Is Honesty Really the Best Policy in Interviews?

by Caitlin Moen, former Head Editor, INALJ Louisiana
previously published 2/13/14

Is Honesty Really the Best Policy in Interviews?

Caitlin MoenI’ve been thinking a lot about HOW honest to be in a job interview or in a conversation with someone who is a possible contact for an opportunity. This came up recently for me as I interviewed for a position which I did not get, but I was invited to have conversation about other opportunities and possibilities. The catch was that this position was NOT in the library industry, although the hiring official was highly desirous of hiring a librarian.

Until I started working in the library profession, I had never been turned down for a job after reaching the interview process. At this point, there are just different and greater skills required for many positions. I can talk and expand with the best of them, but in more specialized and expectant positions, this just doesn’t help. When I interviewed for Target management, way back when, I could talk about my abilities and my experience and my confidence, without any real experience to back it up, knowing that I would learn by doing and would be able to succeed. Not necessarily so in positions at this point.

I interviewed about a year ago for a Children’s Librarian position. I had no experience in this, outside of a semester of volunteering in a children’s library where I mostly shelved books and registered kids for summer reading. In the interview, I talked confidently about the abilities I have, about knowing not to reinvent the wheel and the resources I would use for programming, and about ideas I had for programs that I had never seen done or tried to do, but that I had researched and planned in preparation for the interview. They were enthusiastic about my ideas and seemed happy with my experience. But they hired someone else, who had been working in children’s librarianship for years and could show the programs she had already executed.

After the interview, I thought about whether I should have played up my volunteer experience more. I did talk about the things I helped with there, but I wanted to be honest about my actual experience level and the learning curve that would exist due to my lack of experience. I was unsure how I felt about my honesty level and the repercussions to my chances. But then a couple months later, I received a call from the leadership at that library. They remembered me – my actual skills and experiences, as well as my drive and willingness to learn. They were about to open a new leadership position and they wanted to know if I was interested. Unfortunately, I couldn’t pursue it, as I was following my husband to his new job cross country, but that phone call cemented to me that I had done the right thing. For the Children’s position, they wanted someone who had actually done the work IRL and if I had misled them, that would have come back to bite me. That did not mean they were not impressed with me – it turned out the opposite was true and I had acquitted myself well.

In my more recent interview, I was looking at a position that would be highly linked to library work but was not actually librarianship. Throughout the interview I asked questions about training, support, work flow, and collaborating to try to get a sense of whether I could handle the amount of learning I would need to be successful in a new industry. I was confident in my ability to do the job but knew that I would need support at the beginning. The interviewer seemed to appreciate my questions – they hadn’t hired anyone new since she had come on board, so it helped show her that the company needed some new training models in place. I received an email a few weeks later that they had hired the other front runner – someone with decades of experience.

I was so disappointed, yet this time was firm in the knowledge that I had done the right thing. This was a home-based position, so without training and support in place, there is no way I could have done a new job in a new industry with any success. But then I received another email from the interviewer, letting me know she appreciated my time and asking if I would like to meet up at an upcoming conference. My unsuccessful interview has led to possibilities of collaboration within my organizations, as well as a potential for future positions and possibly even some freelance work.

It is so hard to maintain honesty in a job market that is so difficult these days. By the time someone actually reads your application and invites you to an interview, if you’re like me, you’ve already had at least a few applications go out into the ether and come to naught. So an interview is such an amazing opportunity to show people how much more than you are on paper. But I do still think honesty is the best policy. Even if that shows them that you are not the right person for that specific position, other possibilities may come up. I’ll end with one more example of honesty in interviewing, but this time a successful one!

When I interviewed for my current position, they wanted to hire a cataloger who could read and was basically fluent in Spanish. I got the interview (I was a year out of library school, working as a Circulation Librarian), and was so intimidated by the qualifications. But they invited me after reading my resume, so I went and was completely honest. No, I haven’t done a lot of cataloging. I did a class at school and I did an unpaid internship for a year during library school with some cataloging and authority control. No, I am not fluent in Spanish. I took some classes in high school and college and can puzzle some things out, but would not be able to do whole translations of text. I left that interview knowing that I had low chances, but that if given the position after exaggerating or lying, I could never jump right in to Spanish-language cataloging with no training.

But then I got the call after a few weeks. The project manager seemed to like that I was honest about my abilities, and my confidence in learning new systems and workflows had helped my chances. I was hired, and within a few weeks with the right training, I was able to become a successful member of the team. In this case, honesty definitely paid off, as it helped me get the job with the right support to become truly successful.

Naomi House

Naomi House, MLIS, is the founder and publisher of the popular webzine and jobs list INALJ.com (formerly I Need a Library Job). Founded in October 2010 with the assistance of her fellow Rutgers classmate, Elizabeth Leonard, INALJ’s social media presence has grown to include Facebook (retired in 2016), Twitter and a LinkedIn group, in addition to the interviews, articles and jobs found on INALJ.com. INALJ has had over 18.5 Million page views and helped thousands of librarians and LIS folk find employment! Through grassroots marketing, word of mouth and a real focus on exploring unconventional resources for job leads, INALJ grew from a subscription base of 20 friends to a website with over 500,000 visits in a month. Naomi believes that well-sourced quantity is quality in this narrow job market and INALJ reflects this many new jobs published daily. She has also written for the 2011, 2012 & 2013 LexisNexis Government Info Pro. She presents whenever she can, most recently thrice at the American Library Association's Annual Conference as well as breakout talk presenter at OCLC EMEA in Cape Town, South Africa and as a keynote speaker at the Virginia Library Association annual meeting, at the National Press Club, McGill University, the University of the Emirates, Dubai, MLIS program and the University of Hawaii at Manoa. She was a 2013 Library Journal Mover & Shaker and has served on the University of Maryland iSchool Board from 2014-2017. Naomi was a Reference, Marketing and Acquisitions Librarian for a contractor at a federal library outside Washington, DC, and has relocated to being nomadic. She runs her husband’s moving labor website, KhanMoving.com, fixes and sells old houses and assists her husband cooking delicious Pakistani food as well. She has heard of spare time but hasn’t encountered it lately. She pronounces INALJ as eye-na-elle-jay. 

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