Hiring managers use behavioral interview questions like “tell me a time you failed” to figure out the kind of person you are and look for red flags. You need to show how you dealt with a difficult situation, how you turned it into a learning experience, and how you have avoided repeating the past mistake. The interviewer is also trying to determine if you are giving an honest answer about a real failure with a past employer.
Read on for tips and sample answers when you are asked this challenging question.
5 Tips for Your Answer
- Choose a real past failure and be upfront about it.
- Make your answer short and objective.
- Take responsibility for your mistake.
- Emphasize what you did to prevent this error from happening again.
- Highlight what you learned from that experience.
5 Mistakes to Avoid
- Avoid memorizing your answer (it needs to sound natural).
- Don’t blame other people.
- Avoid situations that could put your future with the new employer in jeopardy.
- Avoid repeated mistakes (you want to show that it won’t happen again).
- Avoid situations that may damage your reputation or paint you in a negative light.
How to Answer: STAR Format
When you select your best past experience for this tricky question, use the STAR format to organize your ideas into a story that will make a good impression on your potential employer. The STAR acronym means:
S: Situation – say how long ago it was, where you worked, etc.
T: Task – explain what you were supposed to do.
A: Action – tell them what happened, what went wrong, and how you reacted to that.
R: Result – show a positive outcome: what you learned, how you fixed the mistake, how you won’t let that happen again.
Use the following 21 sample answers to this common interview question to help you choose a past failure where you can take a negative situation and turn it into a successful outcome. Then use the STAR method to prepare your compelling answer.
Best Example Answers to “Tell Me a Time You Failed” Interview Question
1. Example Answer:
One of the first projects that I managed had a very tight deadline. I accepted it to impress my boss. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to get the project finished on time. After that, I sought help and studied various strategies to prevent delays. I learned to keep track of the project schedule from day one, identify potential problems and act quickly, and keep open communication with the team, to name a few. That failure helped me become a better project manager.
Key Takeaways: This answer doesn’t dwell on the failure. It is an example of a succinct way to give a great answer. It takes a failure story and emphasizes the silver lining.
2. Example Answer:
In my first job, I was assigned to make a series of changes to a customer’s live website. I had two hours to do them. I hadn’t tested the changes before, and they didn’t work. I undid everything because time was running out. I had to schedule the process all over again, and the customer was upset. Since then, I always use a test server to apply all changes and validate them before taking them to a live website.
Key Takeaways: The candidate uses a failure that isn’t fatal because they were able to take practical actions to recover. It also points out that they now follow the ideal approach for that task.
3. Example Answer:
A few years ago, I was fixing a computer at a customer’s office. I was stressed and distracted. I mishandled a delicate component, and it broke. I told the customer what happened and apologized. I called my office and asked them to send a replacement part, and said that I would pay for it. Then I finished the job. After that, I learned some mental exercises to tune out distractions and improve my focus. That never happened again.
Key Takeaways: This answer is a great example of how you can illustrate that you have an essential element – mental concentration – that applies to every job. Successful people in every field are those who can concentrate and focus. This answer also shows the candidate’s work ethic because they were so committed to the customer’s satisfaction that they offered to pay for the broken computer component.
4. Example Answer:
I was working part-time at a bakery while I was in college. The first time my boss asked me to bake bagels, he showed me how to do it but I didn’t take any notes. I made a couple of batches, and they were fine. But then, on the third batch, I forgot to add yeast and ruined that whole batch. I was upset and embarrassed because I could have avoided the mistake if I had just taken notes. It was a lesson I never forgot and now I am a diligent note-taker, and also make sure to ask questions to ensure I understand clearly.
Key Takeaways: This candidate is fresh out of college, and they chose a situation that shows they identified their failure and have since made note-taking an ingrained habit. Listening to directions without taking notes is a common mistake, and potential employers value job candidates who will listen carefully and write down instructions.
5. Example Answer:
Back when I worked as a freelance graphic designer, I had this big project for a new client. After one meeting with her, I started working on the pieces she had ordered. When I finished, I sent it all to her. She didn’t like any of it. I had to redo everything. To avoid that situation again, I learned to ask many more questions and listen better to what the customer wants. I also learned to send concepts and drafts to get their approval before spending many hours on the various pieces.
Key Takeaways: This answer shows a newbie mistake, but it emphasizes the lessons learned.
