how honest and open should you be in interviews?

A reader writes:

How honest and open should you be in an interview?

For example, yesterday I had an in-person interview where both my interviewers were concerned that the job would not be a good match for my interests and skills. I deflected their concern at first, then later admitted that I shared it. Do you think it’s problematic to do something like this in an interview?

I have taken your advice to heart re: “interviewing the interviewer” and am always keen to avoid the feeling of “I’ll take anything, even if I hate it” desperation. I have enough friends who loathe their jobs that I want to be cautious.

However, in this economy I’ve been told by a lot of people not to be picky about these things and to be grateful for any job that’s offered to me at all. Financially, I do need to take a job soon, but will probably do per diem work/retail/something similar until I find a job that’s a good fit. What are your thoughts?

It depends on what your goal is. If your goal is to find a job that you’ll do well at and be happy in, then yes, I think you should be fairly open in interviews. After all, that’s part of how you screen for fit — on both sides.

If you conceal information about your strengths, weaknesses, work habits, and goals from your interviewer, then there’s a pretty high risk of ending up in a job that’s wrong for you. You’ll increase your chances of all kinds of bad outcomes: being miserable, dreading coming into work each day, not being able to perform well or outright struggling, being perceived as a low or mediocre performer (which in turn can affect your reputation long after you’ve left the job), and even getting fired.

But certainly there are times when someone doesn’t have the luxury of worrying so much about fit; they just need a job. So what do you do in that case?

You still don’t throw caution to the wind and claim to be an expert statistician when you just took one stats course in college, or talk up your amazing Excel skills when you’ve only entered data into spreadsheets. In other words, you don’t lie. But you might choose to be more circumspect about how much you share of the truth. In your example of admitting that the job probably wasn’t a good match for your interests and skills — well, in most situations, that’s going to be a deal-breaker. Employers want to hire people with the right skills, obviously, and they also want to hire people who seem interested in the work — and in this market, there’s no shortage of people who qualify. So if you don’t want to take yourself out of the running for the job, I wouldn’t say something like that.

Ultimately, it comes down to whether you’re looking for the right fit (and have options that allow you to be selective), or whether you’re looking for a paycheck.  When it’s the latter, you generally need a more polished front. But when you have options, candor and openness — within reason — are generally key in landing in the right spot, and in avoiding the wrong ones.

{ 42 comments… read them below }

  1. COT*

    I think it’s also okay to keep your concerns to yourself during the interview. If there’s a complete dealbreaker and you have the luxury of walking away from the opportunity, it might be okay to share your concerns right then so that no one’s time is wasted.

    But if you’re a little more on the fence, try to be enthusiastic and honest, but keep your concerns to yourself. You might change your mind as the interview goes on, or as you think about it afterwards.

    The key is to take yourself out of the running as soon as you’re positive that you would never take the job. If you decide after the interview that you can’t overcome your concerns, do the classy thing and let the company know. That way they can spend their time and energy on other candidates who actually want the job.

  2. Cody C*

    “Do the classy thing and let the company know. That way they can spend their time and energy on other candidates who actually want the job.”
    Oh you mean the same way companies do the classy thing and let you know your not the right fit so you can move on… What most companies don’t do that?? They leave you twisting in the wind for days weeks months with nary a word. I can’t help but be baffled by the expectations of companies when they themselves don’t meet them. Sometimes people for your own morale be the pigeon and not the statue! And bitterness switch back to the off position.

      1. businesslady*

        & even if you ARE dealing with a frustrating company–isn’t it more satisfying in the long run to be the picture of perfect etiquette rather than stooping to their level? if nothing else, you can be sure you’ve represented yourself well in case you run across those same contacts in the future.

  3. Joey*

    I think you have to be very open about your skills and can have a lot more flexibility about your interests. Skills are not up for debate, they are what they are. And if you oversell you’ll quickly have problems at work. Interests on the other hand are completely your decision and you’re free to change them whenever you want. As long as you’re at peace with the direction you’re going and can commit for a reasonable amount of time that’s all that matters.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I like that distinction a lot. And you should be honest with yourself about your interests, but that doesn’t obligate you to do a full reveal about them to employers.

