The little white lies we tell during a job search

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crossed fingers at handshake as a symbol of breach of contract“You look great in that outfit.” “I’m only 25.” “I’d love to, but I’m busy.”

Those are just a few examples of common white lies people tell on a daily basis. White lies are thought to be harmless, and they’re often told to hide insecurities or avoid hurting someone’s feelings.

They’re also often used in professional situations to cover up a weakness or inadequacy. At work, you may have told your boss that you were almost done with a project when you barely started it. You might get away with that lie if you do meet your deadline and no one realizes you were working all night trying to get it done.

During a job search, you might have slightly exaggerated your responsibilities on your résumé to sound more qualified. But if you tell a white lie during a job search, will it come back to haunt you? It depends on why you say it and how you say it. Here are some examples.

To get your résumé noticed
Many companies use an applicant tracking system to screen candidates, which searches for words or phrases in a résumé that match the job description. If you don’t have the right résumé keywords, you may end up in the reject pile. So some job seekers may change their titles or responsibilities to better fit the job description in order to get through the first round of reviews.

“Unfortunately, many job seekers are forced to rely on white lies to get through the screening process, especially with companies relying on keywords to select or cut candidates from their application tracking systems,” says Donna L. Shannon, career coach, author and speaker. “One of the most common [white] lies is to change the title of their past jobs. For example, one of my client’s official titles is ‘customer advocate.’ This would imply a customer service position; however, when looking at his job duties, he actually handles logistics for major retail accounts. To be considered for anything outside of his current employer, we were forced to list his job title on his résumé as ‘logistics coordinator (customer advocate).’ This way, he had the right keywords for future employers, while still including his actual title in case employers needed to verify the information.”

To sound more experienced
Another common white lie told during a job search is an exaggeration of your experience. You may say you led a team in winning new client business, but you were really just one of several others on the account team. Or you may say you are proficient in using content management systems, when in truth you’ve only used one a handful of times. The potential problem with telling these types of white lies is, if you get hired because you supposedly are an expert in a certain subject matter, you’ll be expected to perform at that level. So instead of padding the truth, be creative in how you show you have the right skills.

“I tell candidates never to misrepresent your background — never lie about your capabilities, because if the company is seeking a particular skill set and you have never performed it, you might be set up for failure,” says Gail Tolstoi-Miller, CEO and chief staffing strategist at staffing and recruiting company Consultnetworx. “However, always try to provide examples and put a positive spin on your background. For example, if they ask if you have management experience but you are not a manager, you can say, ‘I managed this process for this particular project — I had six [people] reporting to me,’ so it is not lying but just providing skill sets that are closest to what they are seeking.”

To avoid sounding negative
A common interview question you might get from a prospective employer is, “Why do you want to leave your current company?” If you tell the truth, “Well, I hate my boss, I’m completely miserable, and I just don’t care about the work anymore,” it might not come across so well. So in this type of situation, it may be more beneficial to put a spin on the truth, and leave out the gory details.

“No one can read your mind; your thoughts are your own,” says Vijay Ingam, professional job interview coach and founder and CEO of Interview SOS. “Therefore, always present your internal thought process and motivations in the best possible light, even if that means telling a white lie. For instance, instead of saying, ‘I quit my job because I hated my boss,’ you can say, ‘I quit my job because there was no opportunity for growth.’”

The next time you’re writing your résumé or answering an interview question, and you’re on the verge of stretching the truth, ask yourself if it’s absolutely necessary, if it’s harmless, or if it’ll end up causing more harm than good.

  1. Great article, Debra. I think the white lies in interviewing to cover negative situations are so necessary I didn’t even consider them as lies!  In my mind it’s just pulling out the positive in any situation

  2. @CareerBuilder Maybe make your job title more universal, but never misrepresent your skills. Must be able to do the job once you get it!

  3. Hi Debra,
    Great Post! I completely agree with you that we should not atleast tell any kind of white lies for the Past Job. Employers conducting interview are not fools, even now social media, Linkedin connections are so strong that they can be easily investigate about an employee’s past job. So I will prefer that whitelies should be avoided.

  4. Great article. However I am seeing this from another perspective; its all about packaging yourself the write way. Most times we end up telling lies (whether white or any color for that mater) because we did not carefully analyze our case and package ourselves well. Take for instance the expression, ‘logistics coordinator (customer advocate).’ That to me is the idea of good packaging. Many thanks.

  5. CareerBuilder and I bet we know the expected salary ;). Average earnings by location and job sector are now updated live, enjoy

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