How honest should you be in a job interview?

Woman in interview nervous about answers for job

Honesty, authenticity and openness are highly prized traits that employers seek when screening applicants for a role. However, is there such a thing as too much honesty in a job interview? Should you always spill the absolute truth – or is it sometimes okay to embellish, play it down, dodge a question or even tell a white lie when in the hot seat?

Honesty is (generally) the best policy

First impressions count, and employers want people on their team whom they can trust implicitly. There are certain matters you should never lie about during an interview: things that could certainly harm your career, professional reputation and ability to do your job if you are anything less than completely honest. Your performance, experience, qualifications, availability and preferred working conditions are factors you should always be honest about; any embellishments or fabrications will only lead to a headache down the track.

While it’s important to be confident and present yourself in the best possible light, exaggerating your strengths may come across as boastful. When asked to disclose a weakness, doing so honestly (i.e. revealing a real weakness and not just a weakness disguised as a strength) will build trust, and following up with what you’re doing to improve in that area will show a desirable commitment to growth.
Another key moment to be honest in an interview is when you’re confronted with something you don’t know the answer to. It’s far better to be truthful and admit you don’t know the answer to a question than to try to fudge the answer – immediate admission to not knowing something shows you’re humble, trustworthy and willing to learn. In Zen Buddhism, ‘shoshin’ means ‘beginner’s mind’ – an attitude of openness, eagerness and lack of preconceptions. It’s said that in a beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in an expert’s mind there are few. It’s easy to see how approaching a new role with this mindset, regardless of your seniority, might be appealing to a potential employer.

Woman nervous but honest answering in job interview

When is it okay to not tell the whole truth?

Just as the interviewee has an obligation to play fair, so does the interviewer. At times, an interviewer may ask questions that are inappropriate or irrelevant, in which case the interviewee is not obligated to disclose the information. Hiring managers may also ask questions that intentionally challenge a candidate to gauge their social intelligence; in this case they don’t actually want the full truth but are more interested in the candidate’s ability to tactfully shape their response.

Examples of inappropriate or irrelevant questions during an interview include asking about your relationship status, desire to have children, political views or religious affiliations. If asked such questions about your private life during an interview, it’s perfectly acceptable to politely decline to answer or deflect by asking how this relates to your skills or experience, before changing the subject. Being asked about your previous salary is another question where you might want to proceed with caution. If you prefer not to answer, it’s acceptable to say you’d rather not disclose your previous/current salary as you would like to have a fair negotiation based on your skills and what you have to offer the company.

When asked potentially contentious questions – such as why you left previous employment or whether you’ve had conflict with employers or colleagues in the past – it’s important not to lie, but it’s also wise to err on the side of being positive and playing down any drama (if it exists). Hiring managers look for candidates who are willing to hold themselves accountable and not play the blame game when things go wrong. While it might be tempting to whine about your terrible boss, your shamefully small salary or your terrible working conditions, think twice before indulging. Mindfully choosing your words and being careful not to be too negative about people or situations (even when they didn’t go your way) shows emotional intelligence, resilience and a positive team spirit.

Positive conversation with hiring manager and interviewee communicating well

Honesty saves everyone’s time

Most of us have been in the position during an interview where we realise our honest answer may not be what the hiring manager wants to hear. The fact is that honesty can leave you vulnerable; laying all your cards on the table may feel riskier than alluding to a more favourable hand. However, getting a job under false pretences is a waste of everyone’s time and can easily harm your career and professional reputation. Except in the case of inappropriate or irrelevant questions, it’s best to simply be honest and open (while still being diplomatic). If you’re not the right fit for a company, it’s better to find out during the interview process, and move on to a more aligned opportunity.

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