A Rant About Lying or Here Comes Dishonesty

Clay Shirky’s recent blog post entitled “A Rant About Women” has been batted around by the interwebs now for a  few days, due to the conflagrative combination of  his exalted position among the digerati and the completely loaded rant that hits, in a not-very-careful way, a lot of important hot-button issues around gender, gender equality, and the ways that gender seems to play into the process of wheedling one’s way onto and up the corporate ladder.  I will leave the equality issues to the folks who have already set upon it and dive to what i think is a more fundamental omission in Shirky’s piece and the surrounding discussion.


In his post, Shirky all but suggests that lying in interviews for a position is an acceptable and even necessary skill – and that the problem with women is that they are less able to shirk (pun intended) their ethical responsibility to truthfully represent their abilities to a future mentor or employer.  I will leave the deeper and perhaps more important moral question (is it okay to lie if the boss would never find out?) alone for the moment, and deal in this post with the ethical question (is it okay to lie if the boss might find out?), by comparing Shirky’s illustrative hiring story with a few of my own.

In the post, Clay tells the following story:

“When I was 19 and three days into my freshman year, I went to see Bill Warfel, the head of grad theater design (my chosen profession, back in the day), to ask if I could enroll in a design course. He asked me two questions. The first was ‘How’s your drawing?’ Not so good, I replied. (I could barely draw in those days.) ‘OK, how’s your drafting?’ I realized this was it. I could either go for a set design or lighting design course, and since I couldn’t draw or draft well, I couldn’t take either.

‘My drafting’s fine’, I said.

That’s the kind of behavior I mean. I sat in the office of someone I admired and feared, someone who was the gatekeeper for something I wanted, and I lied to his face. We talked some more and then he said ‘Ok, you can take my class.’ And I ran to the local art supply place and bought a drafting board, since I had to start practicing.”

I’d like to contrast this with the two stories of my interview for my first big job as the Webmaster of a good-sized corporation.  To set the scene a little better, it’s important to know that this interview occurred at a time in my life where i was unemployed, fairly poor, and very motivated to get a job.  The first story occurred early in the interview process, where i met with my future boss.  In the interview, i let her know that i had never officially served as a Webmaster, but set about showing her that my previous experience and past ability to get up to speed quickly would more than make up for any temporary shortcomings in my skills.  The second story occurred in the last part of the hiring process, where the head of Human Resources enthusiastically offered me the job.  Her next question had to do with compensation.

“What are your salary requirements?” she asked. “I require $65k per year,” i said, “but i will take more if you think i’m worth it.”

She offered me $67.5k .  I worked very hard there with fantastic support from my boss and from my colleagues, who encouraged my efforts to grow into the position, learning along the way.  I was given a great deal of freedom, and my boss showed incredible trust in my decisions.  There was a strong bond between my boss and i, and i never feared that i would be discovered as a fraud.  I am still in contact with many of the people from the company 10 years later.  Now contrast this relationship, based on a shared ethic of trust, with Shirky’s recommended alternative: After lying to my boss to inflate her perception of my skills, i would have then had to continue the ruse with the head of HR to ensure that my salary was in-line with my inflated worth to the company.  I then would have had to skulk around my job, always fearful of being found out, and perhaps even distancing myself from my colleagues for fear of them finding out.  In short, while Shirky’s recommended interview tactics might have increased the theoretical odds of my “getting in the door” it would have simultaneously and greatly increased the theoretical odds that the place on the other side of the door would have been a defensive, model I type of environment that would surely have stunted my long-term professional development.

I say that if Shirky’s claim that women are less prone to lying about their qualifications is true, then i will be hiring more women in the future.


8 thoughts on “A Rant About Lying or Here Comes Dishonesty

  1. I’ll take a job, if you please. I’m an expert in social media, organizational strategy and systems thinking.

    Which is only true in the sense that if you hire me, I’ll mushfake my way into expertise. Mushfake: the practice of making do with the materials on hand. (see jim gee: social linguistics and literacies.) When you want to enter a Discourse, and you know you have the capacity if not the experience to do so, you mushfake until mushfake is no longer necessary. Is this lying? In one sense, maybe. In another sense, it’s an approach to breaking down social injustice, an approach to making space for people born or raised outside of a dominant Discourse to enter it when all the gatekeepers are saying now.

  2. Mushfaking is definitely an approach, but when put in a hiring/firing role, i will probably jettison the mushfaker who fails in a way that reveals their mushfaking, mostly because they represent the potential for future catastrophic surprises to my organization and an associated cognitive load on me and on our colleagues who will be constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop (“what _else_ did this person lie about?”). On the other hand, the truth-teller who fails represents a predictable unpredictability (if that makes any sense), and an opportunity for growth and learning for the entire organization. I would only ask such a person to leave as a very very last resort.

    You’re hired, by the way, because i trust you.

  3. Well, here’s where it gets tricky, because even using spellcheck is a form of mushfaking, if you haven’t mastered the discourse of spelling. Using the internet to learn basic javascript: that’s mushfaking too. And by my lights, it’s fine by me if that’s how someone wants to finagle their way into a job that they have the capacity to do well.

    It’s not lying, necessarily, to say you can do something if you really ~can~ do it, given access to appropriate tools. Where we get into trouble is when people’s self-awareness is lacking: when they believe they’re qualified for a position that is far beyond them. This happens far too often, and is perhaps what has gotten us into this mess we’re in now.

  4. Great point! As i suggested in the post, my hiring process promoted a “Model II” working environment between my boss and i, which Schon and Argyris have suggested was positively correlated to reflective practice, which is in turn positively correlated to self-awareness. I suppose then, that the correlation could work backward, too: self-awareness:reflective practice:model II, which might suggest a developmental approach to lessening the occurrence of these sorts of shenanigans.

    I think it is important to distinguish too, the difference, in my story, between stating that i could quickly develop expertise (which i did say) and stating that i already had it (which i did not say). I was quite confident, but not dishonest.

  5. Here is another twist to the story ( I might blog about it of I find time) –

    The first thing I noticed when I came to the US was how the american students “Hardsell” their experience and background. I used to joke with them that if one has touched an airplane, one could claim to be from the aerospace industry.
    As an outsider I didn’t see any difference in the hardsell abilities of an American Male & an American Female.

    International students – (asians/south asians), on the other hand had the problem of underselling what they had achieved in the past. They were more accurately able to represent themselves when there is a quantifiable skill involved. Hence you find most of us in finance or operations rather than marketing or management as post MBA careers.

    I guess very few among us are able to be very true to our selves.

    There is an ancient Budha saying in india – “Satyameva Jayatey” ( truth is victorious ) . But it depends on how one defines victory. From the standpoint of Shirky’s post, victory might be defined as salary hikes, promotions & or a mugshot on time magazine’s cover. But for Budha it means contentment, satisfaction & a calm mind. Hence truth is victories , but it still depends ! 🙂

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