May 04, 2005

Lies, Uncertainty and Job Interviews

I was recently chatting to a HR ("human resources") person who complained that "the banks are having trouble getting good people." This struck me as odd, as I've seen plenty of evidence that they happily reject good people (and I'm not just talking about my own experiences). Having mused on it, I think one of the problems is that the HR process is riddled with lying. Check out what the IHT reports on Cleo reporting on how to lie to get a job.

This would be funny, except it's not. Anecdotes I've heard indicate that the rate of lying in job interviews and on CVs is higher than it should be. I won't suggest my numbers ... partly because it is unscientific research, and partly because that will just give people an excuse to disbelieve. Baxter, the guy quoted in the article, does say numbers: "I would say 10 percent to 15 percent have issues that require attention," and that 3 percent to 4 percent had "serious discrepancies" like falsely reporting university attendance. That's just the ones he picked up on.

Why is lying so prevalent? And another question - has it always been this way? I have a rosey perception that it wasn't like this when I was young. Is that my own factors? Is that instead my own naivete?

Here's what I have picked up over time. Firstly, all cultures lie. People who say they don't lie are lying. (Try teaching that one to your children.) In fact, one of the research topics that academics have conducted over the last decade or two is to try and map out how different cultures develop shared but buried understandings of when it is ok to lie.

In the anglo culture this is sometimes called the white lie. As examples of the white lie, it is ok for the husband to lie about his wife's weight, or that gawd-awful dress that makes her look like a matron, if she lies about how he's good enough in bed.

Cultures differ. In Spain for example, it is ok to lie about an appointment. This is because it is necessary, indeed obligatory to insist that you take someone for a drink or you offer them a meal; the acceptable and polite way out of this is to say you have another appointment already, so you are apparently trapped in breaking one committment for another. Another aspect of Spanish politeness is that asking for directions or help is fraught with helpful lies.

In America it is ok to lie if it is about some marketing issue, which includes themselves. That is, the listener shouldn't be so stupid as to believe marketing, and if they do, then it's morally right to part their money from them. One non-american put it like this "Americans lie when it comes to admitting shortcomings or weaknesses. They will rarely admit that they do not know, they will come up with an answer, no matter what."

Americans are always marketing themselves, as distinct to the Spanish who are afraid of disappointing you. To Americans, a question must be answered, no matter what. A product must be marketed, and if there isn't one on the table, then put yourself there. America as a country now has an endemic problem with lying, as it is now at the point where government is assumed to be lying because their job is to sell the program, and that requires marketing to the people, right? Here's a Wired article where the government is knowingly lying about some security stuff it is trying to sell, even though everyone knows it is lying. Now, the gravity of this might not be apparent until one considers that America again unique amongst peers has a perverse dependency on honesty.

Apparently it remains impolite in all societies to suggest that someone is lying. Which of course suggests the obvious strategy - lie, and dare people to call you on it. Here's another one: security people lie when they say something is secure. Aside from the basic characteristic of security being a relative term not an absolute (so the statement makes no sense) most security people do not carry out the proper analysis to ground any statement in security, so a short cut is taken, and we hope that it works out. And nobody notices before we've changed jobs.

(Which diverts us briefly back to financial cryptography. In our art we make people part of the process, and issuers as parties to contracts, escrow partners as protectors of value, and techies as operators of systems are all in a position to lie. What leads them to lie and what we can do to make it very hard to lie are things we have to understand in order to protect value. We could just assume honesty like other systems, but that's just naive. That's why you read a lot of postings here about various new and interesting frauds: how and why people lie to commit frauds is part of the governance layer, it is part of the job.)

For my own culture, I cannot answer how they/we lie; believe me as you will! I'm interested in hearing how you all perceive how other cultures lie, my suspicion is that only the outsider can work it out. I really only became interested in lying when I'd hit my third culture. The discovery of new forms of lying is by contrast and comparison, then, and sometimes by an awful sinking feeling you get when you discover some totally new experience that catches you out completely.

For the British, it is ok to "make something up" if you don't actually know how you are going to do it anyway. So for example, some event in the future: I'll pick you up in my car next tuesday ... is a fine thing to say even if it never happens. Even if you would not promise it anyway, it is ok to say it, because it is outside the time horizen of reliability.

Back to the market for employment, which Spence identified as being peculiarly inefficient. In Britain, lying in job interviews is called "blagging" and is quite acceptable. Indeed in some cases an agent who puts a candidate forward will instruct the candidate to lie. The dividing line seems to be as thin as whether they can get away with it, for example on a CV or on a written test.

