Why do job applicants lie in interviews
Sincere delusion, socially approved behavior, silence, misrepresentation — there are various types of deception that you might see in a job interview. An experienced IT recruiter anonymously gives examples, especially for the Anywhere Club blog, of how candidates behave in job interviews and how the behaviors are perceived and interpreted.
In this article
— A person is never as close to perfect as when they are interviewing for a coveted job. This ironic observation by experienced staffers and recruiters is based on real-life events. Here are examples of different behaviors by candidates that may seem like outright lies to the interviewer, but are really something else.
— Let's start with some sincere misconceptions on the part of candidates who are not intentionally lying. My first job was with a staffing agency that recruited domestic staff — nannies, governesses, au pairs, and drivers. Candidates described themselves as excellent housekeepers or experienced drivers who knew the city well. Sometimes, however, the first clarifying question revealed the limitations of their experience. For example, a driver, when asked how to get from point A to point B in our city (at that time there were no navigators), clearly did not understand the geography. An "exceptional hostess," when asked what main dish to cook for the holiday, quickly and confidently named salad "Olivier" and chicken with mayonnaise. In cases like these, when I continued the conversation and asked about the candidate's basis for such an assessment of their experience, most often I heard something like, "Well, all my friends respect me for…" or "My guests always praise my excellent cooking.” Of course, our self-esteem is shaped by feedback from others, but in the work context, it's important to know the industry requirements and professional standards and relate your skills and abilities to those objective measures, not to the compliments of friends and acquaintances.
I encountered another case of genuine misconceptions in 2006, when I was working in IT. I was looking for a business travel specialist. The vacancy posting stated a classic requirement: an experienced PC user. Candidates who came in for a personal meeting in the office were invited to show their skills in action: to switch on the computer, to type and print a document, and to make a typical Excel spreadsheet for the job. I remember a candidate who, after turning on her computer, was surprised: "Where is the file from which you want me to print the text? And I don't see a floppy drive for copying the document from a floppy disk." She could not find and launch Excel either.
In 2011, I took part in the formation of the first training laboratory designed to train systems engineers. There were a lot of applicants. The requirements included "experience in system administration." Colleagues acting as technical interviewers warned me, the recruiter, that anyone who reinstalled the Windows operating system on their computer (let alone a home network) at least once, considered themself an experienced sysadmin. The evaluation worked as follows: in the first (phone) conversation with the candidate, I asked several questions, including "How long will it take you to install the OS?" Experienced candidates generally asked questions to find out: what kind of "operating system," whether it was for one computer or for a network, whether there was old software installed or it was "bare metal," whether there was licensed source code or an "honestly stolen" OS, etc. This is how we identified candidates with genuine experience. If a candidate gave a quick and unambiguous answer —"I can do it in half an hour" — to us, this was a sign of limited experience. And once again I will stress: this is not a lie, this is a sincere delusion by candidates who evaluated their skills and experience very subjectively.
Socially approved behavior
— Examples of socially approved (or desirable) behavior might include:
- Trying to fall in line with the interviewer's expectations;
- Flattery and compliments about the company or the interviewer; and
- The desire to pass off confidence as competence.
In fact, there is nothing wrong with emphasizing one's best qualities — either the person will get the job or at least "positive points" in the eyes of the interviewer. Problems begin when a candidate "floats" at the first specific question. I remember a candidate who answered every question with an extensive "philosophical" discussion. In response to the specific question, "How did the code review process work for your team?" the candidate talked about how important it was to ensure code quality, why any forward-looking IT company should pay attention to clear code review processes, etc. But in response to questions about how many people were in the team, what tools were used, etc., the candidate claimed forgetfulness, saying that it was difficult to remember what happened 3 months ago.
The actual lie
— You may have seen the TV series "Lie to Me," with the flamboyant, eccentric protagonist Dr. Lightman. The scientific advisor (and partly the prototype of the main character) was Paul Eckman, an American psychologist, professor, and researcher of lies. He distinguishes two forms of lying:
- Reticence — when a candidate withholds some reliable, meaningful information from the interviewer, but does not replace it with false information; and
- Distortion — when a candidate deliberately takes some action to both hide the truth and replace it with unreliable information. Sometimes they make up an entire story, like a real spy.
We encounter this form of deception — sometimes referred to as a lie of omission — more often in interviews, and I see two reasons for that:
- Silence meets with a more forgiving societal evaluation (well, okay, the person forgot what year they graduated, or how many years they spent at their first job, or did not offer information about something they were not asked about directly, etc.).
- Silence is a smaller cognitive load, the brain copes with it more easily than with the construction of a "parallel reality," which is necessary if the candidate resorts to distortion.
What are the most common things candidates are silent about?
- Education. Candidates may limit themselves to simply mentioning that they studied at a university without specifying the form (full-time, evening, part-time, state-financed, or fee-based) or without specifying whether their education (diploma) was completed or not. If the vacancy specifies clear requirements (diploma from a particular university, full-time form of training, a particular specialty), and the candidate "forgets" to mention certain deviations, and only “suddenly remembers” them in response to a direct and specific question, the interviewer has reason to consider this a lie by omission. It should be noted that if a candidate does not disclose some information about themself that is not specified in the job vacancy and has no relation to the work (age, marital status, physical limitations), this cannot be considered a lie in the form of reticence.
