Job interviews, a few thoughts…
So I thought about this stuff a while ago while I was out for a walk, and I decided back then that I should blog it when I got home. When I did get home I’d forgotten all about it (it was a long walk). Today I was out walking again, and well…
Okay, so let’s assume a job interviewer asks you how you’d feel about working with X, X being the kind of stuff you could be expected to work with in the job function in question. The obvious answer to many people would be ‘I’d feel great about working with X, I’d be very excited to have that opportunity’ or something along those lines. Though ‘it’s what I’ve dreamt of my entire life’ is probably an unwise reply in some situations (desk clerk, bouncer, renovation worker..), in general it seems obvious that it makes a lot of sense to fake interest and excitement in such a situation; this is because such an approach is usually perceived to make you more likely to land the job.
But why is that again? Let’s think a little bit about the signalling aspects here. People who are intrinsically motivated need lower monetary compensation rates to motivate them to do their jobs than do people who are not; they’ll be happy with a lower wage because they like what they do, and if they really like what they do they’re less likely to complain about stuff like e.g. a poor work environment. So if you signal that you’re eager to work with this stuff, you signal that you have a lower reservation wage. This makes you more likely to land the job if you’re perceived to meet the task requirements, but the deceit should in equilibrium affect the employer’s expectations about your productivity – people who have lower reservation wages are all else equal less productive. On the other hand perhaps the reason why you’re eager is that you know a lot about the subject, which means that all else isn’t equal and that your interest might lead to higher productivity on the job or lower training costs. Depending on the specifics there are likely multiple optimal strategies here; and it’s worth having in mind that individual characteristics are highly likely to impact which strategy is optimal for a given individual in a given setting.
Now consider another variable that’s likely to come up in a job interview setting: Ambition. Again people are often implicitly encouraged to fake ambition because it’s perceived in some areas (though far from all) to increase their employment opportunities. If you’re ambitious you’re willing to work harder than the other guy. If you’re ambitious this means you care about the social hierarchy in the organisation, and if you care about that stuff you’ll be more likely to follow the instructions you’re given which is often a useful ability for an employee to possess. If you’re ambitious you’re probably likely to be willing to do a lot of extra stuff to impress the people above you so that you can rise in the social hierarchy, which corresponds to working harder for a lower level of monetary compensation. On the other hand some employers prefer to limit the competition for the management spots by selecting people who are not ‘too ambitious’ for a given job function. And if a vacancy is created for a job function where it’s unlikely that a satisfactory performance will lead to further advancement in the organisational hierarchy, an employer may prefer an unambitious applicant, as he or she is less likely to become disgruntled by the absence of career advancement opportunities. Ambitious people are incidentally quite likely to be perceived of as more aggressive than their unambitious counterparts, which also translates to higher expected wage demands (for the same amount of work).
If you’re perceived to be dishonest about your goals or attributes to a greater extent than is tolerated in such situations this will most likely harm your opportunities greatly, but it’s worth noting that the tolerated level of dishonesty may vary a lot across organisations. Note that organisations always have an incentive to create the illusion that honesty is your best bet at a job interview; that’s because it’s the best bet for the organisation, i.e. the strategy which, if applied by all applicants, would give the organisation the highest potential payoff. This is because if all applicants supply all the decision-relevant information to the organisation, this will make the organisation most likely to be able to pick the best applicant for the job. But here’s the thing; the organisational payoff should at the point where you’re not yet hired by the organisation be irrelevant to you. You don’t care about the organisational payoff at the job interview stage, at this stage you only care about your likelihood of landing the job and the expected pay; withholding information will most frequently be optimal if that information might make you less likely to land the job or likely to earn less. Please do not assume that just because firms implicitly punish deceit, complete honesty is the best strategy for you – in most settings, it’ll likely be a stochastically dominated strategy. On the other hand if you have to grossly misrepresent who you are in order to land the job, the expected derived utility from landing the job probably isn’t as high as you think it is; the employer is not the only one who should care about whether you’re a good match for the job. The optimal amount of deceit is non-zero, but the risk of getting the wrong job should be weighed against the risk of not getting the job. When deciding on the optimal level of deceit do recall that the firm may have an incentive to withhold information from you as well, either by lying to you about which types of information that are important to them when it comes to whom to hire (in order to stop people from trying to game the system and weed out dishonest candidates), by misrepresenting the career opportunities associated with the job (if applicants think the job is high-profile and is likely to increase their future job market opportunities, they’ll likely decrease their wage demands because of the human capital investment value of the job), or perhaps by misrepresenting to some extent what you’ll actually be doing when you get the job (bait-and-switch type strategies are likely sometimes optimal, because it can lead to lower wage demands).
Like in romantic settings, displaying a low level of self-confidence is likely sub-optimal here. If you can’t convince yourself you’re the applicant they should pick, this is a great example of the kind of information you should be trying to hide from them. Don’t give the people involved the impression that you’re doing them a favour by showing up to the interview. Most of the people who go to an interview don’t get the job, and from a certain point of view the firm you’re interviewing with is quite likely to simply be wasting your time.
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