how honest should you be in job 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?

I answer this question over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and sometimes updating/expanding my answers to them). You can read it here.

{ 65 comments… read them below }

  1. ArtK*

    If you don’t think you’re a good fit and *they* don’t think you’re a good fit then what possible benefit could there be in being untruthful? You get a job you aren’t a good fit for?

    The “grateful for any job” people don’t have your best interests at heart.

    1. Charlotte Collins*

      Yes, they’re the same people that used to counsel women to marry any man that asks, because any husband is better than none.

      1. Relly*

        This comment combined with your username made me giggle.

        (If your username isn’t meant to be a literary reference, please disregard.)

      2. Victoria Nonprofit (USA)*

        Except sometimes, any job is better than none. We should all be so lucky to never be in that situation.

    2. NotAnotherManager!*

      I really depends, though, doesn’t it? Sometimes, a job is just a means to an end (money to live off of) and taking something that you’re not passionate about is sometimes necessary for that whole living indoors thing or even just getting some basic job experience to carry on to your next position. I’ve definitely had a job or two that was less something I liked/was interested in and more something that paid the bills and I didn’t outright hate.

      However, I would only take a job that was not a great match for financial or experiential reasons. If OP is able to do retail/temp/etc. work until a better fit comes up, I think that is a good plan.

      From the employer side, people who don’t seem that interested or that don’t have the right skills aren’t people I’m interested in hiring. High turnover kills productivity, and I need a minimum 18 month commitment to make a position worthwhile from a training investment perspective. I also talk about this in interviews — that I see the interview as a two-way street and want to give a good picture of what the job entails, good, bad, and ugly.

      1. Bad Candidate*

        I agree. As Kerry over at the former Clue Wagon website said, if it’s raining and someone offers you an umbrella, you don’t complain that it doesn’t match your shoes. (Or something to that effect)

      2. Dot Warner*

        That’s a good point, although I read “good fit” as “job you’re able to do” rather than “job you’re interested in.” If the job isn’t one you can perform well (or even averagely), better you should find that out at the interview than after you get hired and immediately get put on a PIP or fired.

    3. Mike C.*

      I’m far from a “grateful for any job” person, but the direct benefit is the ability to pay bills now and possible access to benefits. This isn’t a great long term plan and many will be able to say no and keep looking, but that’s not always the case.

      1. Isben Takes Tea*

        I think it depends on what your “not a great fit” benchmark actually is–usually the people I observe arguing over this actually agree but they’re arguing over degrees.

    4. MK*

      It depends on how you define “bad fit”. A job may not match your skills very well, but if you do actually have the basic skills (and if you are being interviewed, you probably do), you will probably do fine at it, as long as you have the work ethic to put effort into it. And as for interests, well, many people excellent at jobs they are mostly indifferent to.

      1. Stranger than fiction*

        Yes to your last sentence. I’ve had some great jobs where I’ve done well, but the product or service is capital B boring.

    5. Jennifer*

      Well, if it’s a choice between “I’m gonna be homeless in a week if I can’t get a job…” then screw “the right fit,” because you can no longer wait for what makes you happy.

  2. NutellaNutterson*

    It seems like there are two important questions: is it an acceptable match for your skills, and is it an acceptable match for your interests. The first shouldn’t be lied about, because that way leads to misery and firing. The second is a much broader question, and it’s part of the “dream job/follow your passion” trap so many questions here discuss: a decent job doesn’t necessarily match the things you’re interested in *personally* – and focusing on that can lead you away from work that may actually be a good match for your skills.

    1. Kyrielle*

      I think the important thing in your sentences is “acceptable”. Someone who wants to only live their passion will have a narrower range of that; someone who wants to earn money and work to live will have a broader range, but probably still some limitations. And I think we do people a disservice by encouraging them to think that only stuff they are “passionate” about is acceptable (when for a lot of us, that’s just not so).

      I don’t need to be working at what I’m passionate about. A job that doesn’t have any elements I loathe and is suited to my skills is thus also quite “acceptable” to my interests…with a few exceptions. I am a software engineer, and I would not find a job writing software to blast out spam emails an “acceptable” match to my interests (because I would feel horribly slimy, and yes, I actually saw a job posting for something pretty close to that once). If my skills leaned that way, a job in tobacco firms would also be off my list.

      But I seriously looked at a job writing software for tracking insurance policies and claims. Am I passionate about it? Nope, but it’s work I could do and it’s not something I’m opposed to. Had I gotten the offer, taken it, and everything been as it seemed to be, I would have been quite content to work there for years.

