Describe Your Biggest Error/Mistake

By Joe Stein

It seems every time we add to this series on Frequently Asked Interview Questions, we describe what could be the toughest one of them all. In my opinion, it is not being “wishy washy”, but rather a sign that there are a number of very difficult questions out there. The degree of difficulty for each question is really dependent on the specific situation for that particular person.
As we continue to review the most frequently asked questions in an interview, let’s explore tips for when you are asked, “Describe Your Biggest Error or Mistake?”
Why Is It Asked?
·        Test for Humility – The reality is that most companies do not hire with arrogance as one of their prerequisites. An organization desires an individual who will work well within the current team and complement the current roster. A person, who can discuss an error that they have made in their career, professionally displays that they have a human side and can be humble enough to acknowledge a mistake. Do NOT say, “I can’t recall making a mistake at work”. We all make mistakes.
·        Display of Confidence - For many interviewers, the ability to acknowledge an error is also a display of confidence by the Job Seeker. How is that so? Only a person with self-esteem can confidently answer this question properly.
·        Assess Risk Taking – A company (under no circumstances) desires to have a “loose cannon” that is constantly going against the odds. A person, however, who has taken a few calculated risks, will most certainly have one idea or plan that did not work exactly as planned. Most employers have a desire to employ someone who has the confidence to try something. Remember, most successful people have at least one moment in their career where they had to overcome a professional challenge.
·        Determine Problem-Solving Skills – A problem-solver will be able to assess a mistake, determine why it happened, and put processes into place to make sure it does not happen again. Practice articulating this process, so you can answer quickly and with confidence.
 How Should It Be Answered?
·        With Confidence - This answer cannot be done with stammering and sweaty palms. An interviewer will use these cues to explore further this error to determine if they have the whole story or if there are others like it. Be direct with your answer, acknowledge the mistake, and describe how you moved forward.
·        Redirect Quickly – A Job Seeker needs to answer the question fully for the interviewer, however, the finish should redirect the conversation towards one of your positive attributes.
·        Show Your Lesson Learned – Since we have been young, we have been told to “learn from our mistakes”. So what was your lesson learned? Explain to the interviewer; what you learned and how you applied this new knowledge. This could be a time to profess that you believe making a mistake is a tremendous learning opportunity as long as it is done in moderation.
·        Focus On a Mistake Done For the Business – By this, I mean that your example should be one where the mistake was done to improve the business. I would not answer by getting into something like how you should not have left that company 5 years ago. This focus on the business also will display that you had the best intentions in mind when the error was made.
 What Not To Do:
·        Ramble – It is important to answer the question quickly with only the level of detail needed to have the situation make sense to the interviewer. Do not linger on this answer. If there is silence after you have fully answered the question, then wait it out until the interviewer asks another. You will want to spend your time focusing on expressing all of your positive attributes and accomplishments.
·        Offer the Company Crusher – I know the title of this column is about describing your “biggest” error or mistake, however, if your example under these criteria is one where you’re brought the company down to its knees than perhaps another should be presented. 
·        Going Too Small – Some Job Seekers use the other extreme and offer an example so inconsequential that the interviewee either comes across as arrogant, lacking credibility, or someone who is not a risk taker. So, if your plan was to discuss when you bought the wrong sized paper clips, think again, and come up with something that will have more substance.
Describing your biggest mistake can be very difficult for a Job Seeker because it opens the person up personally and does not present his or herself in their best light. The question, however, if done well can provide a competitive advantage for the Job Seeker over their competition. A key to the best results is to anticipate the question ahead of time and practice your answer.
As always, best of luck in your job search.



The following has been prepared for the general information of WNY Jobs readers. It is not meant to provide advice with respect to any specific legal or policy matter and should not be acted upon without verification by the reader.
Joe Stein
WNY Human Resources Professional