May 13, 2010

Interview Questions and Lying in an Job Interview

I've wanted to write on this topic for a while and this post has been a topic that has been mulling around in my mind. The topic initially came to mind when I talked to two friends who were job hunting and in their search applied to Future Shop, the electronic retail giant. To start their application to work there they had to answer some questions on a computer program to determine their suitability for working at Future Shop. Now I'm not aware of the nature of the questions outside the one question they told me about, but the one they talked to me about was very interesting.

The question was a simple one, with what I think is a straightforward answer, 'Have you ever stolen something from a place where you worked?' The answer in the context of a person looking for a job, and being asked that is of course, 'No I've never stolen anything at all, let alone from a place I've worked' or something to that effect. That answer was given by one of my friends, but the other had a much different take on the question. He, being naive, thought that it would be unrealistic to never have taken anything from work before, so he stated that yes he had taken something from a former workplace, a few pens to be exact.

Needless to say that the person who said that he had never stolen anything before was given another few questions to answer and my other friend who said he stole pens (I'm pretty sure he's never stolen anything in his life) was given the message of 'thank you for your application' and no more questions were asked. With that my friend who said he never had stolen anything and myself, had a good time making fun of the naive friend. Yet in the days since then the question stuck in my mind, not because the question itself is interesting, but because of the ramifications it has in the context it is being asked.

I am reminded of the documentary The Fog of War, which is a commentary featuring Robert Mcnamara, the former Secretary of Defense, and his reflection on the life he has lived and the choices he has made. Early on in the film Robert is talking about how he went through school and is put in a position like my friends who applied for Future Shop when he had to do some tests for the Ford Motor company. The interesting question he was given by Ford was. 'What job would you work at in the summer', and there was a list of 4. If memory serves the choices included, a machinist (or something like that) and a florist. Robert knew in this context (An Application for Ford) that machinist was the correct response, despite the fact that Robert had, coincidentally,  actually been a florist in the past and really enjoyed it. He ended up saying that he and the group of fellows he did the test blew the test out of the water due to his, and his friends, ability to understand the question in the context in which those questions were given.

Anyway getting back to the Future Shop question, I can think of 2 types of people (Those who have stolen and those who have never stolen from a job site) and because of that there are 4 possible answers for the question:

1. Those who have stolen and will admit they stole.
2. Those who have stolen and will lie about having stolen anything.
3. Those who haven't stolen and say that they haven't.
4.  The rare case, to which my one friend fits, those who haven't stolen but think that they should say that they have.

From that we can understand the type of people Future Shop is eliminating from there potential employment with that question. People in types 1 and 4 are the type of people eliminated, those people who are honest enough to admit they have stolen in the past and those who have never stolen, but are really poor at judging the answer to a situational question. The people who will get through are those people who will both lie and steal and those who have never stolen in their life.

I'm not sure that this is what Future Shop had in mind when they made up this question, because I think that most people have taken something from a former workplace, probably something trivial like paper or pens or something like that, but won't admit to somewhere they are applying to work that they have ever stolen something. The people who are punished by this question are actually anyone who is really honest, or really misunderstands the question. That is why this question is so interesting. It is because of the limited responses, the implication of those responses and how people always have to take the context into consideration when being asked a question.

I think what this question really shows is how far our society has come in understanding the context of questions, because that is really what the question is about. People generally know the 'correct answer' and what you actually think/what actually occurred are two very different things. This changes the questions from being actually honestly answered to one where people are looking to give the response that is being looked for. It is a system where lying is encouraged and rewarded, a system that punishes honesty. I'm not trying to pass judgment on the system, but simply illuminate what it actually does. So as I continue my on the hunt, knowing that I will be actively looking to 'give the best response' and hope that I'm rewarded for it.

Thanks for reading,

The Moral Skeptic


  1. "I think what this question really shows is how far our society has come in understanding the context of questions, because that is really what the question is about. People generally know the context of questions and are able to answer them within that context. This changes the questions from being actually honestly answered to one where people are looking to give the best response."

    Really? You honestly don't think that people in the past were capable of imagining motives behind questioning and just blindly answered whatever they thought was true? So no one lied for his or her own advantage before computerized tests invented by The Future Shop?

    How did oracles work? Snake-oil salesmen? Fortune tellers? Seductors of all genders? Courtesans, scheming nobility, business people, etc.? Are you familiar with the elusive beast known as the double-cross?

  2. I have to laugh at this comment. I think it really made a straw man out of what I was saying. I'm not saying and never meant to imply that deceit was created by Future Shop, by any means.

    The point I want to make is that lying has become so integrated in some aspects of society. Lying is not only accepted, but expected given the context of the situation. I also wanted to point out that the question being asked in the interview really accomplished something different and unexpected than what was intended.

    However, rightly or wrongly I do think that people have become expected to lie or exaggerate for job interviews and I'm not sure this was so common place in the past, although I don't know how I could prove this belief.

    Anyway, thanks for reading and the response to my blog. I appreciate the comments and hope you continue reading.

  3. I forgot to add that I thought the part about Robert Mcnamara was put forth to show that historically people didn't respond to questions the way they do know in that context, that is why he and the group of people that took the test with him were able to do better than other people. His claim might be wrong, or misguided, but it matched up well with what I was talking about.

  4. Hi

    I read this post two times.

    I like it so much, please try to keep posting.

    Let me introduce other material that may be good for our community.

    Source: Retail interview questions

    Best regards

  5. Hey, glad you liked it.

    You'll probably enjoy my post on the topic agian

    I think that article is better personally, but this one was pretty good too.