Honesty in a job interview - how much is too much?
Interviewer: "What's your greatest weakness?"
Man: "Probably my honesty."
Interviewer: "I don't think that's a weakness."
Man: "I don't give a f**k what you think."
Okay, so we’re definitely not suggesting that you go down this route. There is clearly a difference between honesty and being downright rude. However, lying can get you into hot water down the road, so we would urge you to be as honest as you can be about the main three areas you’ll be quizzed on, which are:
- Your capabilities
- Your motivations
- Your last job
Let’s take them one by one and examine where it’s crucial to be open and truthful and where it’s advisable to be slightly more nuanced and tactful in your responses.
Honesty about your capabilities
It’s a classic scenario to be in an interview and you start to embellish actually how proficient you are at x, y or z. It can be tempting to overstate your abilities to give an answer that you think the interviewer wants to hear. Much has been written and said about this and I think most people understand that lying gets you nowhere in the long run.
In fact, it could just end up landing you in a position you’re not really able to do. Most employers these days are looking for ‘the right fit’ and will appreciate you being honest about your limitations.
That said, some of us lack a little self-confidence and will underplay our abilities. Take some time before an interview to go through your successes and triumphs throughout your career or education.
Think about how much you’ve grown and improved and get yourself into a positive space about what you have to offer. Honesty regarding the genuine holes in your skill set is important, but at the same time nobody wants to hire someone who is too self-deprecating or short on self-belief.
Honesty about your motivations
We get it. Not everyone can land a dream job straight away and sometimes you’ll take a position to use as a stepping stone for greater things.
This is an example of extreme honesty about someone’s motivations, taken from a thread on StackExchange:
My favourite true story about being honest in an interview was a candidate I had who, when I asked "why do you want to work on this team?" -- a softball question if ever there was -- answered "I don't, but the team I want to work on isn't hiring. I want to work for your team for a year and then switch to the other team when there is an opening." Thumbs up for honesty, NO HIRE for obvious reasons. – Eric Lippert
Most employers are aware that a lot people are motivated by money and career progression, you don’t need to spell it out in the interview. Here is definitely the place to exercise a little bit of calculation and focus on the positive aspects of the role and company and show why you are motivated to work for them.
You might be overstating your enthusiasm slightly but it’s important to think about how the interviewer will be feeling and what they’ll be hoping to hear. Remember that the company and project is likely very important to them and they want to hear that it matters to you too.
All that said, it’s one thing to slightly ‘beef up’ your motivation to work for someone, but telling outright lies will get you nowhere in the long run. If you’re not planning on sticking around for long or your heart just really isn’t in it, then don’t say so. It’s a fine balance between sounding enthused and not creating a rod for your own back down the line. You’ll have to use your own judgement to work out where that balance lies.
Honesty about your last job
This is a big one and not something that gets talked about too much. Being honest about the problems and challenges in your previous job is important, but it’s an easy trap to fall into where you start bad mouthing your previous employer or team members. Often when you leave a job it’s because things weren’t quite working out, so when you’re interviewing for a new one, many of those frustrations are still fresh in your mind.
We advise caution when it comes to talking about your last job. Sure, mention the issues that you faced in the role but be sure to show how you helped to overcome them and what you learned in doing so.
Demonstrate how these experiences make you a suitable candidate for the job you're applying for. Singling out individuals for criticism or generally slagging off your old company won’t show you in a good light and potential employers will be thinking, “Will he/she be saying the same thing about us in a year’s time?”
Honesty is the best policy - 95% of the time
Overall, honesty is definitely the best policy but with certain caveats. It’s all a case of nuance and using your own judgement. Telling outright lies is never a good plan, but emphasising the positives is key to coming across well in an interview. If in doubt, stay true to yourself and your personality.
Interviews are a lot like dating, you’re putting across the best version of yourself on the day, but later on, the person will see you for who you really are.
So don’t make it too much of a surprise!