      1. Dot Warner*

        Exactly. My job is something I’m reasonably good at and pays me well enough that I can do stuff I’m actually passionate about but, alas, does not pay the bills.

    2. NotAnotherManager!*

      This is a really great point, and I like the distinction between skills and interest.)

      I also agree about the whole dream job/passion thing. I feel like the idea that we should be passionate about our jobs is a fairly new idea, but I also grew up in a pretty pragmatic family where there was an emphasis on my becoming independent rather than finding my bliss. My sister went through a phase where she wanted to pursue her dreams rather than get a self-supporting job, and it drove my mother crazy worrying until Sis finally decided to be a teacher.

      No one should have to take a soul-crushing job or one that has negative health impacts, but I’m an advocate of finding your passion outside of work.

  3. BobcatBrah*

    In my opinion, being picky about interviews is best done when you have a job, and when you don’t have a job then you should probably be a little less choosy and take what you get.

    Or maybe take a high turnover retail gig and keep interviewing for interesting things

  4. AnotherHRPro*

    To get the best possible match between job/employer and candidate/employee, both sides need to be fairly transparent and honest. That doesn’t mean you don’t paint things in the most positive light (again on both sides) but I would caution both hiring managers and applicants from not being honest about real job qualifications and fit. Otherwise one or both sides will be disappointed in the outcome.

    1. NotAnotherManager!*


      Standard part of my interview speech is basically this, plus I have a few less-than-desirable part of the job that I share in addition to the good parts. I also encourage questions, even after the interview is over, if it affects their decision simply because, as I also tell them, it doesn’t do either of us any good to decide three months in that it’s not a good fit.

  5. hbc*

    Well, if you leave that thread at “I’m not sure I have the interests or skills”, you might as well walk out the door. It needs some sort of follow up: “So tell me a little more about what the day to day activities would be like.” Or “But I’m a quick learner and love trying new things, so even if this doesn’t turn into a 30 year career, I’m sure I’d be engaged for at least 3 years.” Or “But I really like what I’ve seen of the company and would hate to lose the opportunity. Would it be possible to do a trial period where we can both resolve our questions?” Any of those responses would make me feel better about a candidate who was coming off as unenthusiastic.

    If you really want an offer, don’t admit to lacking interest* or skills, but it’s still good to do the digging to help yourself figure out exactly how likely it is that you’ll be bored or fail.

    *True story: I hired a guy who said in his interview, “I don’t know why I’m here.” Luckily for both of us, that was only the beginning of the conversation.

    1. stk*

      This is kind of what I was thinking, too. “This is outside my previous experience/I share some concerns about this” doesn’t have to be a dealbreaker if the follow up is “but I’m excited to learn/I want to go in [x] direction because [y]/I have [z] interest that makes me think this could be a good fit”.

    2. designbot*

      Those are all excellent answers that keep this from turning into a conversation killer. When I read the letter I was thinking, “so why didn’t they just show you the door right then??”

  6. Anonymous Educator*

    both my interviewers were concerned that the job would not be a good match for my interests and skills

    If two interviewers told me this at one company/org./school, I would take that as a pretty clear sign they’re not looking to hire me, so I don’t really have a lot to lose in agreeing with them. And, frankly, if it’s not a good match for my skills (interests is a separate conversation), I don’t want to work there and fail anyway.

    1. Jennifer*

      True…I think if they say that, they’ve already decided to rule you out. And at that moment it’s up to you as to whether or not you want to try to talk them out of that impression of you. Which may or may not be doable anyway.

      1. Chriama*

        They may be looking for reassurance or clarification though. “You went to school for chocolate teapots, this is a blueberry tea cozy company. Are you sure this position is in line with your intended career path?” If you say “I really needed a job” that’s a write off. If you say “Halfway through school I realized I really love blueberries and I’m interested in all hot beverage implements”, that’s a much more reassuring answer and it makes sense to keep talking at that point.

        1. Anonymous Educator*

          But that’s different. There’s a huge difference between saying “I see you majored in X and Y. What brought you to looking for a Z position here?” and saying “We’re concerned this job isn’t matching your interests and experience.”

    2. Overeducated*

      It depends. I have had a question like tis at two recent interviews, phrased as “let me be frank, I am mainly concerned that you don’t have x, which is vital for the job.” For one I was able and willing to give a well thought out answer on why I thought I would be committed despite not having a single long term job in my work history (not a job hopper, during grad school i had a series of recurring seasonal, part time, and term positions in three orgs where full time work was not available). Got an offer. I apparently convinced the interviewer.