6. Example Answer:
Back in my first job after college, I got assigned to an important project. In one of our internal meetings, I noticed a problem, but I didn’t say anything. I thought if I were wrong about that problem that I would look stupid. It turns out that problem caused a delay in the project. I learned the consequences of my passivity and timidity. Now, I don’t hold back. If I am not sure, I speak up. It is better to find out that I am wrong than to let an issue become a severe problem.
Key Takeaways: This is a great way to answer this question if you are a candidate with little work experience. It shows a common problem, but the candidate took responsibility and learned from it.
7. Example Answer:
In my previous job, there was this time when I was helping a customer solve a problem with their database server by phone. I didn’t assess the situation correctly, and after sending him a set of instructions by email at the end of the day, I went home. A few hours later, my boss called me.
The customer was furious. The instructions didn’t work, and I hadn’t made myself available to help him further. I should have made sure to connect with him about the issue instead of just send him email instructions. I also should have made sure he knew how to reach me if he needed further help after hours. That was a huge mistake, and one I have never made again.
Key Takeaways: The candidate explains how poor communication created a problem and what they learned from that experience.
8. Example Answer:
A few years ago, I had a customer who made a big order late on a Friday afternoon. I wanted to submit it that day, but I only had a few minutes left before we closed for the weekend. I rushed it and finished it in time. When the customer got the products, there was a problem. I had ordered 18 instead of 10 items. My rush brought my department an unnecessary loss. That was a tough way to learn to always double-check every order before submitting it and not rush through important tasks.
Key Takeaways: This answer explains the situation well, what the candidate learned from it, and how the candidate became a better employee because of it.
9. Example Answer:
As a manager, my biggest mistake happened when I had to fire someone from my department. I didn’t give it enough thought and fired the youngest employee we had. It was a mistake for a number of reasons. Though she didn’t have as much experience as the others did, she worked very hard and often pitched in when others were overwhelmed. The whole team suffered from her absence. I should’ve considered my decision more carefully and talked to the team leaders before making my decision.
Key Takeaways: The candidate is upfront about their mistake. They show an effective way they will avoid that mistake again.
10. Example Answer:
Back when I was promoted to team leader, I was still really focused on my individual performance in the beginning. I was doing everything I could to try to impress my boss. Even though I demanded high performance from my team members, we didn’t meet our goals. I realized that I had failed my team. As a team leader, I should’ve helped them. After that, I changed my focus to thinking about the team first and working together. We’ve met all our goals since then.
Key Takeaways: The candidate is honest about their lack of leadership experience. They show how quickly they changed and how it benefitted the team.
11. Example Answer:
When I began my internship, I was falling behind with my assignments. My team leader noticed it and talked to me. She told me that I should organize my tasks better. If I was having problems, I should ask for help. So, I started using a system to manage my tasks more efficiently. That way, I was able to tell before I got overwhelmed, so I asked for help or for more time to finish new tasks. A few months later, my team leader told me I had almost doubled my productivity.
Key Takeaways: This answer shows the candidate was inexperienced, but they were humble and quickly corrected what they were doing wrong.
12. Example Answer:
A while ago, I was working with other engineers on a strategic project for our company. One of the interns told me there was an error in one of my calculations. I was offended by that and dismissed him. However, it didn’t take long, and the lead engineer found the same error. I was so embarrassed! I apologized to the intern and the team. I should’ve double-checked my calculations when the intern first brought it up. My pride almost cost my reputation. It was a humbling lesson, but I needed it.
Key Takeaways: The candidate is honest to admit their mistakes (the error and their pride). They apologized and took responsibility for them.
13. Example Answer:
This happened when I was called to a customer’s office to fix a computer server. I briefly talked to the customer and, before I left, I took a replacement power supply with me. When I got there, I realized that the part I took didn’t fit. I had to go back to my office to get the correct power supply. That meant their server was down for two more hours. From then on, I learned to talk to the customer more, and get the part number or the model number to make sure I use the correct replacement parts.
Key Takeaways: The candidate made a mistake that impacted the customer’s business, but they learned how to avoid it in the future.
