How Half Truths Muddy the Interview Process and Careers

The pressure of interviewing can make people unintentionally stretch the truth when speaking with a potential employer. Candidates can potentially fall into four common traps in a desire to please the interviewer:

  • by stating their accomplishments in overblown terms that brag more than they are correct,
  • by getting caught up in the excitement of their conversation with the interviewer and brainstorming elements of their stories that they wished they did but had not,
  • by saying what they think the interviewer wants to hear by embroidering details into their stories to make them sound like a stronger candidate,
  • by giving evasive answers, typically focusing on accomplishments that they are comfortable with or have done in an unrelated context, but do not match the question.

While it is natural that employees will want to share what makes them look good when answering interview questions, it can be problematic when the truth of what they said does not match the reality of the accomplishment and capabilities of the candidate. The seemingly harmless fabrications may not appear to be so bad. It becomes problematic when the employer's expectations are translated into what the newly hired candidate is required to do. 

Case Study – How expanding the truth gets a programmer in hot water

Meet Stan. He has been out of college for about ten years and has had three decent jobs at good companies. The role he interviewed for was a bit of a jump. That in itself is not a problem. Many people find themselves stuck in a company or position where they become labeled as "that person," whatever that is, for example, the: assistant, maintenance person, cashier, front line worker, or SaaS expert. The label helps define and often confines workers from moving up.

A legitimate way to break out of this cycle is to find another firm that can see you for more than the narrow description for which had defined you. By learning through resources at work, and beyond, you can grow yourself out of your current company to one that may see you differently. The difference with Stan was that he had taken courses on Python at work and from online resources outside of work, but he never actually programmed in Python for his firm. He had programmed in other unrelated software languages for them, however.

The job description for the role Stan interviewed had a stated requirement of three years Python experience as a minimum. He was asked questions in the interview if he had programmed in Python at his current company, and if so, for how long? Stan stretched the truth by saying he had been programming in Python, where he worked for three years. The fact was he had taken an online program at his work on Python, and he had been programming in another language for three years.

What was so insidious about his first lie about programming Python at work was that it held some truth. He was learning the basics of Python at work but not actually programming in it for the company. This first lie then led to the second lie that he had been programming, but not in Python, for three years. The first simple mistruth led to the deeper lie.

While organizations list requirements for jobs, a candidate will rarely meet all of them. It was not a problem that he applied for the job without the three years of Python experience, had he been truthful about it. 

He could have described his Python programming experience and knowledge in his cover letter, relating it to his passion for what the software language can do. They may have interviewed and hired him, but they would know he would require a longer ramping up period, needing to be paired with another active Python programmer and affecting his starting compensation.

Instead, Stan arrived at work and was immediately rolled into a Python project that tested his knowledge and skills. The shortcuts, limitations, and best practices of the language were not yet a part of his ability. His projects quickly fell behind, and he found himself making excuses and additional fabrications that only compounded the quandary he found himself in. 

Clarity & Attitude

When interviewing, remember the story of Stan, who fell into the four behavioral traps mentioned at the start of this article. Each does not seem to be problematic until you extend into what it means for you and your employer if you have different expectations and understandings of the role you are taking on and your capabilities.  

By coming into the hiring process with a clear and unvarnished understanding of your capabilities, you will stand out from those folks who talk a good game but do not last on the court. Coming from a place of truth will also provide you with a stronger sense of what makes sense for you and what you will be best doing. Clarity and truth combine to give you a much stronger attitude about yourself, your work, and the organization that hires you.

DISC's role

I am not going to say that any of the DISC personality styles lie more than another. The four traps are loosely aligned with the DISC profiles but only in general terms. 

You may see yourself and your staff exhibiting any of these truth-stretching behaviors no matter their DISC type. By understanding your DISC style and those of others, you are in a better place to recognize the traps you and candidates can fall into during the often stressful and exciting interview process.

Look out for Part 2, on how companies can tell candidates half-truths in the interview process.

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Posted By: William (Bill) Latshaw

William (Bill) Latshaw is an Executive Coach, leadership and succession researcher, and organization development professional. His experience comes from over 20 years in consulting and research roles within Deloitte Consulting LLP, the Boston Consulting Group, Arthur D. Little, and Innovation Associates, Inc. Personality Style: SIC