In an attempt to impress recruiters, many applicants bring out their bag of tricks: “Weaknesses? Probably my perfectionism.” But when it comes to hiring for executive positions, HR managers wish for authenticity from their candidates, more than anything else. But what about the tougher questions? Questions about your plans for a family, or your reason for leaving your past employer? Sometimes candidates can suffer from being too honest. For tips on when to be brutally honest in job interviews, and in which situations a tiny white lie might be allowed, read on here.
The Line Between Honesty and Embellishment
Honesty is a virtue – this also applies in an interview. Headhunters like Gregor Lenkitsch value sincere applicants: “Honesty, openness and a confident demeanor have never hurt anyone.” Naturally, applicants want to present themselves as favorably as possible in an interview. They want to be perfect. This means they’re walking a thin line between honesty and boasting. Make sure not to embellish your experiences and expertise. Did you write in your CV that you’re fluent in Mandarin? Then be prepared to demonstrate your skills in the interview, if requested. Remember that even if your new employers only call your bluff once you’ve already gotten the job, you may be handed a huge project – like handling a merger between your company and a larger Chinese corporation. Oops. Being confident in your skills and talents is hardly a bad thing, but make sure that you stay honest and modest.
When you want to present yourself in the best possible light, you should prepare a short elevator pitch to quickly explain your experience and your successes. Do not include your entire resume, but stick only to the essentials – the most impressive parts of your work history. Try to pick 3-4 core aspects that you also notice in the job description and reinforce these through concrete examples.
When You Must Be Honest
HR managers and headhunters want confident and down to earth candidates. But recruiters can only determine whether you’re a good fit for the company when you’re completely honest. In regards to your performance, your experience, and your qualifications, you should always be honest – otherwise, you’re really shooting yourself in the foot.
Explain that your gift for critical reflection makes you a perfect executive. Tell your interviewer where your leadership skills lie and reinforce your argument with concrete examples. You should also indicate your level of leadership experience with honesty. There’s a big difference between having led a department, or a team that only consisted of three interns. Be sincere – even leading a small team has given you some experience, and it’s better to tell the truth than to fabricate. Explain what you learned from this experience and how you can transfer this knowledge to the position in question. In this way, HR managers can get a clear image of who you are, and they’ll know from the beginning if you need further training, what kind of further developments could be helpful to you, and in which departments you could lend your knowledge.
React tactfully to questions about your weaknesses and missing areas of knowledge. In these situations, a good preparation is necessary. Consider in advance how you want to explain your weaknesses. Avoid standard answers like “I’m too ambitious,” or “I can’t work without structure” – HR managers have heard all of these before. You don’t necessarily need to choose “weaknesses” that simply disguise strengths. Rather, choose real weaknesses, then show that you acknowledge them, and are working to improve them. For example, you could say something like, “I have difficulties speaking in front of large groups. So for the last three months, I’ve been taking seminars on rhetoric and public speaking to try and improve.”
When It’s Better to Fib
In a job interview, it’s in your best interest to be honest about your professional experience, your qualifications, as well as your strengths and weaknesses. However, as soon as your interviewer begins to ask questions about your private life, you should be very cautious with your answers. Here, too much honesty can seriously affect your chances to get the position.
Why are you looking for a new position?
Suppose you’re asked why you want to leave your current employer. When you mercilessly begin to complain and whine about your shamefully small paycheck, your incompetent management, and your awful working conditions, you’re not doing yourself any favors. Consider an alternative response: you’ve exhausted all possibilities for further development at your current job, and so you’re looking for new challenges. Maybe you need a professional change of direction. But in any case, you should leave private and personal reasons aside.
What kind of hobbies do you enjoy?
Hobbies show recruiters and headhunters what your passions are. Are you a team player? Are you dedicated? Pay attention that your hobbies don’t define or pigeonhole you. You should avoid detailing your passion for bungee jumping or mountain climbing in the Himalayas. Why? Your interviewer might decide that you’re a liability, or that you could hurt yourself and take months of sick leave. In addition, this might lead your interviewer to assume that you’re a huge risk taker. For a CFO, this isn’t always an ideal trait.
Are you planning on starting a family?
Especially for women in their 30s, this question is very likely to be asked, even though HR managers in the US aren’t technically allowed to. Don’t let a question like this faze or upset you. Politely ask how this question relates to your skills and qualifications – then change the subject discreetly. Your desire to have children, your political views, your religious affiliations – none of these belong in a job interview. Consider inappropriate questions like this, and prepare some short answers in advance. If in doubt, a little white lie is allowed.
Any other questions?
Certainly, a few questions must be on your mind – but some of them shouldn’t be asked in one of your first job interviews. Candidates that ask too eagerly about the number of vacation days never make a good impression. Instead, ask about the company’s options for further education and training – this signals your motivation and readiness to learn.
Always consider: when it comes to being honest in a job interview, it’s usually a question of strategic preparation… and the right spin.