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A while back, I was asked the question in the title during a job interview, and it really threw me for a loop. I've worked long enough to have run into my fair share of conflict and have had the odd customer or co-worker that I didn't get along great with, but I'm a pretty mild-mannered engineer and genuinely can't recall a single time I've accidentally caused actual offence to somebody in the workplace, much less intentionally.

The closest I could think of on the spot was a rather complicated but true story involving a middle manager on the customer site, who I'm fairly certain was being bribed by the competition (this was in a 3rd-world country) and did his level best to sabotage the project in order to get our company out. At one meeting, after once too often hearing him disclaim all responsibility for something squarely in his area, I publicly pointed out that he wasn't being very helpful in solving the problem, at which he pretended to take offence and went squealing up the food chain. Fortunately I managed to pull some strings of my own, and we got him removed from the project instead.

Alas, my interviewer wasn't impressed.

I: So he just pretended to be offended?

Me: That's right.

I: No, I'd like to hear about when you actually offended someone.

At which I drew a complete blank and we moved on after some awkwardness; I got the distinct impression he didn't believe I had never offended anybody. (And no, I didn't get the job, although I doubt it was because of this.)

So how should you answer that question?

Update: I'm seeing a lot of answers that seem to equate offence with conflict. To me these aren't the same: if you want the project delivered yesterday, and I tell you it will take a week, we may have a conflict (which are inevitable at work), but neither of us has taken offence. Even in situations like the above, where an "enemy" wants me fired for political reasons, they're doing so rationally because I (or, rather, my company) threaten their interests, not because I've personally done anything to offend them. Am I overthinking this?

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11 Answers 11

If I asked this question, what I'd be looking for is how this person deals with the times that they (inadvertently or not) do somethingthat causes another person some sort of grief. I'd want to know that the candidate is able to recognize when this happens, and how they deal with it.

If I were asked this question, I'd think back on occasions at work where I've had a misunderstanding with someone that made them think I was being rude or deliberately disrespectful. I'd explain what my part in the misunderstanding was, how I cleared it up and what I'd done to prevent this happening again (whether with this person or someone else).

In effect, this is a test to see whether you have the ability to admit to not being perfect, to own your mistakes and to learn from them to improve yourself.

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Recognition that you've offended someone, deliberate or not, is a good indication about social skills. Specifically empathy. –  Chris Lively Aug 28 at 0:45

I personally feel honesty is best in a situation like this. If I was on your shoes I would have stated:

"I don't know if I've actually offended someone in the past. If I have, it was never brought to my attention. I know that I have had disagreements/arguments with co-workers in the past. Would you like an example of how I handled that situation instead?"

I feel the question is more geared at understanding how you deal with conflict, and if you're honest about it. No one has zero confrontations in their life.

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“Tell me about when you offended somebody.”

This kind of question is not unusual, at least in my experience. It depends on the job in question, but often, tough or delicate questions are asked to see:

  • How does the candidate react to delicate questions? Does she/he stay calm, even-tempered, cool-headed? Is she/he up to these questions?
  • Does the candidate disclose more information about her/his character or personality than she/he wanted to? Does she/he do a "soul striptease"?

Interviewers try to elicit as much information about your character as they can. Delicate questions are a good way to do this.

In your example, a candidate could talk herself/himself into trouble, if from the answer the interviewer for example gets the impression of an aggressive person who likes to tangle with others.

So how should you answer that question?

You cannot prepare for all possible questions. But you can prepare for delicate questions in general. Stay calm, don't reveal such situations (in this case, situations where you offended someone), even if this happened to you (and wasn't a harmless situation). You don't want to risk to cast a poor light on yourself. Show that you behave professionally all the time.

You could for example say "This never happened to me. I try hard to not offend others. If there is a conflict, I try to clarify it objectively and unemotional."

Update: Of course, you can admit harmless situations like misunderstandings which have been clarified easily.

p.s. English is not my native language. I hope I have found words with the correct meaning.

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Normally these types of questions are used to try find other data, such as how you deal with difficult customers / colleagues, and how you dealt with the issue. In your example you used, I would not have used the word pretended to, as if he went squealing up the chain, he clearly was offended, even if it was just in retaliation to you.

The interviwer here could rather have dug in deeper into this example, rather than provide an unhelpful prompt of "actually offended someone". We haven't all been in this type of situation, and we may not recall these all at the same time.

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Jenny D has it right. I'm sure I could come up with a few examples of when I'd inadvertently offended somebody, usually through a miscommunication. I would talk about one of those times, making the following clear:

  • it was genuinely unintentional
  • I was embarrassed, and genuinely concerned about offending the other person
  • I immediately apologized and tried to clear the air -- in this example, by trying again to say what I meant to say originally.

If I were the interviewer, those are the points I'd be looking for:

  • You aren't generally abrasive and you play well with others. You care about your relationships with others.
  • You recognize when you've made a mistake, and own up to it
  • You are able to handle uncomfortable situations with skill and maturity.

All of the responses here that suggest saying something like, "I don't know if I've ever actually offended anyone..." -- you're all stupid people who probably hate puppies. :P I think that's probably not a good approach because it would make you seem like you aren't aware of it when you do slip up and offend somebody. I wouldn't go that route.

