Companies & Industries

In Interviews, Honesty Is the Best Policy


Job hunting is a cutthroat business, especially these days when work is scarce. But it still pays to stick to your ethical principles

It's graduation season, and this means it's time for job hunting. Joining the pool of applicants will be a lot of people who have been downsized, fired, or who found their previous employment to be less than satisfying. Whether you're a newbie or a seasoned veteran of the job search, it's helpful to get advice about the all-important but nerve-wracking experience known as the job interview.

Most of the articles on this topic are written from either the psychological or legal perspective. But ethics also is—or should be—a component of job interviews, and taking ethics seriously is beneficial not just for the employer but also for the applicant. Here's a look at the specific ways ethical behavior before and during an interview can lead to getting the job you want.

The art of the job interview seems to be mainly about strategy: how to get from point A (unemployment, underemployment, or otherwise unsatisfying employment) to point B (a good job). But there are lots of ways to get from A to B, and some are more ethical than others. You can lie on your résumé, exaggerate your accomplishments, or mislead a prospective employer about what you can do well. Taking the low road may lead to a job offer—but at what cost?

If you have to become someone other than yourself, what does this say about your integrity? And what will happen to you, professionally as well as personally, if it comes to light that you lied to get the job?

Even if you are committed to being truthful, however, it is still possible to miss the main point of a job interview (and run the risk of being passed over). A job interview isn't about you. Or rather, it's not merely about you. It is about whether or not the company will benefit from hiring you. Ethics is about thinking beyond our own needs and desires, and applying the ethical principle of Make Things Better (BusinessWeek.com, 1/18/07) in the context of a job interview means concentrating on how you will help the company. This can't be at the expense of other ethical principles, such as Respect Others (BusinessWeek.com, 1/31/07), which requires us to be truthful, and Do No Harm (BusinessWeek.com, 1/11/07), which asks us not to say or do things that will make things worse for others or ourselves.

Ethics thus lies at the core of any job interview. With this in mind, here are five guidelines that you can use to ace your next interview—by taking the high road.

1. FOCUS ON WHAT YOU WILL BRING TO THE COMPANY.

It never ceases to amaze me how many people respond to my own job offerings with an endless discussion of why the position will help them: "This job is perfect for me, because I need something that will offer me flexibility." An employee should be concerned, first and foremost, with helping the company, not the other way around.

2. BE HONEST.

Few of us are good liars, and this is a good thing. When an interviewer asks you something to which you don't know the answer, it's much better to admit it than to pretend otherwise. Also, misrepresenting yourself on your résumé in any way is a big mistake, not just because it will come back to haunt you (since it may not), but simply because it's wrong.

3. WHEN IN DOUBT, DON'T.

The most fundamental ethical principle of all, Do No Harm, applies to how you treat yourself as well as others. Resist the impulse to say something that would make you look foolish, incompetent, or naive. If you're not sure about how something will be taken, leave it unsaid.

4. DON'T BADMOUTH YOUR PREVIOUS EMPLOYER.

Your prospective employer may ask you about previous jobs and why you left, or why you want to leave your current one. If a poor relationship with a boss or colleague was a contributing factor, it's better to say something like: "My supervisor and I didn't see eye to eye on a lot of projects," rather than "He was the biggest jerk I've ever worked for." Criticism at its best (BusinessWeek.com, 3/18/08) centers on what a person has done, not on who a person is.

Personal attacks make you look petty, and this could be a reason for you to be passed over for a position. Also bear in mind that professional circles can be small and tightly knit; it's entirely possible your interviewer knows your previous boss or colleagues. You don't want to acquire a reputation for being petty, vindictive, or tactless.

5. LOOK WITHIN.

This last rule is the most important. Before you even apply for a job, do some soul-searching, and find out what it is you're really looking for. To embrace a company's mission successfully you have to know what your own mission in life is, and why you want to devote considerable time and energy to that organization. Honesty applies not just to how you deal with your prospective employer; it also applies to how you deal with yourself.

Yes, it's a cutthroat world out there, and finding work is probably more difficult now than at any time in the past few years. But that's no reason to throw ethics out the window. In fact, I hope I've shown just the opposite—that keeping ethics front and center is the best way to be successful.

Weinstein is the corporate consultant, author, and public speaker known as The Ethics Guy. He has appeared on numerous national TV shows and is the author of several books on ethics. His Ask the Ethics Guy! column appears every other week on BusinessWeek.com's Managing channel.

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