How to get the lying out of hiring

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Hiring processes can be thought of as a battle between candour and dishonesty. You might imagine this is a simple fight between truth-seeking firms and self-promoting candidates, and to a certain extent it is. But companies themselves are prone to bend reality out of shape in ways that are self-defeating.

Start with the obvious culprits: job applicants. The point of a CV or a LinkedIn profile is to massage reality into the most appealing shape possible. Everyone beyond a certain level of experience is a transformational leader personally responsible for generating millions in revenue; the world economy would be about 15 times bigger than it actually is if all such claims were true. The average Briton spends four and a half hours a day watching TV and online videos. But the average job candidate uses their spare time only for worthy purposes, like volunteering in soup kitchens or teaching orphans to code.

The cover letter is so open in its insincerity (“When I saw the advertisement for this job, I almost fainted with excitement”) that people are starting not to bother with it. At the interview stage one task facing the firm’s recruiters is to winkle out the truth of what a person actually contributed to a project. Those hoary questions about a candidate’s weaknesses and failures are there for a reason; no one will bring them up unprompted. Cognitive and behavioural tests are useful in part because they are harder for applicants to game.

But a tendency to stretch the truth infects companies as well as applicants. The typical firm will write a job description that invariably describes the work environment as fast-paced and innovative, and then lays out a set of improbable requirements for the “ideal candidate”, someone who almost by definition does not exist. Sometimes—as when ads demand more years of experience in a programming language than that language has existed for—these requirements include an ability to go back and alter the course of history.

Industrialised hiring processes can often reward mindless exaggeration. Services that scan your résumé when you are making an application mark you down if your CV does not match the keywords that appear in the original job advertisement. The message is clear: to get through to the next stage, you have to contort yourself to meet corporate expectations.

Substance can matter less to recruiters than form. One software engineer says she got a 90%-plus response rate with a spoof CV showing apparent spells at Microsoft and Instagram but also boasting, among other things, that she had increased team-bonding by organising the company potato-sack race and “spread Herpes STD to 60% of intern team”. References are so prone to inaccuracy that many firms have a policy of not giving them, fearing legal action from defamed candidates or deceived employers.

Too few firms offer an accurate account of what a position actually involves. Tracey Franklin, the chief HR officer for Moderna, a fast-growing drugmaker—and an interviewee in this week’s episode of Boss Class, our new podcast—is a fan of “realistic job previews” (RJPs). These are meant to give prospective recruits a genuine sense of the negatives and positives of the job, as well as a clear idea of the company’s corporate culture. One effective tactic is to lay out, in text or video, what a typical day in the role would look like.

Such honesty can be its own reward. Research has long suggested that RJPs lead to lower turnover and higher employee satisfaction. A paper in 2011 by David Earnest of Towson University and his co-authors concluded that favourable perceptions of the organisation’s honesty are the best explanation for why.

The incentives on both sides of the hiring process lean naturally towards glossing reality. If candidates were to give genuinely truthful answers (“I have a habit of making basic but calamitous errors”), many would rule themselves out of jobs. And if firms were to give a warts-and-all description of themselves, many would end up deterring good applicants. But a process designed to uncover the truth about job applicants would run a lot more smoothly if firms were also honest about themselves. 

Read more from Bartleby, our columnist on management and work:
Would you rather be a manager or a leader? (Oct 23rd)
How big is the role of luck in career success? (Oct 19th)
Trialling the two-day workweek (Oct 12th)

Also: How the Bartleby column got its name

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