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Is puffery ethical in an interview?

August 18, 2020 - 11:51am
David Surdam
university of northern iowa interview of illustration

I was looking at a cereal box while I munched on the goodness of oats. The box proclaimed that the cereal was “heart-healthy.” Since the cereal was pure oats, instead of a lot of sugar with a few oats thrown in, the claim was plausible.

Vendors like to tout their products; they present a skewed depiction, with only virtues with no blemishes. Various court cases have ruled that producers are allowed to exaggerate their products’ attributes to a reasonable extent. Producers are not necessarily responsible for proclaiming drawbacks.

What holds for producers and sellers holds for people selling their labor. Prospective workers may be tempted to exaggerate their past (or current) responsibilities and achievements. Prospective employers do not expect you to open a job interview by listing your weaknesses and failures. In the dating market, a similar permissiveness holds. In a popular book of twenty-five years back, The Rules, authors Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider advised never saying anything negative on a first date. People usually try to put their best face forward. Politicians are notorious for putting their best Botox-laden faces forward while wearing elevator shoes (especially male candidates, where being short is a detriment). United States Senators are infamous for sporting hair not found in nature. Few of our current geriatrics running the country (Trump, Pelosi, Biden, and McConnell) look their age.

Just how far are sellers of their labor allowed to portray themselves in a somewhat self-serving manner? Some of my readers may still be in college. I remember seeking employment while in high school and college. It was not an enjoyable experience, as my resume was skimpy. I simply had not lived long enough to compile an employment record of achievement and responsibility. These days, many college students have summer internship opportunities, a vastly superior alternative to working in a menial job for the summer. “Want fries with that?” is not an impressive resume description. Although to be accurate, being an exemplary employee in a fast-food job probably is a reliable indicator of your value as a future employee.

I was not the best interviewee. I often violated the rules by giving one-word or just a few words responses to questions, nor did I display or feign enthusiasm for most jobs. I remember interviewing for an insurance claims adjustor position (one of my high school friend’s dad characterized the job as being the “worst job one could do and still be legal”). The supervisor looked at my lackluster resume and remarked, “I see you worked for three months as a contract estimator for a roofing company.” I thought he was going to ask why I didn’t stay long on the job (the company was suffering financially). Before I could answer, he said, “That’s a good experience. We need someone able to calculate damages.” He then saw that I had briefly refereed city league basketball games. “We need people able to adjudicate disputes.” The way the interview was going, I thought I could say was an axe murderer, and that he would find that a good experience, too (“we need people, who act decisively”). I ended up with the job.

In any event, you can never tell how these interviews will go. Sometimes embellishing experiences is beneficial, but sometimes not. I suspect that experienced interviewers develop a sense of when prospective employees are exaggerating.

So, yes, but make your best impression in interviews within the bounds of acceptable puffery. You may not be “heart-healthy,” but you will be acting ethically.

The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not imply endorsement by the University of Northern Iowa.

 

Author

david surdam university of northern iowa

David Surdam

David Surdam received his Ph.D. in Economics from the University of Chicago. His dissertation, "Northern Naval Superiority and the Economics of the American Civil War," was supervised by Nobel-Prize Winner, Robert Fogel. Professor Surdam has taught at the University of Chicago, Northwestern University, Loyola University of Chicago, and the University of Oregon. Since completion of his degree, he has had 18 articles and 8 books published. 

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