Answering "Tell Me About A Time You Failed" In A Job Interview
While in a job interview, you will likely have to answer some tough questions. Like, "Tell me about a time you failed?" Or other tough questions like “Why did you leave your previous position?” or “Tell me about a time you went above and beyond in your past position.”
All of these can be difficult to answer, but one common interview question tends to stand out from the rest: “Tell me about a time you failed.”
Answering this question is like walking on eggshells. It’s also quite a vulnerable experience, as nobody likes to talk about their shortcomings. However, you can absolutely answer this question in a way that will make your hiring manager see you in a humble and viable light.
Let’s dive into why interviewers ask this question, what some good and bad answers look like, and a few sample answers for you to get inspired by.
Why Do Interviewers Ask This Question?
There are numerous reasons why a hiring manager would ask this question.
The biggest reason behind “Tell me about a time you failed” is to look at how you plan on avoiding such an issue in the future. For example, say your biggest failure in the past involved a project failing because you, as a project manager, did not hire a large enough technical or engineering staff. Your hiring manager wants to hear what your solutions would be now that you have that experience behind you.
Another reason why hiring managers will ask this is to see what kind of failure it was. If the situation was very avoidable and the result of poor effort on your part, that may be a red flag they will want to avoid.
Your hiring manager also wants to know how the failure changed you for the better. We’re all human and all make mistakes, and your hiring manager is well aware of this and has probably experienced at least one professional failure in their past. Failure can bring about vital experience and change.
What Type of Answer Are They Looking For?
As we mentioned above, there are several main elements hiring managers will look for in your answer:
- What the failure was.
- If the failure was very avoidable or unavoidable.
- What you did to remedy the situation.
- How you plan on avoiding such issues in the future, particularly as their employee.
While it is vital to be honest about your answer, it is also vital to follow up with a well thought out solution to such issues in the future.
What Does a Good Answer Look Like?
A good answer to “Tell me about a time you failed” will include a handful of things.
- Your mistake.
- Your lesson after the fact.
- How you are changing going forward.
- Eloquence and honestly.
- A solution that is related to the position you are interviewing for.
It is important for your answer to be brief but also detailed enough to give your hiring manager a vision of the bigger picture. Have you learned your lesson? How did you learn your lesson? How has the experience made you a better employee in that particular field, industry or position?
What Does a Bad Answer Look Like?
You can definitely answer this question “incorrectly” or in a not-so-good way. Luckily, most of the bad answers you’ll need to avoid have more to do with common sense.
Some bad answers to avoid include:
- “I have never failed professionally before.”
- “I caused the downfall of an entire company.”
- “I did some dirty work or engaged in illegal activities that got me fired.”
- “I failed at X, Y, and Z, but it was not my fault.”
- “I failed at X, Y, and Z in my last position and simply decided to change positions or industries to avoid such a mistake again.”
If you can avoid these answers and similar answers, you’ll be fine.
How to Respond to “Tell Me About A Time You Failed?” with 5 Example Answers
"When I was a project manager, I failed to hire the appropriate engineers and technicians for the production process in order to save money. The result was a lackluster product that didn’t do well compared to other products the company produced. From this experience, I learned that sometimes it is worth not cutting corners to get the results needed."
"I worked in customer service and had to deal with a very angry customer. Our product had failed on them, and they wanted their money back. The company policy was very strict on "no refunds," and this customer was a rare unsatisfied one, as our products were often quite dependable. I stayed calm, remained polite, and offered a store credit, coupons, and other solutions. The customer was not having any of it and let me know we would not receive their business again before hanging up. From this experience, I learned that working within the policies of a company can indeed be difficult. However, I could have taken more time to listen to the customer's concerns and level with them, rather than just throw solutions out there. Customer service is about making the customer happy, and being an effective communicator is a big part of that."
"I recall a time where I was giving the final approval on a product that my previous company was manufacturing. I was working on multiple other projects at the same time and was overwhelmed. The product had been reviewed and approved by several employees ahead of me already, so I wasn't expecting any major issues. I ended up approving the product, but after it was sent to the manufacturer warehouse and mass production began, my supervisor found a massive flaw. I learned that rushing through a project isn't wise and can be catastrophic and can actually take up more time and budget allotment. It's so vital to give every project my full undivided attention and to take my time in the approval process. If I'm responsible for approving something, I can't rely on others around me to do my job. Since that situation, I have made it my mission to remind myself to take my time. My previous supervisor once told me recently that he was very angry with me when I made that slip-up, but since I've learned from it, he noticed that my attention to detail has been wonderful and that I'm one of his most dependable project managers."
"I previously worked in office management. Though I wasn't responsible for the manufacturing department, I would occasionally have to go to the warehouse for some of my responsibilities. I noticed that a particular machine was sparking, but since that wasn't my job, I didn't do anything or tell anyone. A few days later, the machine completely failed and the manufacturing team had to delay production for several weeks. If I had taken just a moment out of my business schedule to tell a maintenance employee, that might not have happened. I learned that even if something isn't in my job description, I represent the company as a whole and need to make an effort to do things that aren't necessarily part of my daily tasks."
"At my last job, I was responsible for supervising the IT team. We had one particular team member who was always late to work and late on deadlines. At the time, it never caused any substantial problems and he honestly contributed some of the best work on the team, so I didn’t say anything to him. I’m assumed he took that as a sign that I didn’t care about his work, so he started failing on really important deadlines and projects. Because of his actions, we lost a big client and my manager ended up firing him. I think if I had talked to him personally, the whole thing could have been avoided and he would still be employed there. We would also still have that client on board as well. I feel really responsible for this, and the whole situation has made me realize that as a supervisor, I’m responsible for my team. If I find myself in another situation like this, I will immediately talk to the team member in an approachable but firm way."
Related interview questions
If you are looking for related interview questions, the following should be helpful:
What are your leadership examples
Describe your leadership style
How did you hear about this position
What do you know about our company
What motivates you
What makes you unique What interests you about this position
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