      At another I was basically asked if I was really truly passionate about the subject matter. I was not, and answered honestly that I was learning and interested in learning more. Didn’t get the job, but honestly don’t think it was a good fit anyway.

      1. Anonymous Educator*

        No, that’s great that that happened for you. I was thinking more in the specific context of this question:

        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.

        Clearly the OP shared the same concern, and you didn’t. If you were able to convince your interviewers that you can do the job, that means before you were able to convince them of that, you were already convinced yourself that you could do the job.

        Sounds as if the OP isn’t convinced she/he can do the job—so that’s three people in a room who all believe the same thing. How is the OP going to convince those two people?

  7. shep*

    Man, this is so tricky. I’ve been in a position where I very much needed a job. I was looking at my finances, my loan repayments, trying with increasing desperation to get out of the underemployment that had carried me through graduate school, and trying with flagging success not to panic. (Actually by the end I was totally panicking, especially after a year of fruitless job searching.)

    I ended up taking an admittedly ill-fitting position in social work, a field in which I have no interest. I was upfront about my skills and training [and lack thereof] in relation to the position. My boss was enthusiastic about my skills, even knowing full well that I didn’t have a social work background. But I did feign some enthusiasm for the role that was, in truth, extreme trepidation.

    I was so desperate for a job, though, that I was SURE I could make it work. I was determined to do a great job. My boss was actually very kind and happy with the work I did, but I don’t know how long I could’ve kept it up. I absolutely HATED it, and managed to get a new position just six weeks after starting there. I worked a total of eight weeks, allowing for my two-week notice. But those eight weeks felt like an eternity, and I gained fifteen pounds during that short amount of time.

    I realize I got very, very lucky in being able to jump ship so soon, and that this not recommended.

    But it is SO tough to be in the position of needing a job, and I STILL don’t know if I could’ve turned that job down, even knowing how terrible it turned out to be. Kudos to Alison for tackling this honestly and with an eye to both fit and financial need.

  8. Liz T*

    Wish I’d been open in the interview for this long-term temp gig I’m doing. “No, I don’t actually want to be in a constant state of fear because my boss wants answers immediately and cannot abide clarification questions and I constantly have to steel myself to be yelled at for asking a question because I know that’s still better than making a mistake, but it really sucks.”

    They would’ve hired someone else and probably, eventually, given me a different placement.

  9. AnotherAlison*

    If an interviewer says something appears to not be a fit for your interest and skills, I think you’ve made a mistake in how you’re presenting yourself.

    Let’s say my career goals is to be a sales and marketing director, and I started in marketing analytics. I’m probably not terribly interested in a vendor rep position, and it really doesn’t fit my past experience, but boots-on-the-ground sales experience is something I’ll need to have under my belt. Your cover letter should mention that you’re trying to broaden your experience rather than leave it to the HM to figure it out why you’re going from “A” to “B”.

    Even if it’s not true and you just want to apply for this job because you need it, I think you should spin the truth to why this job benefits your career. . .for both your own benefit and the employer’s. Every job can be a road to somewhere, but you need to figure out how to tell that story.

  10. Critter*

    How is it that you would get to an in-person interview where the job wasn’t a fit for your skills? Hmm. Or I am just missing something?

    1. Liz T*

      It’s rare, from what I’ve read on this blog, for every interviewee to meet every qualification you’re looking for–some will be stronger in this area, others will be stronger in that area, etc.

    2. J*

      You apply. They call you. You agree upon a time to meet.

      Sometimes you don’t know it’s not a good fit until you get in the room and have a conversation. Job descriptions can be vague or imprecise.

      1. some1*

        I think Critter’s point is that the hiring manager shouldn’t be interviewing people who don’t have the skills/experience they need/want on the job or on their resume.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          It’s not always clear, though, until you sit down and talk and really dig into the specifics of someone’s experience whether it’s exactly what you need. It can look like it is, until you start talking and realize that “led teapot team” means “coached college students in teapot making on weekends” rather than “managed team of full-time teapot making employees.” (that’s a terrible example, but I’m tired.)

          1. Alice Ulf*

            After all, if this wasn’t the case, no one would ever need to interview more than one person per position!

            1. Anonymous Educator*

              Well, not necessarily. Even if all the on-paper stuff jived with the reality, there’s more to a person than just what her experience is. Is she super awkward to talk to? Can she be articulate? Does she sound scripted or rehearsed when you talk to her?

      2. NotAnotherManager!*

        Your first paragraph made me laugh out loud!