Which brings me around to the original question of why exactly is lying so much a part of the job process? I think it comes down to a failure of HR in general and a failure of requirements in particular. The experiences I have heard of have shown an obsessive tendency for employers in some cultures to look for perfection in candidates. This means that candidates are rejected when some answer isn't to their liking; this can be a wide range of perceptional things such as "would not fit in" or it can be simply a narrow failure to answer a particular question. No matter, it seems that if you do not get everything right, you are 'not good enough'. So lie on your CV, or your written test, or blag your way through the question, because any failure means you are dropped whereas a successful lie gets you through.

This desire for perfection is pervasive. In fact, it's positively correlated with the amount of effort put in by employers as those that conduct many interviews commonly give every interviewer the ability to say no! This of course sends the wrong signal; if you don't know something, there is no point in admitting it, and you are better off "blagging" your way through it so as to get to the next interview. And now we see why this is a failure in HR: if lying is rewarded, your company will end up full of liars. And the harder you try in your HR process, the more you are assuring that only the better quality of liar will be able to get through!

What is the underlying failure here? To an engineer this is an easy one to explain: uncertainty is what we do, and the employer should learn to appreciate it and not run from it. Seeking for perfection is perverse, it means we are likely to reject fresh approaches and end up stifled in group-think, assuming that we managed to avoid the liars. It also means that when the interviewer is limited in some way, those very limitations are imposed on the candidate, and this then gives us a feedback cycle similar to the one Spence pointed at in his seminal "Job Market Signaling" paper - except that this time even though the characteristic reaches equilibrium, neither employee nor employer will recognise the signal.

Most people will be offended by this, because implicit in today's essay is that you lie, or that your company is full of liars. Consider it more then as rejecting diversity, if looking for a politer label. (Or, more simply, assume that I'm lying and you can ignore everything written here. For those who are curious on that point, we'll leave it to the reader to decide where the lies are herein.)

Regardless of any particular lies either here or in your next interview, it should be as much a part of the employment process to discover and revel in uncertainty as any other quality, and any process that tries to avoid it is doomed. Why perfection always results in disaster and uncertainty is the foundation of survival will have to wait for another day.

Addendum: It seems I was right: 25% of CVs are Fiction!.

Posted by iang at May 4, 2005 12:25 PM | TrackBack

A lot of it's caused by "pay peanuts, get monkeys" regarding salary policies set by HR people, at least where good technical folk are concerned.

Posted by: JMS at May 4, 2005 08:02 AM

HR a required form of corporate insulation, protecting the corporate entity from law suits based upon unfair treatment of people the elite fail to accept. the whole point of HR is avoid direct contact with people the elite of the company feel are less than acceptable and afford them the chance never to meet them and claim a third party did the dirty work. In the real world recruiters go to the IVY schools and meet those that are not related to those already on the inside. So for example if a Captain of Industry has a son or daughter that wishes a position daddy mentions it at the club or at the dinner party and the interview is conducted and the agreement reached immediately. Now if gifted and talented folks happen to go to juniors school they might also obtain a position that way. If the people that go to juniors school are busy working they can meet the recruiter who passes the gifted to the leite directly. If you are like me you meet HR and never get the gig. The whole point of HR is filter out not in the people that the elite might find difficult to work with. If you are in HR you must prove that you do not beling there that is the only strategy that works. It is like being called to the dean in school you must lie to them to show that you being is a mistake and that you should have been passed on to the elite. It is the I was switched at birth scenario pretend you are the lost prince rather than the pauper. The internet created havoc in the elite because it became important and their children being dullards never considered anything other than social climbing as a skill. So they took it made it and institution and re-invented IT processing with jargon, buzz words, and social filters to avoid having to hire the unacceptable. They achieved their goal and quickly outsourced the lot to India a perrect solution because workd is below what is considered an acceptable activity. I say (a four letter word that starts with f) the HR and disqualify the institutional processes as vacant of any value. By making known the lunacy found in corporate processes the elites will get itchy and find that people hate being toyed with. You see the elites really want to be loved for who they are not, because the reality is they are almost like you and I simple folks who have a great thing going who do not want to share it. So lie in fact compound the lie with claims of nobility be the italian duke you always wanted to be the elites will rescue you from HR hell because they are telling themselves that they are the lost prince it is the lie that lets them sleep. The nightmare they run from is that this game of less than truthful practices will crumble like a house of cards and they will wake up the pauper they know they are. Poverty and the fear of it prompt us to lie the bigger the lie the greater the fear. The other side of the looking glass is our process protects us from these HR liars but the process is confirmation of a greater lie they tell themselves one where they believe that they are playing fairly and they are the lost prince. In the end we all live happily ever after six feet under making food for the worms.

