Business Psychology

Article No. 343
Business Practice Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

To Hire the Right Person

New research gives guidance for employment interviews.

You'll have to forgive the poor schnook sitting across the desk from you, the one you're interviewing for a job. His mind is racing. He has to make a decision. Does he present you with a new and improved John Doe, the fellow he's become based on his guesses about the kind of a person you're looking for? Even during the interview, you can see him listening closely for clues so he can miraculously acquire skills he thinks you want and describe them to you with vivid, fictional accounts that display his use of them. If he does well, you'll offer him a job. Then at least his problem of unemployment will be solved.

Of course, there is another choice.

From early childhood, Mr. Doe has had "good guy" training hammered into him. Parents, grandparents, teachers, coaches, and religious instructors all agree: Tell the truth. Honesty is the best policy. Thou shall not bear false witness. Be who you really are. Good guy training commands poor Mr. Doe to answer your questions truthfully, but even as he does so, other well-known phrases will crowd into his thinking. "If you really knew who I was, you wouldn't like me." "If you knew how I botched my last job, you wouldn't want me here," and so on. Mr. Doe has a lot to think about.

Daniel Cable, from the University of London, calls employment interviews "strong situations" because they invoke the same reactions from people regardless of their personal qualities, and he points to research findings that appear compelling. Eighty percent of job applicants told fictional stories prepared in advance to showcase their credentials, 81% of job applicants admitted lying at least once during an interview, and skilled use of impression management tactics is positively related to interviewer ratings. But Professor Cable had his doubts. There is a theory called "self-verification" that he believes applies to employment interviews. This theory suggests that people entering new settings are best served by being honest.

Cable tested the idea that some people are honest in employment interviews, regardless of the strong incentives to the contrary, and that because of this honesty, they have a better adjustment to their new jobs. Cable devised a survey that measured the strength of a person's desire to be honest and to present themselves accurately during employment interviews. Typical items include: "It's worth it to be truthful with others about my habits and personality so that they'll know what they can expect from me;" "I like to be myself rather than trying to act like someone I'm not;" and "It's important for an employer to see me as I see myself, even if it means allowing people to recognize my limitations."

Cable gave this survey to two large groups, and he found that his subjects did vary in this quality. Some strongly favored honesty in employment interviews, even if it revealed weaknesses, but others did not. Armed with this data, Cable next watched to see what happened to these people when they actually interviewed for jobs and moved into employment settings. He found that those with a strong need to "self-verify," the need to portray themselves honestly in employment interviews, had a significantly better adjustment to their new employment settings. They were happier, and their supervisors were happier with them. They also did not suffer rejection because of their honesty. Those with a strong need to be honest got just as many interviews and just as many job offers as those who did not. Honesty carried no penalty, and both the employer and the new employee found the transition to employment to be significantly more positive.

If we could limit our interviews to people who were being honest with us, our jobs would be a lot easier. Professor Cable recognizes our limitations, but he does have some suggestions. He feels, for example, that we can encourage honesty in self-disclosure by asking two specific questions: (1) "If you were to accept an offer of employment, what skills do you feel most strongly about using here?" and (2) "If you were to accept an offer of employment, what values do you care most about showing at work?" Cable also believes that it may be useful to engage applicants in less formal selection practices than the interview, possibly allowing them to shadow potential peers for a day so that they become comfortable and exhibit their true self views.

Finally, Cable noted the results of previous research that found recommendations from existing employees leads to good employment transitions. Cable believes this good adjustment can be explained by self-verification theory. Such employees are already known to your people and therefore have no opportunity to create fictitious personae that they must find a way to live up to.

Reference: Daniel M. Cable and Virginia S. Kay (2012) Striving for Self Verification during Organizational Entry. Academy of Management Journal, 55(2), April.

© Management Resources

See Also:
Fooling Us in the Interview

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