Recruiters have a reputation for lying.

You might think I’m about to defend them, but I’m not. In my experience, that reputation is well-deserved.

Let me be clear, though. This post is about white lies, not big, malicious ones. Sure, there are a few borderline-sociopathic bad apples in recruitment, as there are in any industry. But these people are in the minority, and generally won’t last long in the job.

No, most people who get into recruitment are people-people. They like people, and they want to be liked back. They don’t want to have those difficult, confronting, honest conversations.

If you’ve ever registered with recruitment agencies, chances are at least one of these phrases will be familiar to you:

“That job’s already been filled – I just haven’t had a chance to take the ad off the job board yet” (Possible translation: Your background isn’t strong enough for me to even consider you for the long-list)

 “It was close, but you just missed out” (Possible translation: My client actually told me you bombed the interview because you ‘just weren’t very likeable’, but I can’t bring myself to tell you that)

“I haven’t heard if they want to interview you yet – they’ve been really busy with year-end” (Possible translation: My client thinks your CV looks OK, but you’re not setting their world on fire, so they’re dragging the chain hoping I can find them someone a bit better)

If they’re honest with themselves, most recruiters think these lies aren’t such a big deal. It’s not great, but it’s not exactly Enron, either.

But I’d argue that lying like this actually is a really big deal.

I recently read ‘Lying’, an excellent book (or, more accurately, a long essay – it can easily be knocked off in a couple of hours) by the neuroscientist and philosopher Sam Harris.

In it, he argues that there is never a case for lying. Not even when your friend asks you if they look fat in those jeans. Not even when your spouse asks if you’ve ever imagined someone else when you’re in bed with them (I know: pretty extreme, right?).  It’s a fascinating and very confronting read.

Harris argues that even those little white lies are damaging. When you lie to someone, you’re assuming you know what’s best for them, rather than treating them as an adult capable of dealing with the truth.

It comes down to the golden rule: If you were in the other person’s shoes, would you want to know the truth? Would you rather a well-meaning recruitment consultant told you your interview went just fine, and the only reason you missed out on the role was because the other candidate had slightly stronger experience than you? Or would you rather they ‘fessed up and told you it was because you had dandruff on your shoulders? As embarrassing as receiving that feedback may be, it’s also empowering:  you’re now in a position to do something about it.

The other part of the equation is the damage lying does to the liar. Lying hampers your personal effectiveness and slowly erodes your integrity and sense of self-worth. Ultimately, telling the truth – always - is a simple, very effective way to lead an authentic, happier life.

I’ve worked in recruitment teams where it was totally acceptable to lie to candidates and clients.  Even though it pains me to admit it, I sometimes lied too.  On the surface, it just seemed to be easier and more efficient than having those difficult conversations. After all, for every ten people who are grateful and loyal to you for having the courage to be honest in a field where dishonesty is the norm, there’s that one person who shoots the messenger, or gets really upset and needs a lot of your time and attention to help them get through it.

In my life, I’ve known a very small number of people who simply never (or very rarely) lie. It’s pretty uncommon to come across a recruiter who naturally has a strong commitment to always telling the truth. For the rest of us normally-flawed humans, the only way to avoid slipping into the habit of lying is by working with like-minded people in an agency with a culture of total honesty. Somewhere where there’s an explicit, spoken rule that lying is never an acceptable shortcut to results.

I speak from experience. At Consult, everyone from the top down values truth-telling. Those hard conversations are seen as the best way to build lasting, quality relationships with our candidates and clients.  It means we’re a happier and more effective team, too – it’s very hard to build a culture of trust when all day long consultants are listening to each other lie to candidates on the phone.

As a job seeker, what should you do if you suspect you’re on the receiving end of a lie from a recruiter? It’s simple: ask for the truth. Most recruiters will welcome the opportunity to be honest with you and actually help you with your career. And, of course – be honest with recruiters yourself. As in all areas of life, it’s the key to satisfying relationships.

My resolution this year is to catch myself every time I unthinkingly reach for the cheap and easy comfort of a white lie.  I’m still working on it, but so far it’s going pretty well (although I haven’t been on any jeans shopping trips with my girlfriends yet – the big test!).

How about you? If you’re honest with yourself, do you think you lie more than you should? How could eliminating white lies benefit your professional life? I'd love to read your thoughts in the comments below.

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