In Job Interviews, Ask Candidates About Mistakes They've Made

In Job Interviews, Ask Candidates About Mistakes They've Made

This article originally appeared on Forbes by Mark Murphy, Founder of Leadership IQ

Mistakes. We all make them, but some of us respond more constructively than others when they happen. You don’t want to wait until someone is on your payroll to find out what they’ll do when they blunder. The time to identify how people respond to errors is during the job interview, and there’s a really easy question to ask that gets great results: “Could you tell me about a time you made a mistake at work?”

I know that probably sounds too simplistically easy. But this question has been used by hiring managers around the globe. I’ve used this question myself when interviewing. It works because it is so simple. Of course, there are other great ways to elicit times that candidates have struggled or failed, and you can see some of them in the online quiz Could You Pass This Job Interview?

When asking about mistakes, you’re not asking about a “big mistake” or a “critical mistake” because you want to leave it up to the candidate to tell you how they personally estimate the mass of their mistake. Imagine someone says, “Well, it was really no big deal, but one time I messed up the payroll and everyone got paid late.” If your organization could just as easily shrug off this mistake as “no big deal,” you may be hot on the trail of your new accounting manager. For most of us though, the admission that this error rates low is going to be a red flag. The more you let the candidate divulge their thinking on the matter, the more you’re going to learn about them. And the best way to do that is to strategically ask less and to listen more.

Now, having a great interview question is important. But it’s just as important to know how to grade the responses you get. One of the elements that make Hiring for Attitude so different from other hiring approaches is it provides an answer key for candidate responses. It’s easy to get started creating an answer key of your own. Just ask your high, low and middle performers how they would answer the question “Could you tell me about a time you made a mistake at work?” Grab a cup of coffee or go to lunch and ask them individually. Or if you’ve got too many people to make this practical, shoot out a quick survey. Listen for the hallmarks that identify how your best people and your worst people answer the question. Now you know what you’re listening for during the interview.

I recently analyzed an organization that designs and manufactures plastic injection molds for the automotive industry. Their executives all agreed that in an organization of their size, where folks are challenged to make big decisions every day, mistakes are going to happen. The organization needs people who aren’t afraid to make mistakes and to learn from them. Perfectionists are no good because they have no room for improvement, and people who blame others or who hide their mistakes also make poor employees. They want more people like their current high performers who bravely say, “I messed up” and who then move forward from the error, taking something positive with them.

When they added the interview question “Could you tell me about a time you made a mistake at work?” into their hiring process, it took their managers a little practice to get used to asking such an open-ended question. But once they got comfortable with the approach, the question revealed a goldmine of information. Here are a few actual responses given by candidates. Note how our simple question prompts responses that make it easy it is to identify the candidates that show positive high performer signals and those that clearly evidence warning signs.

  1. My boss told me I had made a mistake and I just didn’t believe it. It was the way I had always done things and no one had ever said a word before. I had to do some research, but I learned that the proper instructions for that process were never written down anywhere and the person that instructed me to do it that way was no longer with the company. So, then I felt like a fool. From that point on I always safeguarded myself so I never got blamed for someone else’s mistake again.
  2. I have had some issues with dates in the past. I’ve learned to not to trust the computers.
  3. The numbers in the paperwork got a little messed up because we were very busy and someone mixed the sheets up. I brought this to the attention of my supervisor and it was soon straightened out. We definitely needed more help that day.
  4. I was installing an upgraded part into a piece of equipment. I had not ordered or removed the original part and the new part was wrong. I learned in that case how important it is to document the removal of first part. Then I found a resource to help us get the right replacement part.
  5. Some errors were pointed out during a quality audit, but I didn’t agree with them. As you’ll find out if you hire me, I am not someone who makes mistakes. I contested the audit and won on one of the points.
  6. During a preliminary allocation run at my last job I missed an entry that forced us to rerun budget allocations. It requires time to gather data, check the data out, load the data, complete a pre-run evaluation, and then run. I was given half the time required to complete the task and so I sacrificed accuracy for meeting the schedule. I should have been given more time.

The only potential high performer here is number 4.

Learn what high and low performers in your organization sound like when they answer the interview question: “Could you tell me about a time you made a mistake at work?” And then, next round of interviews, test your candidates’ attitude by asking the question and listening carefully for the hallmarks of high and low performance in the answers you get.

Mark Murphy is a NY Times bestseller, author of Hiring For Attitude, and founder ofLeadership IQ.

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