Does Being Authentic in Interviews Help Job Candidates?

Conventional wisdom encourages job applicants to present themselves in the best light possible during interviews, but that is not always the key to securing a job in highly competitive markets, according to research by Dr. Sunny Lee, a faculty member in University College London’s School of Management.

As more employers seek authenticity in job candidates, highly qualified applicants who present themselves authentically may have a better chance of being hired than equally qualified candidates who try to enhance themselves during interviews. Presenting one’s own unique strengths and weaknesses based on self-awareness can help a candidate stand out compared to job applicants who rely on scripted answers.

There are strategies job candidates can use to find fitting positions and present themselves authentically throughout the job application process.

How does authenticity affect job candidates?

Authenticity and self-verification are closely related concepts, according to Lee. Authenticity manifests in individuals who act in accordance with their internal sense of self – communicating honestly and genuinely about themselves to others – while self-verification is the drive to present oneself accurately to others.   

“Authentic or highly self-verifying individuals appreciate an alignment between their internal sense of self and external expressions,” Lee said. “Authenticity begins with an accurate self-assessment, processing information about the self in an objective rather than a defensive manner.”

People have a natural desire to express their true selves, and that expression ultimately accentuates their positive or negative qualities, affecting job candidates differently based on their qualifications.

As documented in Lee’s research published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, highly qualified job applicants who present themselves authentically to recruiters may stand out from their peers, giving them a better chance of securing a new position.

Then again, authentic behaviours can also hurt some candidates, such as those who have poor qualifications or undesirable traits, Lee said.

“Authenticity is not something that is unanimously helpful; it can also hurt you,” she said. “If I’m competent and have good morals, my accurate and clear description of myself to recruiters will impress them even more because it’s positive and coming naturally. But when I’m incompetent or have dark personality traits, revealing such severe weaknesses to others will backfire at me.”

Highly qualified candidates who speak candidly in interviews about their shortcomings may have a better chance of impressing recruiters than those who pretend to be perfect or rely on scripted answers; such replies may cause hiring managers to question the candidate’s other responses, Lee said.

“I have heard from many hiring managers that upon hearing model answers from job candidates – such as ‘perfectionism’ or ‘extreme attention to detail’ to questions about candidates’ weaknesses – they often doubt the general credibility of the candidate,” she said.

Moreover, discussing one’s weaknesses provides a chance for an interviewee to control the narrative around their qualifications, said Eugene Washington Walker, a teaching fellow and immersion coordinator in the UCL School of Management.

“Simply expressing one’s weakness of character or skill to a prospective employer for the purpose of authenticity is only half the journey,” Walker said. “If the interviewer lacks the ability to imagine how one might overcome their stated weakness, then the journey will likely come to an end for the candidate.”

Applicants who can articulate how they work through their weaknesses have an opportunity to reassure prospective employers that their shortcomings are not critical flaws.

“In showing the interviewer that in combination with self-awareness, one also possesses adaptability and the capacity to effectively regulate one’s behaviour (a key feature in emotional intelligence), the candidate ceases to be a passive agent and instead drives the narrative and goes some way to assure the interviewer that the organisation’s bottom line won’t be negatively impacted,” Walker said.

Authenticity tips for job candidates

Regardless of their qualifications, Lee recommends that job applicants should seek positions that align with their skill sets at companies with cultures that fit their values and personalities. Finding job openings that are a strong fit can help candidates present themselves naturally and reduce the risk of authenticity backfiring on employees or their organisations. 

“Strategies for highly qualified job candidates are pretty straightforward,” Lee said. “They can use authenticity as a positive differentiator and present their merits and positive traits in an honest way to recruiters. Selecting amongst a few final strong job candidates, recruiters will prefer those who are authentic and self-verifying in their behaviours.”

Although authenticity can have negative effects for candidates with poor qualifications or unfavourable traits, Lee advised applicants against faking themselves.

“Over the longer term, a poor-fitting applicant who presents himself inauthentically in order to acquire a job will likely perform poorly, be less satisfied, and more likely to leave,” Lee’s research states. “If the ultimate goal is to not only land a job but find a situation where one fits, it might be better for both higher- and lower-quality applicants to self-verify during the job search process.”

