Rahul, a composite of various people, hired an interview coach to aid him in his job search—with good reason. Rahul had lots of employment gaps, he had been fired from multiple jobs and his accomplishments were, ahem, not quite in keeping with what was presented on his resume.

His interview coach helped him script his story to make his work history look much stronger and coherent. They crafted perfect albeit not-quite honest responses to the most likely interview questions. He memorised them and then practised giving the answers in a way that didn’t reveal that they were prepared in advance. He and his coach worked all the way down to deliberately inserting “ums…” to make Rahul’s answers seem natural. The coach video-recorded his performances and gave Rahul feedback on when he wasn’t sounding natural or otherwise could polish his act.

Desperate jobseekers

When you really want a job, it’s tempting to do whatever it takes to sell the employer on you. In such a situation, it’s difficult to remain ethical and rational and think, “I’ll reveal my real self—beauty marks, warts and preferences alike—so the right employer will say yes.” But disclosing that ethical rationality is what I’m asking, no, begging of you to do.

You must think of your role in a job interview this way: You’re trying to facilitate a wise match between the employer and candidate.

Your obligation to be ethical

Why an obligation? First, you do have an obligation to yourself. If you accept a job for which you’re a poor fit, you’re more likely to be unhappy, unsuccessful or even fired. And then you have to explain to subsequent prospective employers why you were dumped.

I recall a woman who was eager to work for a website that aggregated articles for women over 50. A job in that company’s IT department became available and although her IT experience was very light, she applied, exaggerating her IT competence. She prepped very hard to sound perfect in the interview and got the job. She struggled on the job, indeed screwing up the website on a number of occasions. Finally, six months later, she crashed the entire site, at which point she was fired. That’s when she came to me for career counselling. She had had quite a time trying to explain her previous six months to prospective employers.

You also have an obligation to others; for example, to the more worthy applicant that would be denied the job. So many of my clients experience righteous indignation when they learn of far less competent people getting hired for a job while they, having searched honourably for a job, sit unemployed.

Then there’s the obligation the job seeker has to that prospective employer and the co-workers who would be saddled with a worse employee than necessary. Imagine you were that boss and you later found out that the candidate you hired had been less than honest in his interview, and you had plenty of other candidates you could have chosen.

And you have an obligation to society, too. When a wrong employee is hired, the company’s customers might, at least in a small way, have to endure worse products or services. Just think of how you feel when you must deal with an incompetent sales or customer service person.

And, although this is an abstract concept, you also have an obligation to the cosmos—to do that which serves justice.

Ask the right questions

To facilitate a good match being made between employer and employee, ask questions early on in the interview such as, “In the end, what will be key to doing this job well?” If the employer’s answer makes you doubt you’re the right person, you have an obligation to explain the basis for your doubt. For example, if the employer makes it clear that the ability to troubleshoot Oracle’s multiplatform supply-chain software is a big part of the job, then you should ask what’s involved and then explain what you know solidly, what you may be able to muddle through and what you would need to learn from scratch.

Of course, some keys to being a well-suited employee go beyond the hard skills and even the intelligence to do the job. Success often depends on the employee’s personality matching with the boss’s and workgroup’s style. Let’s say you’re laid-back, work slowly and steadily, and prioritise work-life balance with an emphasis on the ‘life’ part. You’d obviously be a poor fit for the typical high-tech company in which long, hard-driving workweeks are expected. So, in the interview, you must ask questions like, “Tell me a little about the organisation’s work culture. What are the working hours like, how much training and feedback is given, how autonomous do you expect employees to be, how central is teamwork?”

I, for instance, dislike being on teams—I must force myself to not dominate. I also get impatient with low-performing team members. So, if I were looking for a job, I’d stipulate up-front that I enjoy and do well when given even an intellectually demanding project with a tight deadline that I can tackle by myself but that I’m typically unhappy when the work is mainly to be done as a team.

many employers will reject you for your honesty, but a right one will consider you
Many employers will reject you for your honesty, but a right one will consider you

What about your career wart?

What if you have a career wart that would likely eliminate you immediately from consideration? Case in point, what if you’ve had a gap in employment bigger than the Taj Mahal? Make that evident in your application but if you haven’t, mention it at the beginning of the interview—get the bad news out of the way early. Say something like, “If that’s a deal killer, I wanted to let you know now before we waste each other’s time.”

I’d make a similar disclosure if I had a handicap that would require the employer to make significant accommodations or tolerate something that would impede my performance.

Or in an extreme example, let’s say I just spent the last five years in prison for robbery. If I disclose that, even with a compelling promise to be committed to an ethical life and  that I’m willing to start at the bottom, most employers will reject me. But a right one, a person who perhaps himself has been given a second chance, will hire me. And that’s the sort of person I want to work for anyway.

In sum, many employers will reject you for your honesty, but a right one will consider you. It’s worth taking longer to find a job in exchange for landing one based on legitimacy than on deceit.

How answering honestly is both ethical and pragmatic

Integrity is also important when answering questions. If you don’t know an answer, rather than lying, say so. That yields pragmatic as well as ethical benefit. Not only does that show you’re honest and comfortable enough in your skin to admit not knowing something, your brief answer [“I don’t know”] results in a larger proportion of the interview spent talking about what you do know than about what you don’t.

How to end an interview?

At the end of the interview, it’s often wise to ask, “So, based on what I’ve said—and as I think you can tell—I’ve tried to be scrupulously honest in my answers—do you think I’d do a good job in this position?” That encourages the employer to raise an objection, which you may or may not be able to counter. In either case, it facilitates both of you making a wise decision: whether s/he should offer you the position and whether you should accept it.

Job interview as first date

Think of your job interview not as a sales pitch but rather as a first date. You’re both trying to figure out if you should get involved with each other.

Thinking in the cosmic scheme of things

There is one other motivator for maintaining integrity as the number one priority. The employer will likely be impressed with your candour, an attribute that is all too rare, and so will believe your claims of strengths. As a result, if you don’t get that job, when a more appropriate position becomes available within that company or at another one that the employer knows about it, you’ll likely be seriously considered and more likely to be successful at that job.

And that’s not only to your betterment but also to that of your employer, co-workers, and customers. Besides, it’s good karma.

 This was first published in the March 2015 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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