"Can you tell me what your primary work-related weaknesses are?"
Painful because honesty is typically not an option. Telling the reviewer that you have a habit of undermining your coworkers and management through the spreading of malicious rumors or that you've figured out a way to work only 45 minutes out of every 8 hour work day without anyone noticing will tend to negatively affect your prospects for getting a raise or keeping your job. Telling the reviewer that you have figured out a way to steal enough pencils and staplers from the office to finance a lake cabin and your children's college fund may even get you arrested. No, the smart move is to avoid going into your personal fault inventory at all.
Unfortunately, you can't just clam up either. Responding by saying "no comment" is really suspicious and leads the interviewer to immediately assume you're hiding an increasingly voracious methamphetamine habit that will soon erode your attendance rate, production levels, and your ability to keep your teeth from falling out of your head during a sales call.
Sitting there motionless and keeping entirely silent is weird too. That is, unless you're using the deaf angle and you tell end up telling the reviewer that your main weakness is that you're losing your hearing. Not a bad play for sympathy reasons and for introducing the notion that firing you is discriminatory behavior with severe legal repercussions. But this gambit requires a high degree of commitment, forcing you to pretend to have a hearing problem for perhaps years or even decades to come. That's a lot of work in order to avoid one difficult question.
Ideally, the response to an inquiry of your primary job-related weaknesses must be both succinct and self-serving. As veterans of the job market have learned, there are only two acceptable options:
1) I work too hard.
2) I'm a perfectionist.
And these problems plague our society. According to a recent Bureau of Labor Statistics survey of human resources professionals on the primary problems facing business in America, 82% said their employees work too hard and 73% are overcapacity for perfectionists.
In other words, the jig may soon be up. These answers are getting stale. Before we know it employers will catch on. Then they'll start prefacing the dreaded question by saying "Besides the fact that you work too hard and/or are a perfectionist, what are you're greatest work-related weaknesses?" It's like when Wheel of Fortune started giving away the STRLN for the bonus round and then used harder phrases without those letters. We're doomed!
Fear not, America. Just when you thought all was lost and we were out of hope, in steps The One.
President Obama interviewed by ABC News on the subject of his performance during his first year in office:
The president said he made a mistake in assuming that if he focused on policy decisions, the American people would understand the reasoning behind them.I didn't think I was possible, but we now have a third answer to that most painful of performance review questions.
"That I do think is a mistake of mine," Obama said. "I think the assumption was if I just focus on policy, if I just focus on this provision or that law or if we're making a good rational decision here, then people will get it."
Instead, the president said the American people ended up with a "feeling of remoteness and detachment" from the policymakers in Washington who are making big decisions.
3) I've been so busy making the big decisions for this company, so immersed in the complexities and technical details of my job, I haven't taken the time to come down to your level and explain what I'm doing. This has left you feeling remote and detached from the good things I'm doing every day. I need to do a better job of making sure you can understand what I'm doing and why.
If the workers of America can peddle that line of shinola with the same sincerity as Barack Obama, it's got to be good for at least a half a point off the unemployment numbers next quarter.