When a hiring manager begins an interview question with the phrase "describe a time", it’s a signal he’s employing the so-called "behavioral" interviewing technique. The thinking behind this type of interview questions is that the way you’ve behaved in situations in the past will indicate how you’ll behave when placed in similar situations in the future. When that hiring manager asks you to talk about a time when you had to apologize to someone, he’s probably trying to gauge not just how much responsibility you’re willing to take for your actions, but also how far you’re willing to go to fix a future problem.
Thus, the way to answer this question is not just to introduce the scenario, but to also talk about what you did following that apology. And as with all job interview questions, try to come up with a response that somehow relates to the new job. If you’re applying for a job in customer service, try to come up with a customer service-related scenario.
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1. Employ the STAR technique
Using the STAR technique during job interviews can help you ensure that you’re supplying a thorough answer. The acronym stands for "situation or task, action and results". Thus, start off talking about the situation that led up to the mistake that warranted an apology. Keep that section brief and supply only enough details for the hiring manager to understand the scenario. The aim here is not to focus too much on how you screwed up, but what you did after you screwed up.
After mentioning the situation, talk more in depth about the actions you took to fix the problem. As mentioned previously, the aim of this question is usually to determine the lengths you’re willing to go to in order to fix a problem that you caused. Talk about the specific steps you took to remedy the situation, and provide any job-specific details needed to make the process clear to the hiring manager.
Following that, discuss the ultimate result of your actions. If you had to apologize to a customer, perhaps that customer decided not to leave your company after all, and even wrote you a thank-you note. If you had to apologize to a co-worker, perhaps you were able to develop a better relationship following the incident.
2. Talk about what you learned
Once you’ve outlined the steps you took, take the time to talk about perhaps the most important part of the process: what you learned from it. It’s OK to show some humility here and to say "I know what I did was not ideal, but here’s what I learned". It’s not about providing excuses; it’s about seeing even the mistakes as a chance to grow. The person with who is interviewing you will likely appreciate your humility and your ability to reflect on a negative situation.
3. Apply the lesson to the new job
To take it one step further and try to find a way to tie that lesson you learned in with the new job. If you made a mistake in handling a customer, for example, you might finish up your answer by talking about how that experience has made you more sensitive to customers’ needs. You could then talk about how you know that customer service is crucial in the new position, and how you’ll be sure to treat each customer with care when you’re hired.
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During a job interview, every response you give is a chance to show the hiring manager that you’re the best person for the job – even when a question seems at first to be one that will paint you in a negative light. The hiring manager knows that no one is perfect, and so this is also your chance to show humility and a desire to learn and grow.