        But, yeah, I’ve definitely had to tweak job descriptions, chat with the HR screener about revising criteria, and also do some creative resume interpretation over the years — all of which affect how well you can figure out who is and isn’t a good fit, particularly for some of my entry-level positions where we can train for a lot and are looking more for drive, positive attitude, interest in the position, etc.

      3. heatherskib*

        Or sometimes there isn’t the overlap you thought! I recently interviewed for a grant project with another agency. The project I work on is a very specific set of rules that do not have overlap into what they needed for theirs. Neither the application, or prequalification questions indicated there would be an issue. During the interview I realized it was a bad fit, and declined when they still called to offer me the job, despite what I felt was a horrible interview!
        Another opportunity I didn’t realize had lost more than 75% of their office until I went to interview- the main description was they had “moved on.” Having used that wording- this indicates to me a toxic office.

    3. Bwmn*

      The best examples I can think aren’t so much where the skills are the issue but more so the interest. A common example that comes to mind are assorted admin jobs that recent undergrads apply for. Lots of college students have had work-study or part-time jobs around admin/data entry, so they may be very technically qualified but not genuinely interested in making that their long term career.

      But more recently in my job, I used to work in a job that was Teapot and Coffee Pot Design – two types of design I really enjoyed. I then later took a job for Coffee Pot and Chocolate Pot design. Chocolate Pot design isn’t super different, and also seemed like a good area for personal developmental growth. A few years later, I can now fully attest that I will never pursue a job in Chocolate Pot design again. There are a number of subtle differences that make the area of work far less to my liking and while it’s clearly something I can do, it’s also something I really would rather not do. So much so that in my entire time in this job I’ve done as much as possible to make my job “Mostly Coffee Pot design with an occasional Chocolate Pot here and there”.

      Now 9 times out of 10, there’s no reason to think that someone with my skill set couldn’t make the Tea and Coffee Pot switch to also doing Chocolate Pots. It really isn’t that different. But for my area of work, there are enough differences that I do believe it does require a specific temperament and it’s fair to want to pursue in an interview whether or not it will work.

  11. Audiophile*

    That photo is gold!

    Now that that’s out of the way, I’ve unfortunately been in this situation many times in my working life. I’ve taken jobs because it meant paying bills, keeping my cell phone on, etc. I look forward to the day of having multiple choices when it comes to job offers and really being able to pick and choose. That day is not here yet and seems to be a long way off. Until that time, I’ll continue to do what I can to get by.

    As for the OP, if they’re sharing with you that they have concerns and you do too, listen to that gut feeling and really hear what they’re saying. I understand being desperate, but you don’t want to end up in a job that is a poor fit or one that makes you miserable.

  12. Bwmn*

    Personally, I find the notion of “be grateful for any job” is kind of similar to “in this situation, I’d leave my job immediately”. There will always be cases where a job is so toxic it needs to be left immediately and similarly there are times where ‘just a job’ is just needed. But more often than not, I find that shades of gray in the middle represent the reality.

    For a job that’s a bad fit, there’s a very easy risk of not being a star performer, feeling at risk of being fired and all of that anxiety, not being competitive for raises or bonuses, being in a situation where you don’t have a positive reference, etc. Being in a situation like the letter a few weeks ago where French ended up being necessary for the job, that’s a fit problem that’s obvious immediately. But if you’re six months in, realize you’re unhappy and a middle of the road performer and then have to decide whether to wait a year or two before you can leave and then have two years on your resume that shows experience in a field of work you don’t like as well as possibly a weak reference – it’s hard to see that as a positive.

    On the flip side, there are also many many people who do not have a job that is their passion or their primary interest. Their main interests are their families, hobbies, friends, etc. But I would say that even if you’re not looking for a profession like that, you still need a good fit, even if it’s for issues like telework, work/life balance, good management, etc.

  13. Ann from NYC*

    What if an interviewer asks you something like what is your biggest fear? I was really stumped by that one…are you supposed to be honest? I mean, I’m not in a therapy session.

    1. AnotherHRPro*

      That is seriously a very bad question. Fear really is relevant in a job interview. A more common question is what is your biggest weakness. I hate that question, but it is best to be honest answering this one as well. It shows that you are self aware and you certainly don’t want a job that requires something that you are not good at!

      1. Heather Harrell*

        I go with- I tend to be over committed to my job, and give example that had me at work at 3 a.m.

    2. leslie knope*

      do interviewers actually ask about your childhood and things like that? that seems rather personal and risky to ask total strangers. i’ve never encountered it personally.

