Most jobseekers are prepared to tell hiring managers the basics about their work history, current job description and education. You probably also have answers for some of the common job interview questions about why you want the position and where you see your career going.
Things get trickier when the hiring process includes questions about tougher situations, like a time when your work was criticized. You might wonder how you can talk about something negative and still be seen in a positive light. It is important to craft the right answers, because how you respond will tell a prospective employer a lot about you.
The good news is, we’re here to help you plan ahead and put together a comprehensive reply that will help you ace your job interview. Read on for our guide on how to answer, “How do you handle criticism at work?”
Why hiring managers ask this question
Most jobseekers would love to focus only on their skills and accomplishments during an interview, but it’s never that simple. Your interviewer wants to find out what potential weaknesses you have, how you deal with a challenging work environment, and if your work ethic makes you a good fit for the company.
Hiring managers ask this specific “behavioral question” to see if you are open to receiving constructive criticism. Depending on the industry, it can also be a guide to how you might deal with an angry customer or a particularly demanding client. They are looking for employees who are willing to listen carefully, maintain an even temper, and make useful changes based on the critique.
An interview question about receiving criticism at work can also tell them how well you will mesh with your prospective supervisor’s temperament. What you consider a “criticism” might be something the “harsh but fair” boss doles out regularly as “a helpful comment”. This is where comprehensive interview preparation is key, including researching the company’s leaders and the overall company culture.
How to prepare a response
Since hiring managers can read so much into your answer to this question, you want to choose your words carefully. Follow these 5 steps to help you map out the perfect response.
Step 1: Think about a situation when your work was criticized
It is possible to answer this interview question with an honest self-evaluation of how you generally deal with criticism. One of the top tips for interviewing well, however, is to use an example from your past experience to better illustrate your response. Select a scenario from your work history where you handled the criticism calmly, fixed the issue, and improved your work process, style, or behavior going forward.
Step 2: Define the parameters of constructive criticism
We’ve all been criticized at one time or another, but not all critiques are valid or fair. Prospective employers want to know that you are able to identify constructive advice and act accordingly. Share your process for evaluating any criticism that comes your way.
Avoid stories about bad bosses who deflected blame onto you, or difficult coworkers who created a hostile work environment or made personal attacks that had nothing to do with your job performance. Choose a situation where you received a critique and, after some sincere self-reflection, you agreed with the assessment.
Step 3: Prepare multiple examples
Critiques can take different forms at work, depending on where they’re coming from. Prepare some alternate example scenarios so you can tailor your response about a time when your work was criticized to an issue that seems important to the hiring manager.
Pay attention to how many questions deal with following management’s lead, your skill at teamwork, or solving customer problems. If the interviewer seems most interested in how you deal with client phone calls or manning the help desk, for example, you’ll be prepared with a relevant example about how you reacted to critical customer feedback.
Step 4: Focus on your improvement
So, how do you share your story about being criticized at work? Experts often recommend using the STAR method, where you outline the Situation, then the Task to be completed, the Action you took to solve the problem, and the Result of your efforts.
Focus the bulk of your answer on the action you took to improve, and the positive result. Ideally, the change you made led to better workflow, bigger profits, improved teamwork and other outcomes that benefited both yourself and the company.
Step 5: Practice your response
It’s not easy to talk about your flaws, especially when you want to seem positive and display confidence during an interview. Prepping your responses thoroughly beforehand will help it go smoothly.
Practice your responses out loud, so you can find a way to share your story without stumbling over your words. Enlist a friend to listen to your presentation and offer advice on your message clarity, tone and body language. This can help you improve your response as well as helping you confirm how well you accept constructive criticism.
Your response to criticism can vary depending on who offers their critique. We’ve created sample answers to give the interviewer, whether you received criticism from a boss, customer, or coworker. This will show how you can tailor your answers to different scenarios.
Example 1: Customer feedback
Here’s an example to use if you received feedback from a customer:
“No one loves getting criticized, but it can be really helpful to get an outside perspective on your work. A few years ago, we had a tough holiday weekend where the store registers were down for two hours, and the lines got really long while we used a back-up system that was much slower.
