an example of a mistake you’ve made.  It doesn’t necessarily have to be life-altering or a mistake that took a company to bankruptcy.  Instead select a time that you can share honestly and openly that you made a mistake.  And then be ready to follow up your answer to Coach Bryant’s 2nd and 3rd point….what you learned and the steps you’ve taken to make sure it’s never repeated!


Ok, over to you.  Have you been asked this question in an interview?  And if so, how did you respond?

Article written by:

Kathi Miller-Miller is a sought after career specialist and author of “Your Journey from Fired to Hired.” Kathi draws on her 25+ years of success (and failures!) to offer her readers advice on topics ranging from dealing with a boss that drives you crazy to managing millennials...all in a light-hearted and easy to read style.

Join the discussion

  1. Lea Bullen

    I can admit I hate the question also. I never really understood why it was asked, especially when you're trying to sell yourself in an interview you want to highlight all the good things, the elements you bring to the table. You post is very insightful.

    I haven't had an interview in quite a long time but I think my typical response was explaining a mistake then focusing on the good that came out of it.


    • Kathi Miller-Miller

      Lea, glad you found value! I know it can be frustrating but the response to this question speaks volumes to a potential employer. While you might have hated the question, your response is spot on....well done!

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