      1. Ann in NYC*

        This was a question I got a few weeks back from one of my interviewers. He asked a lot of start-up questions (Love to Win or Hate to Lose?, etc.) I agree with AnotherHRPro, it was a bad question. Spiders is a good response though!

  14. Barney Barnaby*

    I think the deeper issue is the lack of thoughtfulness about which jobs to apply for, or preparation for the interview, not so much the situation in the interview room.

    You don’t just wake up one day, in a suit, with someone staring at you across the table asking you questions about a job opening. You applied for the job. You accepted the interview and had time to ask some more detailed questions about the role. You had time to prepare for the interview.

    “Why do you want this job” should be something that you are able to answer coherently, comprehensively, and easily. If you can’t, don’t waste your time going to the interview. (It also makes it harder to later get into that company, even if you are a much better fit for a different role.)

    I am NEVER one to say that you should totally wait for your dream job, but you should have a focused job search (which can mean a few different fields). That focused job search saves you time and frustration (of being rejected), and also helps you to sincerely say that you are targeting that field/company type/geographic area/etc.

  15. Bibliovore*

    At the present job interview, I knew who else was in the running for the position. (not unusual in academia) Our strengths were not in the same areas nor our degrees. I did say in the interview, if you are looking for someone with a strong background in chocolate teapots and someone who has spent the last five years supervising teapot design, I am not the person for this job. I wanted to make sure that they understood that my interests and education were not in those areas nor would I get up to speed anytime quickly.

  16. seejay*

    I was once asked a question in an interview if I could have any job I wanted, what could it be, and I said something totally way off in another career direction (I was interviewing for a job in tech and I said veterinarian). It was a phone interview and my ex was in the room at the time and listening to the conversation and apparently that was a *huge* no-no answer. I thought being honest was what they wanted, but basically telling them that wanting to do something else totally not in the same field was a red flag that I wasn’t going to be serious about staying long-term in any job with them (not like I was about to start over in an undergrad in biology or something, like what?)

    Anyway, I no longer ever tell anyone that I would like a job/career in a field totally unrelated to whatever I’m interviewing for, even if it’s still in tech, even if it means I’d be lying. I like my feet without putting bullets in them.

    1. MegaMoose, Esq.*

      That’s a super BS question. What are you supposed to say? “Oh, if I could have any job I wanted it would totally be this one! TEE HEE!” There are way better ways of getting the information they were probably looking for.

      1. seejay*

        Unfortunately I was still of the belief that honesty was the best policy and telling them the truth was more in line with just giving them insight into who I was instead of committing job suicide.

        No more tricksy questions get honest answers now. >>

  17. Rachel B*

    Can we stop using the phrase “in this economy?” This is not the 2012 economy, nor the 2009 economy or the 2008 economy. We’re not at 12% unemployment, or even 9% or 8%. Unless you’re in a tough industry or an economically downtrodden part of the country, this phrase doesn’t apply.

    1. Elsajeni*

      To be fair, these posts are reruns of older letters, so the OP might actually have been writing from the 2012 economy. (In fact… yes, looks like this letter originally ran in January of 2013.)

    2. Anon1*

      To me the uses of the phrase “in this economy” and “grateful for any job” are a tipoff that the people the LW is talking to are, themselves, fearful about their financial situations or futures. It has little to do with the actual state of the current economy. To these people the economy will always be bad, because it once was bad in their memories.

    3. Marmalade*

      I don’t know though. Yeah, the numbers have improved, but studies indicate that a lot of the job gains weren’t in professional/career-type jobs.
      And it’s anecdata, but I know so many people who are underemployed, and I just can’t imagine that isn’t true for most other people.

  18. LisaD*

    FWIW, I once told a CEO that I didn’t want the job I was interviewing for–I had been curious enough about it to interview, but after the interview knew very quickly it wasn’t for me. We ended up having a casual conversation about his company instead of my “final round” interview with him. He called me a year later with the offer of a job I DID want, and I ended up making middle five figures when the company was acquired.

    Honesty sometimes does pay :)

  19. JaysonHFI*

    Being honest is a must. Using common sense could take you a long way in interviews.

    I don’t think the reader should have deflected their concern. Instead, should have provide ample examples and evidences to feed off that “concern”. I.e. How would you strengthen yourself to meet their expectation. E.g. courses? mentors?

    There’s always a train in the station.

    Everyone always get challenged in an interview, it actually creates an opportunity for you to shine, under the assumption that you do have a strong grasp of the role plus your own knowledge.

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