      1. Joey*

        Yes, it’s perfectly fine to tell yourself “im going to make this my interest for a reasonable amount of time” and tell the hiring manager “I’m interested in doing this kind of work.”

      2. Dan*

        Me too.

        Can I stand behind a cash register for 8 hours and say “Thank you for shopping at XXX?” Sure. Am I *interested* in doing that? If I have no job, I’m more interested in doing that than I am sitting on my duff at home with no paycheck.

    2. Anonymous*

      This is a really good point. I was pretty honest with employers for a while about what I desired to do. (I never applied for a job I wasn’t totally sure I could do, which may have limited me, but meant competency wasn’t a question.) This led to one employer offering me a job very different than what I’d applied for, which was amazing because I was very excited about that type of work. But I also had the luxury of having a job at that moment. If I hadn’t I doubt I would have said, I can do this job, but I’m looking to turn my career towards a leftward trajectory and get out of doing this kind of ishy work, and into the other exciting work.

    3. Elizabeth West*

      Yeah, this is what I was afraid of with NewJob. But since they actually tested everyone (and said mine was the best! Whee!), I’m not scared that I can’t do it.

      Off topic, the offer letter said less moneys than what the verbal was, but I clicked Accept. I am still making almost twice what I was, should be okay even after taxes. Not complaining!

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Wait — they made you a verbal offer of X but when the offer letter showed up, it was for less than that? You should raise that — it could have been a mistake. Above-board companies don’t do bait-and-switches like that.

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            I’d say something like, “I realized in reviewing the material afterwards that the salary figure is different from the one we discussed and wanted to check with you that.” (So it’s not like “I clicked accept but now have misgivings about not speaking up originally.”)

            Only do this if you’re 100% sure it’s different, of course.

            1. Ask a Manager* Post author

              Also, be prepared for how you’ll respond if it turns out this newer number IS the offer. You’ll take it happily anyway, it sounds like, so just keep the whole tone really light and friendly, and sort of “just want to see if this was a mistake.”

              On the other hand, feel free to ignore me, not do this, and just enjoy your job offer! Also a legit choice after a difficult search!

              1. Elizabeth West*

                That’s basically what I said; I was just like, “I wanted to make sure that was right, or if I was looking at it wrong, that we are all on the same page, etc. Thanks!” Because my first thought was that HR did that, not her.

                If that is the offer, I really can’t complain too much; it’s nearly twice what I was making a month at OldJob even after taxes (from what I can tell from the salary calculator I use)! Enough to build my savings back up and finally get a smartphone (prepaid). :D

  4. Cody C*

    This particular Post hit home with me because a few months back it could have been me writing it. I know for sure it has been two months of silence since a third interview. Did I paint with to broad a brush maybe so. Have I been close to a less then professional email or phone call? Yes once or twice. Did I read the post and the first comment and seize upon the opportunity to get some angst of my chest? Yes better to do so here then on the phone with the company HR. Let me be clear in that I think it always best to take the high road but it wouldn’t hurt to see a few more companies traveling it too(one o or two I never remember).
    Cody C
    Midsouth USA

    1. Elizabeth West*

      Yep, got it. And you know, it tells you a LOT about them.

      Recruiter who called me about the temp position with Second Choice said, “We did go with someone else, but we wanted to offer you this temp thing because we didn’t want to let you get away!” Well, I chose to believe that they thought I would be bored in SC job, and didn’t have anything else for me. Because they never bothered to let me know otherwise that I didn’t get the position I interviewed for. (P.S. I did call her back right away and tell her I got an offer. Although it was tempting to let them hang for the week!)

  5. Ann*

    I had a problem recently with how to answer a question honestly. I recently had an interview for a position where they asked “where do you see yourself in 5 years?”. First, I never know quite how to answer that question because I’m still at the beginning of my career, and while I do have ambitions, they’re not exactly set goals. And, if I found a company or a job that I truly liked, maybe I’d be there. But I didn’t add that part because I didn’t want to seem unmotivated. I answered the question as best and truthfully as I could, but then a few minutes later the person goes on to explain that this position doesn’t have much mobility and seemed a bit concerned that it might not fit with my goals. I never said I was looking for mobility, but I do somewhat regret my answer to the earlier question.

