A Sideways View

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Lying In Interviews

Who tells the most lies in interviews, and why.

Most interviews, particularly those involving selection, witness three interesting psychological and moral phenomena. Self-deception, impression management, and downright porkies. And who tells them? Both inquisitor and applicant: job seller and job buyer. Telling lies during an interview is not only an issue for interviewers.

A selection interview is somewhere between a charade--a hall of mirrors and Aldwich theatrical.  Usually the cast is well rehearsed and the lines delivered faultlessly or melodramatically.  In fact both sides maybe so involved in being word-perfect they have little left to detect the probity of the other.

Problem number one is self-deception.  Technically these are untruths told by people who do not know them as such.  Most of us know others who genuinely think they have a sense of humour.  We know, as do practically all their colleagues and family that they are mistaken.  But this does not shatter their belief.  They behave as if they had, tell others about it, even boast of it.  Alas, they deceive not only themselves.

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To be deluded about a sense of humour may have relatively few consequences, unless of course, one is applying for job of comedy script-writer.  But (really) to believe one is bright when average (or worse, dim) or insightful and perspicacious when lacking in that arena is more serious.  There may be a number of abilities and traits where people are particularly prone to self-deception.  They include courage, creativity, emotional intelligence, flexibility and intuition.

Yet positive self-deception may be less problematic than negative self-deception for the interviewee.  Many people know the physically attractive person who appears genuinely to believe they are plain, even ugly.  Those unconvinced by their talents however are much less a problem at interview as their undeserved low self-esteem often means they don't even reach the interview in the first place.  But beware that charming, donnish, self-deprecating facade that is a clever way of turning humility into hubris.  Real self-deceivers don't do that.  For all sorts of reasons they have a seriously biased view of themselves. 

Self-deception may be an index of something more serious like narcissistic personality disorder.  The fact is that it may serve a person well in business life up to a point and then very suddenly lead to disaster.  Those who derail as senior managers are often chronic self-deceivers. 

But it is a mistake to believe that self-deception is exclusively the issue for the interviewee.  Try being on a selection panel at work to see how your colleagues portray themselves, their department or the organization as a whole to potential new recruits.  Form some it confirms their worst nightmares that marketing believe their own propaganda or that HR really did not understand the business.

It maybe unwise to present the organization, its product and personnel in too positive a light, but it is perhaps more problematic to be self-deceived over its merits.  Being too long or too senior in any organization may not help the self-deception problems of selectors...or being too narrow in ones speciality and understanding.

Self-deception takes some time to detect.  We all expect impression management at interviews.  Make-up, the smart suit, the carefully tooled CV, are all part of the impression management process.  It really is 'spin for the individual'.

Impression management is about a selective, carefully presented version of the truth.  It is about advertising. And as such, the presumption is that the advertiser knows the facts but chooses to present them in a particular way.  After a while most people can decode the script.  We all know what estate agents mean by "deceptively spacious", "designer kitchen" or "charmingly original."  We also know about the lush vocabulary used by the menu writers.  Such as "pan-fried seabass chaperoned by market vegetables."

Impression management is more about sins of omission than commission.  It can be about selective amnesia.  Candidates know about packaging and presentation.  Many prepare as thoroughly as they can.  They hire CV designers and professional photographers.  They read up about the company.  They buy books entitled "Great Answers to Tough Interview Questions".

But of course it is the company interviewers who buy those tomes called "Killer Questions at Interviews" or "Read People Like a Book".  Organizations eager to attract the bright young things from the best universities indulge themselves in serious impression management.  Try observing the milk-round or careers fair.

Individual interviewers are deeply committed to impression management.  With panel interviewing they are as eager to show off to colleagues as to candidate.  They too dress the part; interview in the newly decorated office; hand out glossy brochures making the organization look good.

The third problem is as much about morality as psychology; lies, damn lies, and interview answers.  The golden trio for selection assessments in the application form (CV), the interview and references.  Here the applicant and his/her referees are asked direct specific questions about education, job experience and the like.

And it is here that the line between impression management and downright lies remains blurred.  Thus "1994-1996: senior manager sales with £500,000 budget" can mean many things.  Under "Education," people forget to add things because it does not say all educational qualifications, or add incomplete degrees because, they argue, it was not specified.

Referees can lie for lots of reasons: they are asked questions when they simply have no data and are too embarrassed to admit it; they are desperate to get rid of the person; or they simply don't care.

Do interviewers lie on behalf of themselves, their section or company as a whole?  Really lie: tell untruths, not just "little white lies"?  Probably, but mercifully not that often.

Psychologists are rather good at catching liars in questionnaires.  They are not too bad at noticing non-verbal behaviours associated with lying in interviews.  But self-deception and impression management may take a little longer than an interview to detect.  Who needs their advice?  Interviewers and interviewees, for they both need the skills.  But it is companies, not individuals, that have the money to spend trying to get an accurate assessment of the other in the selection interview.  So courses, books and seminars are dedicated to the needs of interviewers.  And it becomes mythology that it is only interviewees, not interviewers, who won't or can't tell the truth.

Adrian Furnham, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at University College London and the Norwegian Business School.

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