'Come in, Mr Jones. So you're fluent in Mandarin and have a masters in physics?'
Ursula Kenny on stretching the truth in job interviews
Sunday 05 September 1999
The interview went well until Katherine casually asked what the woman's husband did for a living. "To my complete horror it transpired that he worked for the same company as my friend. I was dazed for a while, then I realised that I had to come clean."
Not surprisingly she didn't get the job. But there were no repercussions and 10 years on Katherine is a successful translator. "We got off lightly," she says. "But to this day I really regret it. The thought of it makes my skin crawl. I've got children of my own now and have to interview nannies myself."
A cautionary tale of a deception too far. The fact is, though, that a certain amount of blagging, fudging and boasting is standard practice when it comes to the tricky business of getting a job, these days accountability is equally big business. As Rufus Olins, editor of Management Today, says, "There are whole industries dedicated to making sure we are who we say we are. Headhunters pay people to check CVs and psychometric behavioural testing is standard practice in some professions." But Olins does acknowledge that selling yourself is essential, now more than ever. "There is no such thing as a job for life anymore. Today we talk in terms of being the chief executive of our own working lives, but like the advertising standard I still believe we have to be legal, decent and truthful. Personally I think that honesty is a terribly winning quality."
But Judi James, author of The Office Jungle (Harper Collins pounds 5.99), doesn't agree; if anything she feels that we could do with blagging a bit more in this country. "I think that anyone who is totally honest in an interview situation is a bit of a twerp. For example, I've seen people asked to explain what their last boss felt their faults were actually say 'bad time-keeping' or 'not enough confidence'. There's this tendency to try to wear your honesty like a badge." Ms James feels this is inappropriate behaviour in an interview situation. "It's a fairly false situation anyway."
Certainly John had no problem lying about his age when he applied for his current job in an advertising agency. "I came here from New Zealand when I was 26 and I applied to be a planner - a fairly senior position. I thought they wouldn't take me seriously if they knew my real age. I said I was 29, got the job and I'm still there now. I don't regret it though - I look at it as a necessary white lie."
But while Ginny Tate at Tate Recruitment recognises that ageism in the workplace is "appalling", she doesn't think you should lie. "If you get found out you undermine their view of you as a trustworthy person at any level." She recommends a pragmatic approach even when you are really up against it. "If a 47-year-old woman was having difficulty getting a job and asked me if she should say she was 35, I would advise against it. There is always another approach, like getting her to do temp work so a company can realise her worth and offer her a permanent position."
But Sheila Brown, a data manager in direct marketing, thinks that blagging is often the only option, even though she isn't entirely comfortable with it. "I've often talked up my computer skills. But lots of people do this sort of thing all the time; you're never going to get a job by saying 'I'll need a little bit of time to learn the ropes'."
She will concede that there is a price to pay. "It's not a great thing to do because it makes me worry and it can undermine my confidence, especially in the first few weeks when I'm always waiting to be found out."
Interestingly, recruitment consultant Zena Everett at Perrium and Everett feels that women are generally far less comfortable with blagging than men. "Women don't like saying they can do a job if they can't. It's more important for a women to feel she's doing a job well for herself; it's not enough for her to just say she's competent. Men, on the other hand, are much more concerned about being seen to be able to do something. The way they are perceived is what matters, so they are less likely to have a problem with blagging their way in to a situation."
Helen Porter lied to get her job on a magazine, though she'd do it again. "They wanted a writer but said they also needed someone who was fluent in at least one other language and at ease with Quark Xpress. I couldn't do the last two so I lied." And with good reason, as she sees it. "They weren't central skills for the job. I said I was fluent in French when I've only got an O level. I've never used it. But after I said I could use Quark XPress they said they would get me to do a test, so I paid someone to teach me." The test never took place and Helen sees her lying as a fairly irrelevant means to an end.
But Rufus Olins' has a final nail in the blagging coffin. "In America it's important not to lie because they're incredibly litigious and companies have been known to sue employees who falsify information."
It's bound to happen here at some point.
THEY ASK THE QUESTIONS
When it comes to fibbing in interviews Zena Everett has heard it all before and offers the following advice:
5 Avoid euphemisms. Don't say "I was instrumental in", "I facilitated" or "I liaised". I take that to mean "I didn't actually do anything, but I was there when it all happened". Equally, "I oversaw" translates as "I watched other people doing all the work", and "I took the company through a major period of change" means "people left because I was so bad".
5 If you're going to lie and say you went to a certain university, make sure it isn't the one that your interviewer went to.
5 When dating your CV always use months as well as years; if you're trying to disguise wilderness years, nothing is a bigger giveaway than not using months.
5 Don't use your doctor as a reference. If the best you can come up with is your doctor it looks pretty hopeless and certainly doesn't suggest a successful career thus far. Also never ask the interviewer if they will be taking references; it shows that it's an area of concern.
5 Don't claim huge success at a previous job if you're then going to saying that you left because of lack of support. It doesn't ring true. If you were so successful why did they let you go?
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