Job Interview Question: How Do You Handle Failure?

Job Interview
••• Yuri / E+ / Getty Images

Employees in virtually every job will encounter failure from time to time, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that interviewers will ask about your ability to cope with failure on the job. They’ll want to learn how you maintain your composure, attitude, energy, and focus when you aren't successful.

In addition, recruiters will also want to determine if you have the confidence to admit your failings and learn from your mistakes.

This type of question is another device for uncovering your weaknesses to determine whether you have the right stuff to get the job done. It’s much easier to discuss your successes than your failures, but there are ways to answer this interview question without it looking like you can’t handle the job. In fact, being able to cope with failing and moving on can be an indicator of your success at work.

How to Respond to Interview Questions About Failure

The best approach for handling this kind of question is to identify some scenarios when you came up short on the job in advance of your interview. Choose situations where you took responsibility for your failure, learned from it, and took steps to avoid recurrences of similar failures.

Typically, it’s safer to cite failures that weren’t very recent. Be ready to describe your strategy for self-improvement in detail, and to reference subsequent successes you achieved after taking those steps.

Examples of the Best Answers

Your response to this question can begin with a general summary of your approach. For example, you might lead with a statement like:

"I have always lived by the maxim that nobody is perfect, so I am relatively comfortable taking responsibility for my shortcomings. My approach is to figure out what I could change to avoid similar circumstances in the future.”

“I look to my professional colleagues in similar jobs and co-workers at my organization for suggestions on how to improve. I am aggressive about taking workshops, training seminars, and online tutorials to upgrade my skills."

Share an Example of Failure That You Addressed Successfully

Employers will likely follow up with a request for you to provide an example of a failure that you addressed, so be ready to furnish something like this:

"When I was managing the Park Side Restaurant in 2017, I experienced a year without revenue growth after several years of substantial increases. As I analyzed the situation, I realized that some of my competitors were grabbing a segment of my customers by using online advertising and promotions and implementing a social media strategy. I recognized the need to move aggressively into the future and mastered some digital marketing skills. I attended several workshops at the annual conference, took a class in digital marketing, and hired a tech-savvy intern to help introduce a new marketing strategy.

We restructured our website, instituted a loyalty program, partnered with Groupon, and initiated a Facebook campaign. After implementing these changes, our revenues increased by 15 percent in the next quarter.”

What Not to Say to the Interviewer

What you don’t say in your answer can be as important as what you do say. Avoid references to any failures that expose inadequacies that limit your ability to carry out core components of the job.

The only exception to this rule would be if you could tell a very compelling story about how you eliminated those weaknesses. But again, be careful. You don’t want to leave the employer with the impression that you don’t have the qualifications to succeed on the job.