Okay to Lie in a Job Interview?

A week or so ago the New York Times advice column Workologist discussed lying in job interviews. Specifically, whether it’s okay not to reveal potentially damaging information.
Here’s the scenario. In the midst of an interview process, an applicant was fired from his current job. Must he disclose that unhappy fact to the prospective employer? That’s both a practical question and a moral one.

Put yourself in his shoes. Even the practical side presents a dilemma. If you discloses, you could seem like damaged goods. However you try to explain situation, the interviewer may wonder if what else was behind the firing. The safer bet for him might be hiring somebody else with an unblemished resume.

On the other hand, withholding the information has its own risks. A simple background check could reveal that that you’re actually out of work. Then your credibility would take an even bigger hit, squashing any chance of landing the new job.

The Times column quoted my friend Richard Shell, author of Bargaining for Advantage. “Always tell the truth” Richard said, though he also counseled not to blurt out the information. Instead, tell the truth slowly and carefully. And definitely don’t rant about how unfairly you were treated (though that actually may be the case).

I second Richard’s advice. I’d also underscore the importance of being proactive. Don’t forfeit the opportunity to put the situation in its most favorable light. Framing is important. So is your attitude.

If you’re in that position, you might tell the interviewer (ideally in person), “I want to update you on developments since we last talked. I’m leaving Estuary Advisors. It’s a mutual decision.” You should also emphasize what you learned working there, with a special focus on the skills and experience that are relevant to new position.

If the interviewer presses by asking whether there were any problems, tread carefully. Speak well of former colleagues. Don’t complain about morale or company culture, even if that’s justified.

Is that being evasive? Perhaps, but I think’s it appropriate under the circumstances. It demonstrates your discretion and your positive outlook. You could build on that comment by mentioning specific things that excite you about the position you’re interviewing for. (By implication, that suggests what was lacking in your former job.)

That’s the practical argument for being forthcoming, along with suggestions for minimizing possible damage. But what if there were little chance the interviewer would ever learn that you failed to disclose you’d been fired? Would it still be morally wrong to keep secret the fact you just were fired?

My answer is a qualified yes. As Mark Twain said, “Always do right. That will gratify some people and astonish the rest.”

But I don’t want to preach. If you’re out of work and have a family to support, you have serious responsibilities to them, as well. Then the moral question involves balancing competing obligations. I wouldn’t second-guess anyone who decides that family comes first.

Less convincing to me is the argument that withholding information isn’t as bad as stating explicit falsehoods. Under that reasoning, if the interviewer asks if you are currently working, you’d supposedly admit that the honest answer is "no," but if the question never comes up, you don't have to mention it.

I understand the “buyer beware” principle, but if that’s ever proper, it’s more in arms-length transactions, not when you’re potentially starting a long term working relationship. Otherwise, you put the interviewers in the position where they must cross examine candidates closely on every important point in order to ascertain the truth. (If you’re interested in the distinction between nondisclosure and overt deception, I recommend Sissela Bok’s small classic Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life.)

And look at it this way: how would you feel if the interviewer concealed troubling information about the job from you?

Maybe the company is planning to relocate or the SEC is about to announce an investigation. That news might have a bearing on your decision. And even if it didn’t, not learning about it until later could spark concerns about what else your new colleagues aren’t telling you. It’s hard to see how could criticize them, if you haven’t been fully candid yourself. As with many moral questions, a good place to start begin with this one is considering how you’d like people to treat you.

What worries me most about not disclosing the firing is that deception is corrosive. It sours our view of other people. In order to rationalize our own lack of honesty, we assume that others will be dishonest with us. Unfortunately, sometimes that will be the case. But not always. Assuming the worst about everybody can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

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Professor Michael Wheeler teaches at the Harvard Business School. Version 1.2 of his Negotiation360 self-assessment/best-practices iOS app is now available.
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