“What are your pet peeves?” isn’t a question you typically expect to get in a job interview, and it’s a tricky one to answer on the fly. That’s because it’s asking you to talk about something negative about yourself—what bothers you at work—while still leaving a potential employer with a positive feeling about you and your candidacy. So it’s worth having a great answer prepared, just in case.
In thinking about how to frame your answer, it’s important to understand why employers ask it in the first place. “What are your pet peeves?” is a behavioral question, meaning that hiring managers typically ask it to find out more about your real-world personality and to figure out how you’ve behaved in a work setting in the past.
By probing into the things that irritate you, they want to see how you might fit into the culture at the company you’re applying to. They’re also trying to get a sense of your maturity and conflict resolution skills—how well do you handle office disputes? Are you generally calm and collected at work, or do small things set you off?
All of this might sound like a minefield, but there are easy steps you can follow to craft a compelling and thoughtful answer. Here are six tips to help you prepare.
1. Do Your Research
Hiring managers who ask “What are your pet peeves?” want to see how you would fit into their company culture. So before the interview, do as much research as you can about what kind of environment the company or team fosters. Is it formal or laid back? Collaborative or individualistic? Do they value risk-tasking or not?
For example, if the company you’re applying to encourages a casual environment, and you say your pet peeve is when people don't dress professionally for work, that could lead an interviewer to question whether you’d fit in, says Muse career coach Tara Goodfellow. It’s not wrong—it’s just not aligned with the way that company operates.
This is also a good opportunity to do a gut check about whether this job is the right one for you, says Timothy Lo, co-founder of Your Next Jump, a career consulting company. If you find yourself completely changing your answers to fit the company’s culture, then it might not be the right place for you.
2. Be Honest
Your answer should reflect your actual personality, Lo emphasizes. Don’t be tempted to throw out a thinly veiled humble brag, like “My pet peeve is people who don’t work as hard as I do” or “I’m annoyed by co-workers who aren’t as perfect as I am.” This kind of answer just reads as a transparent attempt to impress potential employers (and to be honest, it’ll have the opposite effect).
3. Explain the Why
One of the reasons “What are your pet peeves?” can be a difficult question to answer is that it’s possible to accidentally insult the person interviewing you, even in the most innocent response. You likely won’t know much about your interviewer beforehand, so you’ll have no way of knowing if your pet peeve is something that this person does themselves.
Avoid this potential pitfall by making your answer specific to you and your experience—and explaining why the pet peeve bothers you. For example, if your pet peeve is disorganization in the office, you could say that in your previous experience, you saw how disarray can affect the productivity and motivation of a team. This way you’re keeping your answer centered on your own experience, making it less likely that an interviewer could take it the wrong way (even if they’re a messy person themselves!). For example, try a response like this:
“It bothers me when an office’s schedule is really disorganized, because in my experience, disorganization can cause confusion, which can hurt the motivation of the team. As a person who likes things to be orderly, I try to help keep my team on task while also allowing for flexibility.”
4. Turn a Negative Into a Positive
Another approach is to focus on something at work that really does bother you, but use it to illustrate personal growth or problem-solving. Lo says that something like being bothered by micromanaging could be a potentially winning answer—if you follow that admission by saying that you recognize this pet peeve as a limitation and have worked to take proactive, concrete steps to deal with it, like setting up weekly check-in meetings with co-workers or talking as a team about how to approach managing projects differently in the future. This type of answer makes you seem authentic (everyone has pet peeves), but also self-aware and capable. Try wording your response like this:
“In the past, I didn’t like when my supervisor seemed to always be checking in on my work. So I’ve learned to work on creating clear expectations about when and how to update my managers about my progress, like setting a weekly calendar reminder to meet briefly with them.”
5. Stay Calm
Keeping your voice and demeanor calm is key to successfully answering this question, says Goodfellow. “Sometimes people feel very passionately about their pet peeves,” she says, and that’s normal. But you should make sure to speak in an even tone as you discuss your pet peeve with your interviewer. If you become overly emotional while answering this question, that can be a red flag to a hiring manager. “That’s showing that you may not have the experience to deal with high pressure situations,” Goodfellow says. “If that little thing gets you so fired up, what’s going to happen when there’s a work emergency or an irate client?”
6. Keep It Short
As you prepare your response, pick one pet peeve to talk about and focus on crafting your answer around that one issue. You should never rattle off a long list of things that annoy you at work or specifically call out old bosses or co-workers. “What happens is that people start to think, is the problem them? Or is it you?” Lo says. Better to keep your answer focused and succinct. “I don’t think this is a question that you want to dwell on for a long time,” he adds.
Still feeling stumped about how to answer this question? Try out one of these responses as a way to show your flexibility, growth, and ability to problem solve:
“I’ve worked in places where some people leading meetings didn’t seem to use the time as efficiently as they could have, which made me feel like I wasn’t being productive either. I’ve tried to work on this issue by providing a model for how things could be different: by running my own meetings in a streamlined way and passing out agendas beforehand.”
“I’m an introvert, and sometimes I’ve struggled to adjust to noisy open offices where it’s normal for people to play loud music or hold long conversations at their desks. But I’ve figured out how to find my own quiet space when I really need to concentrate, either by wearing headphones or by booking an empty office or conference room.”
“I noticed that one of my co-workers always seemed to interrupt me when I was in the middle of making a point. For a few weeks, I was frustrated. But then I spoke to him one on one about what was going on, and the interruptions stopped—he hadn’t realized how his behavior was affecting me.”
Talking about your pet peeves in a job interview can feel risky, but if you focus on the positive and keep it short and sweet, you’ll be sure to come up with an answer that impresses the hiring manager. Need more advice? Read our guide to answering the most common interview questions to make sure you’re fully prepped for whatever the interviewer throws at you.
Photo of person answering an interview question courtesy of Jon Feingersh Photography Inc/Getty Images.