Hello all:

Need a sanity check here for an interview gone awry.

I went on an interview this week.  It was a panel interview consisting of the IT Director, someone from business development, the CFO, and the head of HR.  While there was free flowing discussion between all of us, there was some organization to the proceedings as everyone had their assigned time to control the table.

When the HR person’s time came around, she asked me approximately 8 questions.  All very negative and sometimes argumentative in nature.  She wanted to know all the times I’ve had things go wrong, all my mistakes (explain several instances), etc.  It finally ended with:

HR:  Tell me what is the worst thing your peers are going to say about you when I call your former places of employment.

Me:  I’m not sure I understand your question, I’ve provided references to you and I’m assuming your organization will run a background check on me as a condition of employment.

HR:  Yes, but when I call your references they’re going to give you positive remarks.  When I call your former employers, HR can only tell me name and verify employment dates.  I know people at your last three places at work and I’m going to call all of them and ask around about you – I want you right now to tell me what is the worst thing they are going to say about you.

Me:  (feeling a little flustered) I hope people will have positive things to say about me.  If they don’t I hope they’ll at least recognize I conducted myself in a professional manner 100% of the time and no matter the situation.

I pretty much ended the interview right there.  They asked me if I had any final questions and I said no and stood up.  When I stood the panel did too and I shook their hands and thanked them for their time.  One of them walked me out the door. 

To my surprise, they want to bring me back for another round of interviewing and meet other people.  I’m inclined to tell them to no thanks. 

I’m a little stunned by the whole experience.  I think the head of HR should work at TMZ or the National Enquirer if she is so motivated to dig up dirt like that.  I’m under no illusions that I shouldn’t be asked questions which force me to expose my warts but I thought her conduct was completely inappropriate.

What say you?


jhack's picture

 Asking questions about mistakes you've made is common, in my experience.  Maybe she asked more than most would, but if you have a handle on what you've done in your career, you should be able to identify three or four mistakes you've made (and what you learned, and how it made you better...)

The HR rep wasn't trying to get dirt from you;  she'll get  that elsewhere.  And from your transcript, it seems you were avoiding answering her question, which was pretty straightforward.

She was assessing your ability to see yourself as others see you.  She just wanted to know what negative things she would hear in the reference calls.  If you think you've got no flaws, or if you think you've hidden them from others, that self-delusion is more serious than the flaws themselves (in most cases).  So it's a fair question, and an interesting one. 

The HR rep may be playing the "bad cop" because the rest of the organization is too easy...they like everyone they interview.  Someone's gotta identify weaknesses and flaws, and ensure a skills balance in the team as a whole.  

One last thought:  at the higher levels of an organization, folks are often more direct, more willing to look at the weaknesses and the flaws in plans and people.  It seems you're interested in working at that level - you need to be honest, thoughtful, self-aware, and tough if you want to play with the big dogs.  It's not personal; it's just business. 

Go back, be positive and transparent, even when discussing weaknesses.  You might just be the person to help them take their organization to the next level. 

John Hack

mgoblue0970's picture

John, thanks for the reply! 

As I mentioned previously, I'm not above answering questions that expose my warts.  In that interview, I was completely candid about times where I experienced problems with staff, schedules, and budgets.  If you say it appears that way, fair enough, but I wasn't trying to purposely avoid answering her question.  Just a little bit floored by it suppose.  I think there is a difference between being direct as you say and combative and rude -- especially when you have only known someone for 1 hour. 

What do people who believe this is a good interview question think... what kind of reply are they fishing for:

  • "My former colleagues think I'm impatient when things don't go my way and I don't handle stress well"? 
  • "My former colleagues think I'm a control freak and a total a-hole"?

John, I'm not trying to be flip here.  I'm seriously trying to figure out your reply, her motivations, and a strategy for handling this situation again if it ever comes up again.  Suggestions/clarification are appreciated.

By way of comparison, I've conducted many interviews myself and hired people and I have never asked people to tell me what's the worst thing former colleagues are going to say about them.  I genuinely don't understand the point.  If you've done your due dilligence, you can usually determine who they are and how they'll fit into your culture without having to play good cop/bad cop games.  Otherwise, this is just one of those questions which a savvy candidate can see right through what you're trying to do.  In the long run, one has learned nothing about them because they just gave a BS, politically correct, or pre-canned answer.  In the long run, one just wasted valuable interview time because they are playing bad cop games.


acao162's picture

I've seen the "worst thing" question in an interviewing book before.  I've rejected it mostly because I think, as you do, that it is rude.

Here's the thing - if you ask the direct I released the "worst thing" she's going to have a whole lot more venom to spew.

If you asked a superstar direct, she'll have a much different take.

I suspect based on your post, that the issue isn't as much with the question as the negativity of the interviewer.  I'd take the second interview anyhow.  Unless, the HR director is going to be your boss.  Otherwise, consider if you are going to have daily dealings with this person?  Could be as John suggests, just trying to make you squirm.

You got the 2nd interview.  I'd say you passed.