    1. Joey*

      You don’t have to be real specific and name a job title or even an industry. You can speak to that question in general terms like saying “I see myself absorbing as much as possible since I’m still fairly green and at that point I’d hopefully be looking to take on bigger things.” Not exactly those words depending on your ambitions, but you get the idea. And if they’re looking for someone to commit longer than 5 years they’re stuck in the stone ages.

      1. Ann*

        I had said something fairly similar. I didn’t mention specific titles, just the area of work I’m interested in, and a hope to continue working in/toward that field. (The area was not outside what this company does or even necessarily outside what this position does). But they went on about how most of others in this position had been there 7-20 years.

        1. Joey*

          They’re looking for someone who’s satisfied with mediocrity. Sounds like you would have been miserable. Candidates that want to be in one job that long typically aren’t ones to push themselves to do better and better and progress.

        2. Laura L*

          Would you want to do that job for 7-20 years? I, for one, know I would never want to hold the same position for that long. So, for someone like me, that would be a very bad fit.

    2. Shannon Terry*

      I worked for a travel related company years ago that did exactly that — 90+ % of the jobs there were for Telephone Sales/Customer Service reps & the opportunities for advancement were few & far between. It seemed so unfair of the company to set the interviewee up like that, asking that question, because many people think the correct answer to that question is to seem eager & motivated and to want to advance, much like what you said, Ann. And then that bites them in the butt sometimes when they’d have been happy in that position for awhile, long enough for the employer to get their hiring costs out of it in many cases at least.

      I didn’t know it then, but since I got in as a temp & then learned about that hiring question later as a trainer/supervisor, it helps me give my clients a heads up about it now. We’ll then try to discern, if they can, if that might be the situation at that company. Then we’ll formulate a few possible answers depending on their actual priorities & what they pick up about the company during the interview. While I never advise outright lying, sometimes they know they’ll be happy enough there for long enough regardless, know they can make a positive contribution while they are there, and what to keep themselves in the running.

    3. Dulcinea*

      I hate this question because there is a part of me which is very literal minded, and I always have to remind myself to sort of spin the answer and say where I *want* to be in five years (in a way that jives with the role I’m interviewing for) rather than realistically predicting where I *will* be, based on statistics, economic predictions, and realities/uncertainties of whatever job I am interviewing for.

    4. Dan*

      Heh. I hate that question too. In my field, it does take a year or two to really get in a groove. So, at one interview, I replied by saying, “it does take awhile to get proficient at this job, so hopefully by the 5 year mark, I’ve gained some experience and qualified for a senior role.”

      Response: “We don’t promote people to Senior until they have ten years of experience.” Fair enough, but WTF did you ask me for then, and what did you really expect me to say?

  6. PEBCAK*

    I think that you can also try to probe around “required” vs. “desirable”, as we talked about yesterday. If something is in the latter category, a statement like “oh, I may need a refresher on that” or “what type of training is available?” may not be a dealbreaker.

  7. Cody C*

    Along those lines how does one answer the rate your skills questions is it 1 to 10 ? What are the parameters is 10 I wrote the software and 1 what is a computer. I wish the question was tell me what you can do in excel instead of rate your excel skills

    1. Joey*

      This is the dumbest thing an interviewer can ask. My 5 is most people’s 9 or 10. That said if you can do more than your peers I’d stick the a top end number, around a 5 if you can do most basics, and the bottom if you hardly know what excel is.

    2. Anonymous*

      I agree with Joey on this. Such a dumb question.
      I’ve answered with I know enough to be able to x, y, z (if you know what THEY think is advanced that’s always helpful but I find create macros, set up formulas, and develop pivot tables has never ceased to impress ymmv), but I also know enough to know that excel is a huge program and I’ve barely scratched the surface.

      1. Elizabeth West*

        I cannot do the math/formulas, and therefore have no idea how to do much more than very simple stuff in Excel and use it for lists. I was/usually am really honest about that.

        Mail merge? I got that. :)

    3. KellyK*

      Yeah, I think that’s a meaningless question, especially with software that has a huge range of uses, like all of Office. I’ve been known to write the occasional macro to automate something repetitive, which probably counts as advanced, but I’m also probably slower and more likely to need the help function with Word 2010 than someone who’s used it for the past 3 years, because I’m not used to that interface. (My company switches versions of Office when you get a new computer, and the previous version of Word is no longer available on new computers. I may get Word 2010 in a couple years, and I’m fairly certain I still have coworkers using 03.)

