5 Reasons why you talk about Failures in an interview

3 min read

Updated: Dec 13, 2021

Many an interview is lost by not satisfactorily answering HR’s favorite gotcha question, “Can you tell me about a professional or personal failure? Boom. Gotcha.

So how do you respond to this question without causing a train wreck? Conventional interviewing wisdom is that you avoid and deflect any questions about past failures. WRONG.

Don’t despair. You can use this question to score big in any interview. Here are five ways to handle this question and nail the interview:

  • Do not blame others: Take responsibility and never blame others. The person you are talking with does not know this person or circumstance, so naturally, they are going to be circumspect. Nobody likes a whiner. How about, “That’s on me.” And then explain per below…
  • Explain lessons learned: The only thing worse than failing, is failing a second time. Admit the failure and then explain what you have learned and how you will not make that same mistake again. I know a benefits producer who failed at his first sales position at a large insurance broker in WDC. He realized that in order to be successful he needed to network more in the WDC property and general contractor community. He reflected this in his proposed sales plan during the interview process for his next position. He went on to get this job and devoted his time doing this and is now one of the leading producers in real estate and property in the WDC market. He knows everybody!
  • Use failure to illustrate your skills: I just had a candidate that I placed get sacked from his position by my client. I advised him to go back and carefully reconsider how his financial and analytical skills could have been better aligned in this firm’s needs given what he now knows. He put together a ten-point summary sheet on this. I got him a meeting with the hiring authority to discuss. After some further consideration, they hired him back in a different department. It was a true win-win.
  • Use humor: Humor can add levity to just about any situation. In my work with the military special operations community, I find warriors use humor to relax during even the most intense firefights. It’s a way to effectively communicate without the stress. A few years back, I was representing a senior insurance executive who had been fired from his previous firm. He explained getting fired was like being sucker punched in the face by smallest kid on the block. He went on to explain it was like you knew he was going to hit you, but you just didn’t think he could do it. And then: BAM. His presentation was priceless, so I told him to recite this back exactly the way he presented it to me if he was asked to do so in the interview. He was. He got the job.
  • Remain Proud of what you did: Never sell yourself short. Stand proud. A few examples: Before your department was eliminated, you provided excellent customer technical support. Even though you didn’t make enough sales, you still sold a lot of services and took the firm into new market segments. Or emphasize that although you did not hit your sales goals, you were able to retain 99% of your existing business and kept your clients all very satisfied. There is always a silver lining.

In some ways the greatest lessons learned are those learned from previous setbacks or failures. Embrace these five steps about and you will be fine.

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