My Bad: How Mistakes Make Great Interview Stories

Posted by Patra Frame

OopsThe interview dance is always difficult. How do you ‘wow’ the interviewers? How do you show what a great addition you would be to the hiring manager’s staff? Somewhere along the way you may even have been asked the infamous ‘what is your greatest weakness’ question. And floundered over how to answer that.

What if I were to tell you that a story about a mistake you made can actually help you get the job offer?

There are two big reasons for this. First, the push is on in many companies for ‘authenticity.’ Even where that is not a keyword, employers like people who can demonstrate self-awareness and growth. Second, a story about a mistake you made can answer a wide range of questions effectively even if you are not directly asked about a mistake you made.

Stories about mistakes should come late in an interview. First you need to demonstrate your competence and get them involved in your achievements as they relate to the role. Once you have made a ‘very capable, competent’ impression, telling about a mistake can help the interviewer be sympathetic and find you more likable. Both of those are vital in interviews for you to succeed.

How do you create a story about a mistake that helps you land the job?

Step 1. Think of a mistake you made and try to remember all the details.

What happened, why did you make the mistake, what was it, what did you do when you realized it was a mistake, how did you recover? Mistakes that make good interview stories are those which were significant to your work and from which you helped in the recovery.

Step 2. Accept that telling anyone about this might feel embarrassing.

This means you need to create the story and demonstrate both the feeling you had when you realized your mistake and also get beyond that enough to finish the story positively. You must tell the story without defensiveness. Provide the details needed to show the error but do not dwell on those in detail. Explain how you realized or learned you had made the mistake and what your next steps were.

Step 3. How did you correct the mistake you made?

This is the most critical part of the story. Once you describe the error briefly, move into the aftermath. What did you do to correct it? How quickly did you tell your boss or team or those who depended on you of the mistake? Even if someone else caught it before you, focus on your actions to correct it. Vital: What did you learn?

Here is the meat in the story:

  • How you handled telling your boss or others involved about your error.
  • How quickly and with whom you owned up to the mistake.
  • Did you offer a potential solution or ask for help.
  • What you did to fix or help repair the error and/or its impact.
  • What you learned.

An example:

A government contractor had an opening and there were several excellent external candidates. One candidate had worked for the company some years before and was well-liked by those he worked with. The department VP wanted him hired immediately to fill a critical Program Manager position. The VP told HR not to waste their time in interviewing other candidates, just to bring in this man in to talk with another PM who knew him and the VP. The VP made an offer and told HR not to bother with reference checks but to have him start as quickly as possible.

The recruiting manager pushed back unsuccessfully in both cases. The man started but did not return from lunch the first day. Checking around, no one had seen him. Hours later an employee reported a non-responsive person lying in the parking lot and called 911. Turned out to be the new hire, passed out drunk. (He had been fired from two recent jobs for drinking interfering with his work which was discovered later.) The VP immediately took responsibility both to his entire department and up the chain.  He:

  • fired the person himself.
  • admitted the person was an old friend and he had not thought it necessary to follow standard procedures.
  • spoke directly about what a bad example he had set and apologized to HR, his bosses and the client.
  • announced he had pressured HR to go around standard practice, they had pushed back but he had insisted, and he had been wrong to throw his position level around.
  • communicated clearly and honestly to all involved.
  • offered his mistake up as an example to use in training other executives and managers.

Plus he made an effort to learn more about effective hiring processes and created a better system with HR staff that was eventually adopted across the corporation.

How could you use this story in an interview? It could be an answer to a question on a mistake but also one on:

  • learning or self-growth
  • difficult communications with others
  • problem-solving
  • accepting responsibility
  • personal ethics
  • managing people

You would not necessarily go into this much detail, so long as you clearly communicated how you had ignored the rules to hire an old friend. You might focus on only one part of the corrective actions – such as how you communicated with each audience, and just mention other steps briefly, depending on what you wanted to convey.

All of us have made some mistakes during our working experiences. Taking a clear look at one from your past can give you an excellent, memorable ‘success’ story that elevates your candidacy.  Then practice it with a peer or past boss until you can clearly explain the mistake without defensiveness and how your actions afterwards contributed to your growth into the role you are seeking.

Patra FramePatra Frame is ClearedJobs.Net’s HR Management Consultant. She is an experienced human resources executive and founder of Strategies for Human Resources. Patra is an Air Force veteran and charter member of the Women in Military Service for America Memorial. Follow Patra on Twitter @2Patra.


This entry was posted on Thursday, February 07, 2019 5:48 pm

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