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"you're all stupid people who probably hate puppies" - even when meant to be a joke, IMHO this does not sit well after a nice explanation about why intentionally offending others is not good... –  Péter Török Aug 23 at 10:45

As one who has a marked tendency to tell it as I see it and tell it like it is, I am pretty sure that the number of people I offended face to face over the years easily runs in the three figures :) And when you throw in my participation in some online political forums, the number easily reaches in the tens of millions :)

No sense in hiding who I am and what I am like. I have offended:

  • deliberately and I was in the right. I have no regrets and offer no apologies. If the circumstance recurred, I would react in the same way. For example, I will not apologize for laying the smackdown on someone's whose actions imperiled the lives of others. I do not bother to keep count on this type of incidents, because I can easily generate many more where that came from.

  • inadvertently. I apologize just as soon as I find out how the miscommunication happened. And I get on my life, because there is nothing else for me to do but getting on with my life. I do not not keep count of this type of incidents either. Since I am socially clueless, the cumulative total could be depressing :) And I don't want to get depressed :)

  • deliberately and wrongly, such as in wrongly accusing someone. I still carry the guilt from some incidents which happened decades ago, and that most of the people involved in those incidents have long forgotten. But I haven't forgotten, and every time I remember the incident, the guilt and the shame at having done a human being wrong is renewed in my mind. It does not matter to me that they have forgiven. I am my toughest judge, and this judge does not forgive.

I can cite examples from all three types of incidents. Which type of incident would you like me to go over, Dear Interviewer?

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How about more of less this:

I've worked long enough to have run into my fair share of conflict and have had the odd customer or co-worker that I didn't get along great with, but I'm a pretty mild-mannered engineer and genuinely can't recall a single time I've accidentally caused actual offence to somebody in the workplace, much less intentionally.

Seems good enough? Id understand if someone told me this after I asked them the question

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Y'know, my response to that question would be "I can't think of one -- outside of the person who decided to take offense even though I quoted the bowdlerized version of the traditional mnemonic for resistor color code, and I would suggest that was their problem rather than mine."

You aren't obligated to invent answers to try to match the interviewer's script, especially on this sort of question. Unless you think there's something you can say that will show you in a good light, you can set it aside and move on.

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Think about times you have hurt someone's feelings. Maybe you forgot their birthday. Maybe you talked over the top of them in a meeting. Maybe you made a joke that fell flat. Maybe you promised something and forgot to do it. Maybe you got angry without knowing all the facts. Maybe you made a decision and they misinterpreted it. Maybe you swore and your grandmother didn't like it. Maybe you expressed a political opinion that others took offense to. Maybe you laughed at something about someone that wasn't funny to them. Maybe you ignored someone who needed to be heard.

People's feelings get hurt all the time. I can see how an interviewer might be troubled that you do not seem to recognize hurt feelings in other people. The interviewer is asking whether you recognize when your actions (intentional or not) have affected someone else negatively and what you did to fix it. This is a valid line of inquiry if you are going to be working in a team.

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You have two choices, it seems to me. Either you answer in a way that helps you get the job, or you attack the validity of the question.

The "get the job" way is to answer the question as best you can. If you honestly are not aware of ever having accidentally offended someone, either

  1. You are VERY young. Give it a few years - you will offend someone.
  2. You have a poor memory for such things.
  3. You are so insensitive to other people that you don't realize you are offending people.

You do NOT want the interviewer to think #3. #2 is safer, but still not good. #1 is your only hope.

The best approach, of course, is to describe such a situation, including how you realized that you had offended, and apologized and repaired the relationship. THAT is the answer they want.

Now, if you want to go the "attack the question" route, simply point out that research has shown ZERO correlation between such behavioral questions and eventual job success. Even Google & Microsoft, who have long been in the forefront of such nonsense, are rethinking this approach. Then ask the interviewer to move to the next question.

That's NOT the "get the job" approach, so choose carefully. ;-)

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RE: "zero correlation between behavioral questions and eventual job success", can you provide references? To my knowledge, it's the "how many ice cream vendors are there in New York" fad that has been shown to have no correlation with job success and which Google and Microsoft (after first popularising) have stopped using. –  Trevor Powell Aug 23 at 2:25

In my experience, people who ask these sort of questions have little interviewing experience and have just picked some questions out of a book or out of a website.

Therefore, when interviewers ask this sort of question, it means they don't really know what they're doing and this gives you an opportunity to take control and lead the interview where you want to take it and talk about what you want to talk about. They'll often feel grateful that you took the lead and they don't have to sit there going through their list of questions.

To be honest, if somebody asked me that I would just tell a joke that makes fun of my own race. Or say something light-hearted like "I once told my girlfriend to make me a sandwich".

Then start selling yourself on something else.

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That wouldn't work well everywhere. You might 'take control of the interview' but you equally might find the interview terminated very rapidly and a phone call being made to your recruiter, if you went through one, asking them not to send any more candidates who make sexist jokes and refuse to work with the interviewer's questions. –  RobM Aug 23 at 5:46

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