Lee offered the following advice for job candidates to be authentic during the job application process.

Tips for expressing authenticity as a job candidate

Be honest with yourself. Being honest about your skills, abilities and personality can help you find positions that best align with your situation. While being honest about weaknesses may hurt your chances of securing a job in the short term, it helps you find positions that will be a better fit for the long term. Avoid adjusting your authenticity based on short-term career goals.

Seek positions that fit your abilities and personality. Job applicants should pay more attention to the concept of fit in finding their jobs. That includes fitting the culture of the organisation. Apply to positions that require skills and abilities you already have.

Communicate real strengths and weaknesses. Authenticity in communicating strengths is important. Communicating weaknesses may not cause employers to rule out a highly qualified candidate, but it can help employers understand where training might help an otherwise qualified candidate.

Ask questions. When job candidates ask insightful questions of prospective employers, it indicates their genuine interest in a position and the people at an organisation. 

How can employers assess the authenticity of job applicants?

Employers benefit from hiring authentic employees because authentic behaviour – outward behaviour that aligns with one’s true self – can foster work engagement and increase internal motivation, leading to better business outcomes.

“Hiring authentic people actually can help organisations because they are performing better and they are more committed, feeling more satisfied in their work,” Lee said. “Being authentic or having freedom to self-verify actually makes one very happy and then builds up trusting and lasting relationships with others. I think this will apply to their working relationships with other people.”

However, it can be difficult for an interviewer to assess a job candidate’s authenticity in the moment. Lee offers a number of tips that can help employers find authentic employees.

Tips for employers to learn more about job candidates’ authenticity

Update interview questions regularly.  Structured interviews with standard questions can help remove biases and save time in hiring, but employers should strive to incorporate questions that are tailored to the position and the applicant. Typical questions may trigger job applicants to respond to the interviewers in a more robotic and scripted way, so employers should change these questions on a regular basis.

Engage in an interview as a conversation.  Allocate the same amount of time and similar questions to each interviewee to maintain consistency, but do not feel the need to stick to scripted questions. If a job candidate does not answer a question thoroughly enough or the answer is too vague, an interviewer can prod the candidate further to elicit a more complete answer. If a candidate’s answer inspires follow-up questions, ask them.

Offer problem-solving opportunities within the interview process that simulate real scenarios.  For example, if a computer programmer is being hired, take time to give the final few candidates a real programming scenario. This will help the employer understand what kind of expertise they have, compare the expertise of each candidate, and observe how the candidates behave under pressure.

Invite final candidates to a meal or team-building exercise.  Even in a more relaxed setting, it can be difficult for employers to evaluate authenticity. But compared to a structured interview, team outings offer a chance for candidates to show their true colours to a new group of people.

Most studies on the dynamics of assessing authenticity in candidates of diverse backgrounds have been conducted in North America. A study in the Academy of Management Annals by Sandra E. Cha and colleagues indicated more research is needed.

“As an exception, Suh (2002) found that individuals who are perceived as behaviourally consistent across different situations, implying authenticity, received more positive social evaluations from American than Korean participants, suggesting that authenticity may be valued more highly in individualistic versus collectivistic cultures,” according to Cha’s research.

Creating an authentic workplace

Companies who are not currently hiring can still analyse their organisation’s culture and reward authenticity among employees and executives. This can make a positive impact at every level: Research on authentic leadership indicates that when business owners are viewed as highly authentic, employees are more likely to be engaged and take the initiative to discover innovative solutions and then implement them.

Employers can take steps and lead by example to create workplaces that are transparent and authentic. Forbes offers the following tips for creating authentic and transparent workplaces:

  • Seek out transparent, authentic workers and place them in influential positions.
  • Base your workplace on mutual respect between employer and employee.
  • Tell the truth and respond positively to honesty.
  • Seek feedback from employees.
  • Be transparent and maintain clear, consistent communication.
  • Instill and drive the values of the company.
  • Build trust – and don’t break promises.
  • Encourage ownership and accountability.
  • Support socialisation among employees.

Additional resources

These resources offer additional information for employees and employers on being authentic and playing to strengths in the workplace.

Citation for this content: The UCL Online MBA.