Of course, a lot of people were upset and impatient, and we had to repeat the explanation for the delay over and over. Halfway through the day, a very polite and soft-spoken customer suddenly asked me why I was so angry with her.
It was a kind of shock to the system, and I realized I had let the tension of the day get to me. I quickly apologized to the customer and made a necessary attitude adjustment.
When things slowed down that evening, I talked with some of my coworkers, and we shared ideas about dealing with stress. We also agreed to help each other out if one of us was getting too tense with customers. It’s a kind of buddy system that I encouraged my teams to use once I became supervisor, and it helps us provide consistently friendly customer service.”
Example 2: A critique from the boss
Here’s a sample answer for if you’re talking about dealing with criticism from your (ex) boss:
“As a writer, every single word I write is under scrutiny from proofreaders, editors, publishers, clients and readers. I always have to be ready for feedback of all kinds. It’s not always easy to receive criticism, but at every stage it’s an opportunity to learn and really strengthen my writing.
My first feature was a lifestyle magazine assignment to interview a well-known dating expert. It turned out she had also had a fascinating career in TV news, so, I incorporated a lot of that history into my article.
My editor was unhappy with the final piece because I had veered too far from the angle they wanted on dating advice. As much as I loved the subject’s backstory, I realized she was right and that the article lacked a strong focus. I went through and cut out the extra material and rewrote the rest to meet what the magazine wanted. They were pleased with my revisions and the piece was published.
After that, I learned to tailor my interview questions more effectively to get the material I needed. If a chatty subject gave me answers that were outside the scope of the assignment, I saved my notes and later pitched a separate piece to my boss. I was able to do five more features with that magazine as well as several pieces for the online version.”
Example 3: Constructive criticism from a coworker
If you’re focusing on criticism from a coworker, here’s how you could answer:
“One of the benefits of getting along well with your team is that they’re not afraid to tell you when you’re getting something wrong. When I was doing WordPress for a web design firm, the boss put me in charge of wrangling everyone together for a daily meeting to coordinate whatever projects we were working on.
I knew everyone was busy, so I moved quickly through agenda items and thought we were efficiently coordinating and then getting us all back to work. After a couple of weeks, however, one of the graphic artists let me know that the meetings were at such a blinding pace that my colleagues felt there wasn’t an opening for them to bring up any problems.
I was worried about adding too much time to the meetings, but the next day I paused between agenda items to ask if anyone had anything to add. It turned out three people had questions, and solving some important issues only added about five minutes to the meeting.
I thanked my team member for bringing up the issue, and I made sure to leave space in the future for anyone to chime in. The meetings weren’t as short, but they saved time in the long run because we were working well together and solving small problems before they became big problems.”
What not to say
You may wonder if there is a “wrong answer” when talking about a uniquely individual situation when your work was criticized, but there are definitely three important interview “don’ts”.
- Don’t claim perfection — Hiring managers won’t believe that you never made a mistake or received criticism. That loss in credibility will tarnish the rest of the interview.
- Avoid blaming others — This question is being asked specifically to see if you can take personal responsibility and improve yourself, even if others may have also made mistakes.
- Don’t embellish your story — Your answers to interview questions don’t need to be epic to be effective. Hiring managers can often see through a lie or confirm it when calling your references.
As you prepare for this interview question and answer, remember to thoroughly plan your response to how you deal with criticism.
- Stay positive. Hiring managers are looking for someone who is excited about the opportunity to learn, not bitter at being critiqued.
- Keep it real. Don’t just wax poetic about how great you are with criticism. Give a true, specific example about your self-improvement.
- Prepare for anything. Interviewers may alter the specifics of the questions, so have several answers ready to suit their angle.
We hope this guide offered some helpful tips for answering a tough interview question and showing prospective employers that you’re a great fit for their company.
If you're still feeling anxious, check out this video for the best interview tips:
How did you tell hiring managers about a time when your work was criticized? Share your story in the comments below!