Best Ways to Discuss Your Career Mishaps in a Job Interview

A significant way that prospective employers evaluate a candidate’s potential for success or failure is their response to this question: “Tell us about one of your significant professional disappointments or failures.  What caused it and how did you handle it?”  This requires an interviewee to come up with a particular event specific moment rather than asking them the typical “What are your weaknesses?” question. This asks them to describe a definitive professional occasion which gives them plenty of options: Do they focus on a promotion they felt they deserved or a project that failed? Do they make it about themselves or do they make it about their company? You can learn a lot about them by how they interpret and then answer the question.

In addition, the question doesn’t require an applicant to take responsibility for the failure although they might choose to.  Here are 3 types of answers and then let’s evaluate the pluses and minuses of each.


“I once spent too much time on a project because I couldn’t bring myself to delegate something that I couldn’t take pride in.”  This is the answer that is seen as cliché by hiring managers. It’s a candidate’s attempt to convey strength wrapped in the appearance of weakness. You’ll often get this answer from people early in their careers that aren’t yet comfortable with the idea that failure and weakness is part of any job.

If the candidate is more experienced this answer causes worry for the hiring manager. It implies that the candidate still hasn’t learned to be comfortable with their own shortcomings. Acknowledging your weaknesses is critical to making career progress—you first need to know when you mess up and then think critically about why.

So as an interviewer, if you can only get a “non-failure failure” from a candidate, it may be time to move on.


“I once was up for a promotion, but my manager didn’t give it to me because there was another candidate who was my boss’s favorite.”

This answer shows that the candidate doesn’t focus quite enough on the things that are actually within in their control, choosing instead to rationalize their disappointments by putting responsibility on someone or something else. This type of employee may not be looking (or ready) to grow outside their current role; they’re simply expecting to get promoted just for doing their job and nothing more.-+

However, sometimes life is really is unfair. Maybe they were slighted! While this might be true, when you’re hiring, you want to find people who view any situation as an opportunity to assess how they might’ve done things differently to achieve a better outcome—even if they weren’t at fault. You want people who put the burden of responsibility on themselves, even if others may share in it, too. These are likely to be the hires that will surprise you by going above and beyond.


“One time I was working on a project and the client hated the result. I realized that I could’ve put more effort into the project and worked to better understand their needs up front. It taught me a lot about my approach to kicking off new projects going forward.”  This is the ideal answer. When someone answers this way it shows they fully grasp taking responsibility.

I think we can all agree that there are multiple people and systems at fault in pretty much any failure. The point isn’t to pretend otherwise. It’s more than likely that the client didn’t do a perfect job of explaining what they wanted, or maybe they changed the scope of the project after it started. Even so, it’s still critical for you to take complete ownership of a problem. That’s the starting point for finding any workable solution.

So yes, complete ownership might seem extreme, but the people who default to that tendency will have serious advantages over those who don’t. First, they may be more likely to view situations through the lens of, “How can I improve this?” Rather than wait for others to change, they quickly take action within their span of control to improve a situation—including persuading others to act. They realize that their role in the company isn’t just their narrow job description, but includes doing whatever it takes to get a successful result.

Companies want to hire people who view any situation as an opportunity to assess how they might’ve done things differently. Secondly, these types of employee prospects are the ones who are most likely to improve their own skills by choice. Rather than waiting for formal training, they spend their free time teaching themselves the ins and outs of a new technology, for instance, or how to improve their communications skills. They’re passionate about being successful and they’re problem solvers. They realize their own potential and constantly pursue a better version of themselves.

Finally, taking complete ownership of your failures shows you’re someone who avoids politics. Rather than expending emotional energy complaining about other team members, these people realize their own ability to influence a situation and address interpersonal issues head-on. Try testing out these interview questions if you are the hiring manager. It may help you build a team of people who shirk petty politics and are always striving to improve their own skills. And if you’re a job seeker and an interviewer asks you to discuss your failures, don’t hold back—own up to what went wrong and how the experience taught you to change your approach. That just may improve your chances that the interview itself will turn out a success.