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One common interview question is how did you handle a coworker who was not performing well and it was impacting your work ?

I work in an IT role in a big company and I faced this problem due to a coworker's lifelong disability. He had to regularly consume medicine which often made him confused and sleepy. So, I often had to do his work and sometimes I had to do extra hours of unpaid work. I even had to fix his mistakes sometimes. I tried to ensure that he was given work that he could handle. But, it did not really work out well because I was still overburdened. Unfortunately, there was little support from management.

Is it okay to talk about the impact of a coworker's disability on you in an interview ? My gut says that I should not do it regardless of the facts and the impact on me. These things are politically incorrect to bring up, if not legally problematic. For all I know, the interviewers have friends or family who are disabled, and they might let irrational emotions influence their decision to hire me.

PS - Alternately, I could make up a story to answer the interview question and hopefully be able to back it up with more stories. What do you think ?

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    Why did you do all this unpaid work for someone else? It's not your problem.
    – Aida Paul
    Commented May 30, 2020 at 22:17

5 Answers 5

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This question only makes sense if you're interviewing for a position in management. Otherwise, if you're an individual contributor, the only reasonable thing to do about an underperforming colleague is to discuss the situation with your manager - they're the one responsible for solving this problem. It's great that you've empathized with a colleague with a disability and helped them with their tasks, but it's your manager's job to make sure the workload is distributed properly, taking all circumstances into account.

To sum up, your answer should be along the lines of "I reported the underperforming colleague to my manager", period.

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    Two problems with this answer. No one wants to hire an individual who thinks they have no responsibility to the team, and it assumes that the manager is not already aware (which isn't a given in the question prompt). True, your answer basically sums up OP's proposed story, but it's not appealing at all. At least as-is, the OPs story demonstrates that they were a team player and (unfortunately) prioritized results over their own well-being--appealing traits for a company.
    – Mars
    Commented Feb 22 at 7:31
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You wrote, "My gut says that I should not do it regardless of the facts and the impact on me."

Trust your gut!

I've done interviews on both sides of the table, and I haven't heard (or asked) this specific question - though it's similar to common questions along the lines of "tell me about a time you/your team faced some kind of problem and what you did to overcome that problem to achieve your goal."

If you are asked this kind of question and you respond by talking about another person's disabilities and how their disabilities made things hard for you, then I feel like the very best possible outcome you can hope for is that the interviewer might, possibly, not be offended. And a lot of interviewers definitely will be put off. So the possible downside definitely outweighs the basically non-existent upside.

Just don't do it. Interviewers asking this kind of question want to hear about positive decisions you made or actions you took, and describing the problem to them is just the set-up. Don't focus on saying negative things about a coworker or your old company or how hard things were for you - find a way to focus on telling them things you did to get through a tough situation and make things better. That's what they want to hear.

Try to think of problems/situations you could discuss that are relatively innocuous in terms of the problem, but that will give you an opportunity to play up (hopefully with a straight face!) how you innovated, or rallied the team to work together, or tactfully helped your supervisor's boss in a sensitive situation, or whatever. Ideally you might try to think through 2 or 3 various situations in advance so that they are waiting in your bag of tricks ready to use.

And I guess I'm in the camp of sticking with the truth. If I'm the interviewer, I hate feeling like a candidate is just making things up (and I definitely have had that feeling sometimes). I'd much rather have a candidate say something like "I guess I'm really fortunate that I've never had a situation where I was forced to deal with an underperforming coworker [or whatever exactly I asked about], but there was another situation where ...," and then steer the answer to something vaguely related. Examples might be something like "but there was one time when one of my coworkers was out for an extended medical leave and we got swamped with several really large new orders" or "but there was one time that one of my colleagues quit without notice and really left us scrambling to meet our deadlines." Just hypotheticals - tailor to your experiences, of course.

Whatever you go with, don't dwell on the problem and how hard it was for you - just quickly set the scene and then get to the good parts about how you/your team dove in and saved the day. And if you can do it with a straight face maybe throw in how it really felt good to get a chance to really dig in and help out the team. :-)

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Direct answer to your question:
There aren't really any issues with mentioning that you had a coworker with a disability. It adds some flavor to your story and obviously influences your approach to the situation.


But let's dive deeper:
Read between the lines. Why are they asking this question? They want to know how you react to difficulties with coworkers. Were you stressed? Did it lead to fights? Did you act as a team player? Did you (try to) fix the situation?


So with that, let's reflect on your proposed answer.

  • Were you stressed? Yes, it sounds like it from your term "overburdened"
  • Did it lead to fights? It doesn't sound like it. You showed kindness and understanding.
  • Did you act as a team player? Yes, definitely. You helped pick up the slack. You took on work that wasn't yours and helped the company.
  • Did you fix the situation? Unfortunately, no. Obviously you can't fix a disability. It sounds like maybe you brought things to the attention of management though, and that's what you should focus on in your answer. You tried to help make sure that the underperforming coworker was given tasks that were appropriate for their level. Make it clear that you didn't just complain to management about being overworked and stressed.

It's the last point that makes the disability a good thing to mention. It justifies the actions that you took. Consider some hypotheticals:

  • If they were underperforming because of a skills issue, a more appropriate response would have been mentoring them.
  • If it was a coworker working through some issues, maybe you could have done something from a personal standpoint that made the situation better.
  • If a new hire was having problems even after being in the company for a while, maybe you could have written some new documentation.

Lastly, I would advise against mentioning that you picked up your coworker's slack unpaid. Do companies love a mule? Definitely. So it may help your chances of getting hired. But you don't have much to gain by advertising that you're okay with being mistreated by a company. You may be inviting the same behavior again.


Edit: Actual last point: It's important to realize that interview questions typically don't come in a vacuum. There is a reason they are asking this question--this was likely a problem that the company had recently or currently still has. Take that into consideration when you're considering if you still wish to work there!

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I personally have never heard this question in a job interview. However, my idea is that if someone would ask this question they would love to hear a story about how you stepped up and helped this colleague be a more productive worker, by training him/her, explaining things to him/her, helping him/her prioritizing tasks etc.

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Is it okay to talk about the impact of a coworker's disability on you in an interview?

Both Yes and No. I will try to explain each

Yes. Bring up the disability.

Here you should really word it carefully and never refer to him as underperforming. However, the fact you decided to help him in real life means you were motivated by some human instincts. Just talk about it. It is okay to express how it overworked you but if you felt some satisfaction about helping someone, you can mention that. This was a real experience for you and if you get a chance to talk about it, do that with complete respect to your coworker. May be the hypothetical interviewer who has a relative in the similar situation may actually appreciate it.

No. Do not bring it up.

If you do not want to risk it, then you can still talk about the situation and refer to your coworker as underperformer and not disabled. Just explain how he was not up to the mark and how you took extra efforts to teach and help him in many ways. This is almost close to your P.S. remark about making up a story but still you have real experiences to relate to but just express it with some "edits".

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