There's something about the job interview process that encourages would-be employees to stretch the truth about their skills and work experience, researchers have found.
"It's essentially a social interaction, while also being a test," said Jordan Ho, a PhD candidate in industrial and organizational psychology at the University of Guelph.
Ho is first author of a new study about faking in job interviews that will publish in the Journal of Personnel Psychology later this year.
The researchers presented a group of 775 subjects with interview scenarios, varying the number of competitors and the ratio of people who would eventually be hired. In all circumstances, participants were asked to imagine that the interview was with a company or other organization for which they'd want to work.
Responding to questions presented to them online, each of those 775 respondents agreed that — in certain circumstances — they'd be compelled to engage in some level of deception or exaggeration.
"In our study … 100 per cent of people said they would lie or use deception in one way or another. It seems to be a fairly common thing," said Ho.
Ho said he was compelled to explore how people act during job interviews because almost everyone has been through the potentially anxiety-provoking experience of trying to win over a potential boss during the course of a somewhat unnatural question-and-answer session.
"Job applicants can engage in so many different behaviours during this interaction," he said. Included among those are embellishing and exaggerating experience or stretching the truth about their skills and qualifications.
"People might perceive that being honest might not be the best strategy compared to everyone else. In these situations, they might feel like lying is their only option."
Less competition, more faking?
Respondents reported a higher likelihood of deception in scenarios where there were fewer people competing with them for the job.
"It sounds counterintuitive, when there's less people and it's objectively less competitive, our brains play a little trick on us," said Ho.
To understand this phenomenon — which, as the study notes, has also been established by previous research — it helps to picture yourself running in a foot race, he said.
It would be difficult to picture the individual faces of 100 different competitors. But if it were you and just a couple of others vying to cross the finish line first, you'd be acutely aware of where those people were in relation to you, Ho said.
"You're afraid that you might not be as impressive compared to other people in the interview, and also, if you're stumped on a really difficult question, it might make sense to lie rather than say nothing at all."
Designing a better interview process
But there are things hiring managers can do to set candidates more at ease and encourage honest dialogue in interviews, said Ho.
"The main thing that recruiters and companies can take away from our research is that it might be better to not emphasize or highlight competition in the hiring process or the organization," he said. Should the job posting or other communication from the company specify that only a small selection of applicants will get an interview, or that the vetting process is really tough, it can get potential employees thinking too much about their competitors.
Instead, it's better to keep the focus on communicating to candidates about the company, and on finding the right fit, said Ho.
Jamie Hoobanoff, Toronto-based founder of recruitment firm The Leadership Agency who has conducted more than 10,000 interviews, said she isn't surprised by the results of the University of Guelph study.
At the end of the day, it's just really hard to interview.- Jamie Hoobanoff, recruiter and founder of The Leadership Agency
If people do embellish or say things that aren't true, it likely stems from simply not knowing what to say or how to say it in the vulnerable experience of going through the interview process, she said.
"At the end of the day, it's just really hard to interview."
She advises companies to "look at candidates as potential investors in their companies." Instead of emphasizing competition, give would-be employees the kind of transparency you'd offer an investor, said Hoobanoff.
"Really be open and honest in setting the tone. 'This is who we are, this is what we're about, this is our mission, this is our vision, these are our challenges, our successes, our achievements. This is what we're looking for and this is why you're here today.'"
Deborah Powell, associate professor of industrial and organizational psychology and Ho's co-author, said it pays to focus the interview process on getting to know the candidates. "Telling people it's a fierce competition to make it seem more prestigious may backfire."
Same goes for inviting candidates to come in around the same time, she said. "Having those people in the waiting room with them is probably not a great strategy."