Posted by: James Nesfield at May 4, 2005 08:20 AM

Interesting question. I have myself become interested in it when I changed cultures for the third time in my life. However, the more I observe and think about it, the more convinced I become that it has very little to do with culture and mostly boils down to ordinary economics. It is the differences in the economic infrastructure (in the broadest sense of the term) that trigger different lying patterns in different places. People who move across cultures quickly learn to lie the new way and stop lying the old way. In nearly all cases, lying is done in an economically rational fashion, and it only causes outrage (as in some of the cited articles) when the perception of the reality and hence the judgement about the rationality of the lie by the liar is off. Rational lying is acceptable (and expected) everywhere; if one is after the question of what lies are acceptable, one should ask what lies are economically rational (though not necessarily efficient).
Most commonly, lying is applied to tilt the balance one way or another in cases of rampant asymmetric information. The job market is particularly infested with lies, because it is riddled with information asymmetries. But it's not the only place.

For example, take any kind of coercion into paying (legitimate or not) through spot-ckecks, where the inability to verify everybody is obvious. If you find such a situation, be it taxes, free riding on public transport, copyright matters, or anything else you can think of, you are most likely to find out that in that particular area lying is also rampant both by the coerced and the coercing parties. What makes it appear as a cultural difference is simple institutional difference between countries. When institutions change, lying patterns adopt lightning-fast. It's just not very frequent that institutions change, by their very definition. Hence the false perception of cultural differences.

In this particular case, to answer your question, it is not America's culture that is flawed: it's her institutions. Too many institutions are based on advantages in asymmetric information. Hence the problem.

Posted by: Daniel A. Nagy at May 4, 2005 08:53 AM

To offer a specific example not related to HR, here's freeriding on public transport.

In North America, relatively few people do it, because few people use public transport as such, so the operators can verify a large number of people. Hence, those few who do freeride from time to time, keep silent about it. The majority honestly pays the fares, and the companies are honest about how they enforce them. Mostly.

In Hungary, by contrast, public transport is vital; almost everybody uses it on a daily basis and checking the majority would be both inefficient and impossible. Hence the empty theat of prosecution, false statistics and other tricks employed by the operator company on one hand, and the massive free-riding on the other hand. The operator lies in many ways that it can check one's ticket, the public lies that it has a ticket.
But here's a twist: people lie far less about these lies to one another (on both sides): those who do freeride, openly admit it (and some might even brag about how clever they were either catching freeriders or freeriding themselves). It is almost perfectly acceptable. Because it is obviously rational.

Is this a cultural difference between Hungarians and Americans? Nope. But it sure as hell looks like one, and many people will happily point it out as one.

In another example, more familiar to most techies, look at the amount of lying and the resources mobilized to the ends of successful deception around digital music and software distribution. The publishers lie about their enforcement capabilities, the public lies about what they use their high-speed connections for. Both sides of this battle dedicate a large part of their resources to deceiving the other party: the money spent on scary advertising campaigns far exceeds the money spent on actual copyright enforcement, while a lot of excellent engineering effort goes into hiding what and from/to where people are down/uploading. This is an arms-race at deliberate deception. And both of these "lies" appear to be perfectly acceptable. Why? Because of the information asymmetry involved. Nothing to do with culture or upbringing.

Posted by: Daniel A. Nagy at May 4, 2005 09:23 AM

Final remark: Do I lie? I am not qualified to answer this question. Go find out for yourself, if you need to know. (if pressed hard, I will say that I don't, but don't take my word for it)
The same, I'm sure, goes for you. Whoever "you" might be.

The only way to successfully combat a "culture" of deception is to remove information asymmetry from relationships and especially institutions.

Posted by: Daniel A. Nagy at May 4, 2005 09:28 AM

From the US

"Anderson noted that the General Accounting Office recently reported that nearly 200,000 federal employees have lied on their resumes."

A self serving press release. Probably a germ of truth in it.

Posted by: LiarLiar at May 17, 2005 07:30 AM
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