Think about your last interview – perhaps some of the questions that were asked, or how you answered them. How many times did an interviewer bring up a skill that you were only slightly familiar with or a specific portion of a role you hadn’t done in excess? What did you say? I didn’t lie, you might tell yourself; I could accomplish that one day, or I could fill the gaps in my experience with a bit of on-the-job learning.
But did that help your interview, or hurt it – even if you got the job? Two career coaches, one from the interviewee’s perspective and one from the hiring perspective, will shed light on why you might be self-sabotaging during an interview by stretching the truth.
Mike Monahan, on the hiring side, is the founding partner of People Element and co-author of three books, including Where There’s Change There’s Opportunity. With over 20 years of healthcare performance consulting experience, including a certification from the International Coaching Federation, Mike has quite literally written the book on behavioral interviewing practices, teaching all levels of management “how to discern someone’s real capability to do a job”.
Agnė Radaviciute, offering insights on the interviewing side, focused on relationship building, and served as a product management coach and internal resource for coaching needs in her five-year tenure at IBM. As one of the co-founders of Verte(x), an all women’s organization focused on networking and mentorship, Agnė pioneered the organization’s offerings and programming as a closed circle facilitator, and trainer of other facilitators.
How does one self-sabotage?
Unanimously, both coaches determined that, in Mike’s words, “when people apply for a job, they want the job”. “Sometimes people are just focused on getting the offer,” Agnė adds, and they’re more willing to “sell you a story” to get it, even if some elements of their experience aren’t entirely truthful. But these errors in communication aren’t explicitly malicious, and sometimes, even the interviewee doesn’t realize they’re happening.
“I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s a small percentage of people that have issues of some kind, and they just plain lie,” Mike says, about facets like resumes, degrees, background and experience. He estimates that less than 10% of people are flat-out liars. Instead, he thinks that “people fool themselves – in their own mind, they’re not lying to the employer because they believe they have the capability to learn it”.
As to why people finagle the truth for interviews, that’s harder to say. “It can be very easy to speculate,” Agnė ponders, “but everyone has their own individual reasons.” While some people are better at selling themselves, “others struggle to put up the right mask,” and their lack of attunement to the interviewer can subtly relay inauthenticity.
Is it ever helpful to lie in an interview?
Agnė definitively says no, lying in an interview, even if it’s a skill you believe you can learn, is a huge mistake. “The best you can do in any interview is authentic, open and genuine, not just for the company’s sake but for your own sake,” she poses. By weaseling your way into a role that really isn’t right for you, even if you feel desperate for a job, “you might have done yourself a disservice” in the long run.
The same experience is shared by Mike, who believes that even a small lie in an interview indicates a level of disrespect for both the job one seeks and for themselves. “You don’t want people working for you who don’t have integrity,” he clarifies, “there’s no excuse for that, nor does anyone really want to hire people like that.”
Can an employer tell that I’m lying?
The short answer is: yes, you can’t get away with as much as you might think.
Agnė says that these markers of inauthenticity to an employer include brevity to a fault, sweeping generalizations, or responses with a lot of filler, but no additional substance or context. Whether your responses are short or long, by “mirroring, or saying yes to everything,” one shows a potential employer that while they’re looking for what you want to hear, they’re not thinking about what they really want to say.
You might think that you’re pandering to the interviewer by being polite and ingratiating, but if your passion for the opportunity doesn’t come through, “they can tell it’s just one stop on your ride, but not actually where you want to get off the train”.
Mike mentions that throughout the interview process, there are a number of ways to weed out those who really aren’t right for the role. Things like team interviews or behavioral interviewing can pick apart exaggerators who make it past the first few rounds of interviews.
Additionally, Mike often tells interviewers that specific questions are useful tools to poke holes in an interviewee’s vapid responses. You may hear this come out when an interviewer asks you to tell them about a time you did one thing or another. Mike posits that when someone gives a “definitive answer for something they obviously don’t have a definitive answer for”, that can be a red flag to an interviewer.
What do I do instead?
Especially in desperate economic times, it can be difficult to keep from scrambling in an interview, attempting to say anything you believe the interviewer wants to hear, all in the name of potential employment. But at the cost of your future happiness or dignity, trying to be someone you’re not is never the answer.
“Even I have been in scenarios where I will tell an interviewer very clearly,” Agnė explains, “if this is what you’re looking for, that’s not me. Often times people think they have to like or want to learn everything, but the fact is that no one is like that.”
On the other hand, Mike says that what it boils down to is aptitude; “some people just have an aptitude for certain things,” it’s just a matter of recognizing your own aptitude, and your own faults. He then stresses that employers are looking for interviewees they can identify as “fundamentally empathetic.”
“Life’s tough for most people,” he continues, and that “the world of HR and hiring managers, you need to get a good, honest, decent person with a set of skills that match or can potentially match.” Ultimately, while checking off every requirement box is a lofty goal, on an interpersonal level, if an interviewee doesn’t show they can get along with other people, “they weren’t worth it.”
He continues that often times, to prevent shutting down the conversation and keeping a prospective opportunity on the table, it’s better to mention your lack of experience, but posit a possible solution. “Here’s what you need to know about me – I’m a learner, I’ll work hard until I get it,” Mike describes, “and that’s not a lie.”
To Agnė, developing confidence is the most important feature of a good interviewee, one who never needs to stretch the truth. “The more confident you are in your strengths, the more comfortable you are in admitting where you’re not good at something”; but in order to do that, Agnė explains, you must “work to understand your interests”. If there’s a skill you’re not good at, you need to admit it without fear of rejection. But if there’s a skill you can show you excel at, “you should be proud of that, you should be able to speak to that, and that’s what’s going to shine in those discussions.”
However, there are times in one’s career where it can be hard to delineate what exceptional skills one has, especially for those just exploring the job market, or entering into an entirely new field. Mike’s experience is that for the most part, “a lot of people don’t know what they don’t know.”
In order to reach the difficult goal of self-confidence in a strange setting, Agnė concludes that “you some time, self-exploration, experience, confidence”, because ultimately, “the better you know yourself, the more likely and capable you are in representing the truth.”