The $64,000 Question

Do the answers to the stock job interview question, “What are your strengths and weaknesses?” give a true representation of a candidate’s capabilities and capacity to be trained?

When interviewing a job candidate, one question a hiring manager likely asks is: “What are your strengths and weaknesses?”

This question can provoke a wide range of responses from potential candidates, but does it give a true representation of their capabilities and their capacity to be trained? Understanding candidates’ true skill sets will set them up for success in their future role—the key is being able to make an accurate assessment before you hire them.

Popping the Question

“From our perspective, the strengths and weaknesses question is far too canned,” says Michael Noble, Ph.D., chief learning officer of Allen Communication Learning Services. “It doesn’t prompt any storytelling or metrics—it’s devoid of context. Instead, we try to get candidates to talk more about their differentiators. If there’s a way we can get them to describe what makes them unique, in the context of some project successes or past experiences they’ve had, that ends up being the more valuable focus.” The rationale, Noble says, is to get candidates to go beyond what have they’ve done, to try and evaluate the specific contributions they’ve made.

Victor Muh, product manager of Biddle Consulting Group, counters that while the strengths and weaknesses question is not highly effective for jobspecific skills, it can provide insight into a potential employee’s work style and habits.

“What are your strengths and weaknesses is actually a pretty good question—the problem is it’s never really asked toward some specific duty on the job. When interpreted by the candidate, it’s usually, ‘What are your strengths and weaknesses in life, meaning what are you good at and what are you not good at being you?’ These are skills not specific to the job,” Muh says. “But when it’s answered broadly, that can be good if it matches an organization’s corporate culture. Organizations typically are built of like-minded people. Beyond that, you’re not going to get much else by asking a broad question about strengths and weaknesses.”

For example, an organization that must adhere to strict deadlines would welcome a candidate who cites his dedication to making deadlines and being punctual, Muh explains, as that would be a good cultural fit. But it doesn’t necessarily indicate the candidate’s ability to fulfill a future job role.

Misleading Self-Assessments

Another potential challenge is that candidates may not be objectively aware of their true capabilities and as such cannot give an accurate assessment of their skills and abilities. Joseph P. Murphy, executive vice president of Shaker, points to the “continuum of capability,” which has four different facets:

  • Unconsciously incompetent: I don’t know I cannot perform.
  • Consciously Incompetent: I know I’m unable.
  • Consciously Competent: I know I am capable.
  • Unconsciously Competent: I don’t really know what my capabilities are, even though I may have them.

“The most effective form of assessment is a multi-method evaluation experience, including such methods as situational judgment, which explores how people make decisions in a given situation,” Murphy says. For example, a candidate listens to a conversation between a customer and a service provider. At the end of the conversation, the candidate is asked to choose among four alternatives for responding to that situation. Each of the alternatives is viable, but subtly different. “The subtle differences might be more empathy, more action bias, more task oriented, or more rule-based following,” Murphy explains.

To obtain a realistic and holistic assessment of a candidate, Murphy recommends a four-facet approach, which, along with the situational judgment test, includes:

  • Work samples
  • Work history questionnaires that identify and evaluate past work experiences
  • Work-style or behavioral questionnaire

A work sample assessment provides hiring managers with an ability to see how people can work under pressure while maintaining accuracy. “For example, if I’m going to be a claims processor for an insurance company, I might get a question from an insured person who is calling about whether something is covered in their policy. I would have an online database that mimics some of the knowledge, and the candidate would have to navigate the knowledge base to find the answer for that question,” Murphy says. Along with measuring for response accuracy, Murphy explains that adding a time factor can determine which candidates answered more questions and what level of accuracy they obtained, helping determine competence for hiring.

Crafting Training Based Upon Evaluation

Competency and knowledge assessments done prior to hire also can be helpful when it comes to crafting a training program. “An efficient way to teach new skills is to relate new knowledge to employees’ pre-existing knowledge and skill set,” Muh says. He offers an illustration of teaching computer programmers a new programming language. “Let’s say everybody is good at coding in language A, but nobody knows how to do it in language B. You would start your training by saying we’re going to build a basic program together, and this is what it’s going to do. Then you build it in the language everyone knows, so everyone is on the same page. Then the next step of training is to build the exact same functionality in coding language B.”

The first exercise should have candidates brush up on existing knowledge, while the second one would use an already known logic pattern, just applied in a different coding language. “This helps build a bridge,” Muh explains, “and facilitates more efficient training.”


By Russ Becker, President, Forum, a TwentyEighty Company

Hiring and training new employees is a significant investment, regardless of the size of a company. By some estimates, the average cost of recruiting, hiring, and training a new employee is close to $4,000 ( If done incorrectly, it can cost a company even more as it can result in high turnover or absenteeism.

By first assessing a potential new hire’s behavioral characteristics that are most relevant to predicting performance, organizations can set employees up for immediate and continued success. For example, in a Fortune 500 company we worked with, the company reported that account executives who were rated as “A” on their assessment made $250,000 more in annual sales on average than those rated as “B” or “C.” The information gathered from these types of assessments provides important insights, regardless of the employee’s position in the company. Here are a few reasons talent analytics are important for all companies: 

• Better understanding of unique talents. Testing new hires will help leaders and management teams gain an immediate understanding of a candidate’s strengths. If the strengths match the qualities of current successful employees, it could be concluded the candidate would be a good fit for the company. Testing current employees also can be beneficial as it can help managers understand if they are taking full advantage of their current team’s strengths.

• Understand what skills to look for. If you want to hire the best salespeople, for example, look at your top talent and understand the qualities they possess that make them successful. This will help you recruit candidates with the skill sets and qualities needed to achieve your goals.

• Ask the right kind of questions. When testing new hires, make sure the questions asked will provide the insight needed to best evaluate their skills. Questions should be direct in order to gather the most specific feedback possible.

Employee testing is one of the most effective ways for upper management to understand the accessible talent pool and how to best apply their employees’ skills to ensure success.