Just as children are encouraged to tell white lies about gifts from their grandparents, or the flavour of their meals, both sides of the job interview process routinely engage in fibbing, according to US academic Robert Feldman.
Speaking to The Wall Street Journal, the University of Massachusetts Amherst professor of brain sciences and author of The Liar in Your Life says that as the candidate must put their best foot forward and the hirer must sell the role, a job interview is “a situation almost designed to encourage lying”. (The Wall Street Journal, 10 January 2021)
Even some firms that say that want radical honesty may not necessarily mean it, he notes, adding: “It is part of being a well-socialised person in our society to use lies to make other people feel good about themselves and to present ourselves effectively.”
The WSJ piece cites a study that found people would exaggerate “all manner of things” in their pursuit of a new role, “from the responsibilities they had in previous jobs to their reasons for quitting”.
It adds: “Of course, mistruths exist on a spectrum, from slight exaggerations to complete fabrications. Sometimes omissions can help to avert potential bias. Other times, they can wreak havoc, even destroying careers.”
The article has made significant waves among recruitment professionals on LinkedIn, with Tejal Wagadia – one of the site’s Top Voices of 2020 – commenting: “Here is the thing, for the most part, both parties lie. It’s common. Hiring managers lie about expectations and budget, job seekers lie about qualifications and expectations. This was extremely stressful for me when I first started recruiting. Because I was told to embellish the truth, or just straight up lie to the candidate and stakeholder.”
In Wagadia’s view, hiring is often approached as a game of chicken to see who will make the first false move, rather than an effort to reach mutual understanding. Employment, she notes, “needs to be beneficial and need based”.
To stop this game of chicken, she advises, both sides should a) be honest about what they do and don’t know, and b) say things that are true, but uncomfortable. And for employers specifically, she writes, “Talk about your culture’s drawbacks, not just the awesome bean bags you have – which BTW [aren’t] a substitute for good culture.”
So, is inauthentic behaviour hardwired into job interviews? And if that’s the case, which other steps should employers take to make them more truthful?
The Institute of Leadership & Management’s chief executive John Mark Williams says: “Inauthentic behaviour is absolutely hardwired into job interviews. And that actually starts with the job description. Job advertisements, in the majority of cases, are quite impossible to fulfil, because they demand such an array of competencies and qualities, at expert level, that are not – as far as I can tell from my own career – possessed by any single human being. So, it’s no surprise – to quote the title of a 2017 book by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz – that Everybody Lies.”
Williams notes: “In terms of how this could be remedied, the starting point is that employers must make a conscious effort to offer truth, if that’s what they expect from applicants. And it’s not just the case, if we refer to Wagadia’s remarks, that they need to state the truth about the cultural drawbacks within their organisations. They simply need to tell the truth about the positions on offer – and stop asking for people who can be both collectivist and individualist; who can do everything on the operational and strategic sides of an organisation to an expert standard.”
He adds: “Without a doubt, improvements must stem from employers being truthful. That will give them not only the expectation that people will be similarly honest in response, but the leverage in discussions and interviews to press down on applicants in efforts to determine truth, so that it’s available from both sides.”