A Rant About Lying or Here Comes Dishonesty

Posted on January 18, 2010

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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.

Honesty.

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.

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