Careerpro Ethics – Is Honesty Always the Best Policy?

By Cathy Milton.

I have a good friend who was recently looking for permanent work. She enjoyed one of those unexpected, and exciting, periods in her job search where it all seemed to be coming together at once. She had four potential employers interested in her, and she was attending a series of second and third interviews.

While she would have been happy at any of these firms, there was one that she particularly had her heart set on.

She called me one day, excited and happy, to tell me that the founder of this company, and his HR leader, had invited her to dinner at an exclusive and posh private club in Toronto. This dinner meeting was to be the second interview.

Here is where my dilemma arose.

My friend has a bad, and hard-to-miss, habit when eating a meal.

I know this because I’ve had dozens of meals with her over the years. We’ve worked together in the past, and we also see each other socially. It is a habit I’ve gotten somewhat used to, but many times I’ve observed others in the workplace, or in restaurants, snickering behind her back.

Here’s the thing…she makes a fairly loud smacking noise with each chew of her food. Whereas most people chew with their mouth closed, my friend does not.

I decided a long time ago that, at our age, I was not about to give her a lesson in table manners. She has succeeded quite nicely for many years, in spite of this quirk.

But, now, this ‘quirk’ could potentially stand in the way of her landing her dream job.

In the days leading up to the dinner, I really struggled with the question of whether or not to talk to her, in as diplomatic a way as possible, about her habit (which, I’m fairly certain, she is not even aware of!). In the end, I decided NOT to mention it. Her friendship is worth too much to me to risk hurting her feelings, which, even if she accepted the information gracefully, I most certainly would have done. My thinking was that ‘this is part of who she is.’ Isn’t the interview process primarily about allowing prospective employers the opportunity to learn as much as possible about candidates they are considering hiring? Read on, and you’ll learn why I’m not sure that this was the best approach.

Here is a second story that presented the same kind of dilemma.

I have another friend who, when under stress, talks like a little girl. It’s not just the pitch of her voice that changes (it gets higher). There are also peculiar little movements that accompany the higher-pitched delivery – such as a side-to-side head bobble. It’s fairly distracting behaviour and is incongruous with a business setting.

This friend was looking for a new job, after two decades of working for the same employer.

Given that she hadn’t interviewed in 20 years, I knew she’d be nervous. Her skills and experience would pretty much guarantee her interviews, but would the ‘little girl’ voice and delivery be off-putting to prospective employers? They may jump to the conclusion that she’s ‘fluffy’ and not a serious candidate.

In this case, I decided to take action. I set up a meeting for my job-hunting friend, an HR recruiter I know (but my friend does not), and myself.

I conducted a mock interview with my friend, with the recruiter observing. We also filmed the session.

Afterward, we did a debrief of the interview, using the film to help identify areas for improvement. The HR recruiter was amazing – objective, professional, and extremely diplomatic. She was able to address the unusual speech habits my friend displayed head-on, without causing any hurt feelings at all. She did this by gently asking my friend if she was aware that her method of speech dramatically changed during the interview vs. during our earlier casual, off-camera, conversation. My friend clearly was not aware, but had to admit that it was shockingly obvious upon watching the film.

We did another brief interview later that afternoon, and the improvement in speech and mannerisms was dramatic.

In this situation, although I didn’t address the truth with my friend directly, the involvement of the impartial recruiter solved the problem without causing any hard feelings. I was able to preserve my friendship, while my friend was able to confidently attend interviews, being very conscious and careful about her presentation.

As for my friend in the first story, she recently accepted contract work at a law firm. There was no further word from the firm she had the dinner meeting with.

I feel guilty about that.

Has anyone else encountered similar dilemmas? If so, what did you do? Would you have done things differently in the two scenarios I describe above?

Can career professionals sometimes be excluded from the “honesty is the best policy’ idiom?

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