14. Example Answer:
The first time I got an intern to be part of my team, I failed to lead him the right way. I started delegating tasks and didn’t check how he was doing. He quickly got overwhelmed, but I didn’t notice. One of my employees talked to me about it. I realized the intern needed guidance with his tasks. I apologized to him and chose an experienced team member to be his mentor. With that help, he started delivering excellent results, and soon he was able to do most tasks by himself.
Key Takeaways: The candidate admits they failed at first, but once they realized it, they provided what the intern needed to do a good job.
15. Example Answer:
A few years ago, I was working on a services proposal for a potential new customer. One night, I decided to print the proposal and review it during my commute. While I read it on the subway, I fell asleep. When I woke up, it was gone. I had to let my manager know. He decided to reschedule our presentation to the customer to the following day, so no one would have time to use the information.
The whole team had to work late the next day, but the presentation wasn’t as good as it could’ve been. We got the deal, but it was a close call. I learned the hard way to be more careful with the company’s documents and avoid reading them in public places.
Key Takeaways: The candidate explained the problem, had the courage to own up to it, and learned how to be more responsible.
16. Example Answer:
A while ago, my manager asked me to present a new product to a customer. I was too busy, so I ended up working on the presentation at the last moment. It turned out to be a fiasco. The visuals were poor. I hadn’t studied the materials enough, so I wasn’t able to answer the customer’s questions. My manager was disappointed. That experience taught me to always schedule sufficient time to prepare before any presentation.
Key Takeaways: The candidate is honest about their failure, and they show what they changed to avoid it from happening again.
17. Example Answer:
A time that I failed was during one of my first projects as a graphic designer. I had created a large set of designs for a customer’s new campaign. I sent them to the customer and he got furious that I had used the wrong shade of green in their logo. That was a terrible mistake. The company almost lost that account. After that, I was much more careful when working with a customer’s branding.
Key Takeaways: The candidate took responsibility for their mistake and was careful to avoid it from happening again.
18. Example Answer:
A time that I failed, and also the biggest mistake I can think of, happened a while ago after we closed our company’s largest contract with a soft drink company. I was the sales manager back then. A few days later, I went out with friends and posted a selfie on Instagram. I was foolishly holding a can of our client’s competitor. Somehow, the client found out and wasn’t happy about it. I deleted the post and apologized to the customer. Then, I decided to take a more professional approach to social media and be very selective of what I post.
Key Takeaways: The candidate showed a high level of commitment to the company and sensitivity to their clients.
19. Example Answer:
In my previous job, I started working as a software developer. It was the first time I was part of a big project. I had two weeks to develop a few components of the application. I didn’t plan it well, and I missed the deadline. It delayed other team members who needed to use my part for their work. I failed my team and the customer. Since then, I always plan out various milestones in a schedule before I start coding. I’ve never missed a deadline since then.
Key Takeaways: The candidate described their mistake, identified its cause, and took action to avoid it in the future.
20. Example Answer:
When I was new to the HR department, I made a mistake that could have cost me my job. One day, my boss asked me to send a report about our company to a business partner. Accidentally, I sent him the wrong file, one that contained confidential information about some of our employees. When I realized what I had done, I immediately told my boss. He was so upset that he almost fired me. After that, I reorganized all our files, using structured folders and better file names so that it would be difficult for anyone to repeat my mistake.
Key Takeaways: The candidate took responsibility, admitted the error, and took action to prevent it from happening again.
21. Example Answer:
My first internship was in an accounting firm. I was responsible for the data entry. When it came close to April 15 (tax day), we had a lot of work. I wanted to finish my work fast, so I typed very quickly. I didn’t double-check everything that I entered and made a few mistakes. If one of the employees hadn’t double-checked my data entry, there could have been serious problems for our customers and the company. I learned to double-check my work, even if it takes a while longer to finish it.
Key Takeaways: The candidate explains the scenario that contributed to that error and how they changed their behavior.
The best strategy to respond to behavioral questions is to prepare your answer in advance. A well-thought-out answer will help you show how you can grow from failure and become a better professional. Tell a compelling story using the STAR technique, and leave a great impression on the hiring manager. Show them you’re the best candidate for that new job.
Keith Miller has over 25 years of experience as a CEO and serial entrepreneur. As an entrepreneur, he has founded several multi-million dollar companies. As a writer, Keith's work has been mentioned in CIO Magazine, Workable, BizTech, and The Charlotte Observer. If you have any questions about the content of this blog post, then please send our content editing team a message here.