      “Tell me what you can do” is much more useful.

  8. Shannon Terry*

    This brings to mind a few examples about ‘just how honest should you be?’ question that are just slightly off the OP but may be useful antecdotes.

    One is about my mom as she was returning to the work force after basically 15 years of mostly being a stay-at-home mom. She was getting divorced and terrified, but trying to leverage her part-time jobs & personal strengths with the guidance of long-employed friends. I’m not sure if her cover letter included any of her personal story or not, but in the interview for an admin position at a large corporation in the Employee Assistance Program (the nursing/counseling/wellness branch of HR), she ended up telling some of the details of her difficult marriage to an alcoholic, her spiritual involvement, and how these life experiences would help her bring the benefit of sensitivity and empathy to the admin position that fielded questions about counseling benefits, health problems & other personal matters from likely nervous, uncomfortable employees.

    I was 16 so I don’t recall how much she shared, but she consciously took a chance, and it worked. It could have backfired, too. She used her intuition to ‘read’ the interviewer, the situation at the time & decided to go for it. That particular interviewer appreciated her candor and insight into the needs of the job. Another interviewer on a different day or company may have thought it was “TMI” and unprofessional. That’s the thing, there often is no “right answer”, it’s so often about the personal perception and preferences of the interviewer on these types of judgement calls. She was in that job for 13 years until she got laid off, btw.

    The second story is a client of mine that was going to go through intensive and detailed interviews for a high level/security clearance type government position. She had been furnished a list of possible interview questions by this agency & we were practicing her answers, as she was already quite understandably nervous in this high pressure situation.

    I think the question was about why she was interested in that job/field, and there was a highly personal story in her history that was a part of why she was interested in this career path. She was also ‘the right type’ and highly qualified/motivated for the job. She wasn’t concerned about the privacy of the story, but rather of 1) whether it was appropriate to share, & if so, in what detail and 2) that sharing the story might make her emotional, which she did NOT want to do (rightly so) in an interview.

    So what was the right amount of honesty in answering that question? So many possible answers. We discussed in detail considerations like, “What might the interview think about her sharing that? Would it make her seem a risky candidate because of personal motivation (that she might make important choices based on her history and emotion vs. facts & neutrality/the law)? Might it be common to have a compelling reason to choose this line of work & a strength to have a deep personal commitment to it to fuel her through the real challenges of it, and be seen that way, too? If she chose to share it, how could she talk about it in a way that was comfortable (and not make her cry)? If she shared it & it hurt her, could she be okay with that? If she didn’t share it, and didn’t get the job, would she always wonder if it had made a different if she had? We had to process through to determine a strategy that worked for her and I thought was professionally sound as well.

    In the end we came up with several possible answers based on her ‘read’/gut about the interviewer, the ‘vibe’ of the interview process itself & how ‘formal’ or relaxed it was, and how nervous or at ease she felt in the interview. She did have other solid reasons to want the job and be a great candidate for it, so we practiced answers that always incorporated those other skills and traits, and some that also shared the personal story, to various levels of detail. She would choose which version of the answers in the moment.

    In the end, she did one of the combination answers — and got the coveted and highly competitive job!

    Short summary to a long post— anticipation & practice helps so much, and, just as importantly, trust yourself and your own sense of the ‘right’ answer in each situation. You’ll know what to do.

  9. AmyNYC*

    If you feel like you can’t be honest about something (not encouraging that) be sure to think ahead of time how you’re going to answer the question you want to “fudge.”
    I was caught off guard by a question and ended up answering more truthfully that I would have (do you see your self with a career in retail?)(no) simply because I hadn’t thought about that question.
    The interviewer thanked me for my honesty and I did get an offer, but I didn’t take the job because my honest answer was my true answer – I did not want a career in retail (not hating on retail, I spent 3 years after college selling couches).

  10. Sam*

    Much of this depends on how much an applicant *needs* a job. In the right circumstances, honesty may be a good strategy. A friend recently interviewed for one job and was offered another (better) job with the same company after having an honest discussion of strengths and weaknesses.

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