How to Answer: Tell Me About a Time When You Failed (with Samples)

Tough behavioral interview questions can raise the hair on the back of your neck, and behavioral-based job questions usually fall into that category.

One behavioral-based question my clients say catches them off guard is, “Tell me about a time when you failed in your job.”

This question is general, and a good interviewer will give the candidate some guidance by adding, “What did you learn from it? How did you make a change/changes to correct your mistake.”

Include what you learned and how you recovered, even if the interviewer does not give you that hint.

The employer’s goal with behavioral interview questions is to understand how you have responded to certain situations in the past to predict how you would act in a similar situation if you worked for them.

How to Answer “Tell Me About a Time When You Failed”

There are four thoughts you need to keep in mind when answering this question and questions like it:

  1. Stay Calm 

You must understand a good interviewer will not ask you questions that only call for a positive result. She will also want to hear answers where you talk about possible failures.

  • Don’t be offended.
  • Don’t show discomfort.
  • Don’t squirm in your seat.

Most importantly, don’t avoid answering the question.

  2. Show Self-Awareness and Honesty 

If you believe you’ve never failed, you lack self-awareness. Everyone has failed at least once — albeit some failures are less detrimental than others.

Don’t talk about a time your failure was so drastic that it cost the organization tens of thousands of dollars or was the cause of your dismissal (some of my clients admit to this). But do be honest.

  3. Understand Their Reason for the Question 

There may be a number of reasons why interviewers ask this particular question.

One reason they ask may be that they are looking for someone who can bounce back from failure.

Your predecessor may have failed and was unable to handle his failure. Failure is part of life and can be a learning experience. Smart interviewers realize this and look for candidates who can recognize and recover from failure.

  4. Have Your Example Ready 

Be prepared to describe a true situation when you failed and you handled it well. Include what you learned as a result of the failure so that you won’t repeat it.

Sample Answer to “Tell Me About a Time When You Failed”

During a job club I lead, one of my clients expanded on this question by making it specific to web development, when his employer’s customer rejected the plan and design he had developed for their new website.

Here is an example of how he could have answered the question.

The story told well is essential to answering the question. Often the interviewer hears other skills in your story than the one he inquired about.

The story is the most important part of answering this question. It should be shorter than 90 seconds, but more importantly it should give the interviewer a sense of the situation (S), the task (T), the actions you took (A), and the final result (R). This is known as the STAR method.

  The Situation:  

We had a new client, a start-up that wanted us to create, launch, and manage their website for them. I spent a solid week working on the plan for the content and the design of the web pages, presented it with confidence to the client, and was told by them it needed significant work.

  The Task:  

Although I was initially very disappointed, I knew I had to please the client by coming up with a new website.

  The Actions:  

When I shared the news with my manager, I could tell she was unhappy. I told her I would see the project through to the end and not disappoint her or the client.

So, I asked the client if I could meet with them a second time to get a better idea of what exactly what they were looking for. This meeting required me to drive 75 miles to the company and back.

In the meeting they told me that they wanted to emphasize the story of their company more than the services they were offering. In addition, they weren’t happy with the color scheme; they wanted more pastels. Finally, they wanted graphics that were more colorful.

I set to work on the website the following day. I wrote content that was more aligned with their mission and services offered. I adjusted the color scheme as they suggested. The only thing I was unsure of was how to create the graphics they wanted. But, I knew who could.

Once again I approached my boss. This time I had to persuade her to hire a graphic designer who could produce the graphics our client demanded. I told her that my friend’s son had graduated from a local college with a degree in graphic design. He was having a tough time finding work. She said she’d rather hire someone reputable.

I wasn’t going to argue the case with her. Instead, I asked my friend’s son to point me to his online portfolio, and I showed it to my boss. She was convinced, and agreed to hire him for this one project.

My friend’s son and I spent many hours together coming up with the graphics. He was phenomenal and took my instructions extremely well. With the graphics designed, I put the finishing touches on the website.

  The Result:  

Originally, the client gave me two weeks to develop a new plan for the website. But within a week I completed the plan with the new design and graphics. The client liked the plan which we implemented quickly, and the client was completely satisfied with the website. In fact, they remain a client of the company to this day. I’d also like to add that my son’s friend landed a permanent job shortly after the work he did with me.

  Bonus – The Learning:  

I learned that I should have gotten a full understanding of what my client needed before jumping into the project. Listening is extremely important, so I always make it a habit to listen carefully to what my clients need. 

Note that after the STAR was shared, the candidate shared what he learned from the experience, a very positive way to end his answer.

The Bottom Line with Answering the Question “Tell Me About a Time When You Failed”

Anticipate that you will be asked behavioral questions in interviews. As usual, the best defense is a good offense — have examples of how you have handled difficult situations, structured as STARs so you clearly present both the situation and the positive result.

More About Succeeding at Job Interviews

Answering the Common Job Interview Questions:

Questions About You:

Handling Special Career Situations:

Questions About Them:

Questions for You to Ask Them:

Interview Preparation:

Bob McIntoshAbout the author…

Bob McIntosh, CPRW, is a career and LinkedIn trainer who leads more than 17 job search workshops at an urban career center. He also critiques LinkedIn profiles and conducts mock interviews. His greatest pleasure is helping people find rewarding careers in a competitive job market. Selected by LinkedIn as one of 10 “Top Voices for Job Search and Careers,” follow Bob on LinkedIn. Visit his blog at Follow Bob on Twitter: @bob_mcintosh_1, and connect with him on LinkedIn.
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