- Work experience. Candidates, especially those with little experience, prefer to talk generally about their past job tasks, skills, projects, and teamwork, rather than a consistent career progression and chronological presentation of their experience.
- Reasons for leaving a previous job. Few candidates are willing to bring this up themselves, because it's not easy to objectively and unemotionally lay out the reasons for a "divorce" from a past employer without criticizing the employer or making yourself look like a victim.
- Specific skills and knowledge. This may seem surprising, but I've met candidates who hoped that their certifications or credentials would allow them to get a position without showing their practical knowledge. Here is an extreme case: we were looking for a business travel specialist, and English (speaking and writing skills) was among the requirements. One of the candidates presented a diploma from Moscow State Linguistic University and refused to speak to the interviewer in English on that basis, saying: "I have a diploma, that's enough.”
Distortion also has different manifestations:
- Innocent efforts to characterize one's position as more meaningful. An office clerk might consider themself an office manager, a call center operator a customer service specialist, a courier a supply manager, a programmer a lead developer, and a test specialist a quality control manager.
- Income in the previous place of work, the reasons for leaving, or the reasons for conflicts at the past employer. All of these "uncomfortable" questions are expected at an interview, and candidates can prepare pretty explanations in advance, even if they understand the risks involved in such a strategy. After all, the interviewer may ask for references or contact the HR department at the candidate's previous place of employment (HR professionals tend to support each other).
- A possible start date and reasons for seeking a job at this particular company, or in this particular position. Candidates may feel that if they are ready to start work tomorrow, it increases their chances of being hired. Even a candidate who is currently employed and bonded to their current position may lie about being available to get the new position. When such a candidate is invited to an interview (during working hours), they agree at first, and then may postpone the meeting several times, citing family circumstances or another excuse. After 2 or 3 postponements, the interviewer will not bother to guess whether the candidate is busy at their current job or whether the person really has no luck at home. Instead, the interviewer will simply conclude that finding a job is not a priority for the candidate right now. Or the candidate, still working at their current job, receives an offer and agrees to leave on Monday, but the next day they start making excuses like "I'll leave on Monday, but I'll bring my workbook in a month” or “Let me work on a contract now.” You can guess how this affects the interviewer's opinion.
Other examples of suspicious behavior
You can talk a lot about things you should or shouldn't do, but nothing is more eloquent than concrete examples. Below are three real-life case studies.
- The candidate for a QA Director position sent in a resume that reflected a lengthy work experience in chronological order. The description of projects and responsibilities, however, was very sparse. In the first interview, the recruiter asked questions about the projects and teams that the candidate managed, the processes they built, and the scope of their tasks. The candidate answered in general terms, as if they were not talking about their own experience, but about the projects they participated in as an executive, and could not explain the logic behind the decisions they made. The recruiter shut down the conversation, at which point the candidate said, "Well, at least take me as a junior tester, huh? I really need a job."
- Another candidate became notorious for the fact that at the same time each year (apparently there was an annual review of contracts at their employer) they came for an interview, demonstrated their skills and knowledge, received an offer (asked us to send it by mail), and then turned the offer down, explaining that they had received a favorable counteroffer at their current workplace. The first time it was considered a coincidence, the second time it was a coincidence, the third time we asked what would prevent the candidate from getting a new job. We did not meet with this candidate after that.
- Most recently, I was preparing a candidate for an interview with a client. As usual, I asked the candidate to review the project description and the tasks to be performed, and to illustrate them with examples from their experience. We met at the "rehearsal" for the interview, I asked if the candidate has done their "homework," and I got a confident affirmative answer. I then asked a predictable question: what experience of the candidate would be most useful for the project they were interviewing for. The candidate said that our company has a wide variety of technological advantages, works with global business leaders, and something-something-other-words, but with absolute confidence. I said please be specific - what in his personal experience would be especially useful given the tools and technologies used in the project. After a thoughtful pause, the candidate began to talk about the technologies of the project. At the same time, I saw (we were talking online) that the candidate's gaze is moving horizontally from side to side of the screen. I turned off my camera for half a minute. The candidate had no reaction. I resumed my video and the candidate was still "running his eyes" over the screen: clearly reading a "cheat sheet." I ask what prevented him from simply saying that he wasn't prepared. He insisted that he did prepare. The meeting was being recorded, and reviewing the tape allowed us to reach a consensus. I would call such behavior protection of the image, the desire to remain a "positive hero" in the eyes of the interlocutor, rather than intentional lying.
— No matter how attractive the position is, no matter how prestigious the company looks, remember that a job is a big part of your time, of your life. Even if you manage to fool the recruiter or interviewer and get the job, what happens next? How long will you survive on bluffing rather than real skills? What will your psychological comfort and quality of life be under these circumstances? And will it be your life or one you want to brag about on social media? The choice is yours. And there is always a choice.