To Tell the Truth: Is Honesty the Best Policy on a Job Interview?

Published: Apr 27, 2012

Topics: Interviewing       Job Search       Workplace Issues       

New research suggests that frankness and honesty on a job interview won't hurt a candidate's chances of getting hired, but it will help them land a suitable job.

Two surveys conducted by the London Business School and the University of North Carolina had participants rate their transparency at work with "self verification" of prompts like, "It's important for an employer to see me as I see myself, even if it means bringing people to recognize my limitations."

The studies found that, of those candidates hired, those that thrived at their new jobs were those who self-reported honesty about their capabilities, interests, and tendencies on job interviews.

The authors of the study reasons that the honest candidates had a double advantage of ending up at jobs and companies well-suited to their abilities, as well as not having to waste time and energy "fitting in" while on the job.

But obviously, a job interview isn't always the best time to be too honest.

What should you be open and what should you be coy about?

Glad you asked--here are the three best opportunities to bare your soul in an interview:

1. The Weakness Question

Nobody buys your "I'm a perfectionist" response anyway. This is a great opportunity to be a little vulnerable and share your personality.

The key to doing this and still getting hired is to show self awareness, and accept responsibility for the shortcoming. If you're a procrastinator, don't just say you never get things done; that sounds like a problem too hard to solve, and one you're not bothering to understand at all.

Instead, get specific, think through the issue, and present possible solutions: A. In the past, you've found yourself putting off larger projects because B. you find the ambiguity intimidating, but C. asking questions for more clarity or breaking the work down into smaller pieces has helped in the past.

Demonstrating an understanding of the issue while presenting solutions not only makes your "weakness" look less like a liability, it also gives clues to your employer as to what kind of management style or guidance you'll need once hired. That's good for both of you.

2. How You Really Handled That "Challenging" Office Situation

Behavioral questions have become more popular on job interviews, so it's not uncommon to get an open ended question about a time you encountered a difficult personality or circumstance at your last job and how you handled it.

This is a great opportunity to tell a success story—but also to reveal a little bit about your thinking style and true personality. As you explain how to sort through the issue (professionally! Logically!) don't be afraid to inject a little humanity too. By telling your interviewer what was difficult about the situation for you personally—you had to take over a speech for a sick colleague, but you're terrified of public speaking, or you had to confront a coworker but hate conflict—you're revealing your struggles, which may help the interviewer place you in a role where you won't have to encounter them.

But even better, it makes your success look even better. By revealing how you overcame a difficulty, instead of just pretending you didn't have one, you'll come across as realistic, self aware, and best yet, able to power through tough situations.

3. Why You Were Fired

It's said, in psychiatry, that there are really two types of mental illnesses (and everybody's afflicted with them, to varying degrees): neurotic and character disorders.

Neuroses are when we internalize our troubles ("XYZ went wrong because of something I did wrong") and character disorders are the externalizing of them ("It's not my fault!").

Real world problems are usually a combination of our own doing mixed with other factors, and most normal, healthy people understand this. But it can be easy to forget in an interview. We can swing too far one way or another, assuming full responsibility or none, making ourselves look either incompetent or delusional—both obvious red flags to an employer.

To avoid this effect, it's important to maintain a healthy sense of esteem in your work and the way you conducted yourself when telling the story. Assuming a good portion of the responsibility for what happened, even if it's just admitting that you were drawn to a job for the wrong reasons, but not cut out for it.

Refusing to admit your role in a bad work experience doesn't make you look blameless--it signals that you'll be difficult to work with, impossible to critique, and likely to blame others for challenges or failures at your next job.

Perhaps that's why honesty is so important while job hunting. Employers know you're not perfect—but they need to know that you're aware and willing to work on it yourself.

--Cathy Vandewater,

Read More:
A Study on Job Seekers' Mental Health (Wall Street Journal)
Tough Interview Questions--and How to Answer Them
Spoiler Alert: Facebook May Tip Employers Off to Your Bad Personality