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.