Our Take: Be Strategic - Not 'Authentic'

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Which would you rather be: authentic ... or hired?

"More often than not, success goes to those who portray the right image - authentic or not - to their target market," writes Freddy Nager in a blog post for his Los Angeles-based marketing agency, Atomic Tango LLC. "To be successful, you have to be starkly realistic - and that doesn't always mean being 'authentic.'"

A seasoned ad executive and marketing professor, Nager was writing about corporate image and product branding. But there are clear parallels between selling products to consumers and selling people to employers - the stock in trade of career advisors.

Take hobbies, for instance. Is it wise or foolhardy to reveal them in a resume? The prevailing opinion, as reflected in executive recruiter John Lucht's Rites of Passage, is that athletic pursuits (especially athletic achievements) add value but other pastimes should be revealed only when necessary to offset some perceived defect in one's profile, such as a candidate with a B.A. in English mentioning a victory in a mathematical puzzle-solving contest. A newspaper essay I read many years ago went so far as to state - half-jokingly, I hope - that if an interviewer inquires about your hobbies, your only safe reply is: "Normal and healthy."

Worst Foot, or Best Foot?

In contrast, a certain school of thought insists on showcasing "the real you" at every stage of an interview process. Time and again I've heard people advise job-seekers to be up-front about potentially sensitive issues from the get-go. According to this line of thinking, if there's some detail in your background or character a company or its HR screening software wouldn't approve of, you'd ultimately be unhappy even if hired.

To me this sounds like putting your worst foot forward instead of your best foot. Such compulsive openness denies the possibility of adaptation and compromise on the part of either an individual professional or the work group she seeks to join. It amounts to always viewing the glass as half-empty: The advice could easily lead a candidate to give up before making a serious effort to find common ground with a particular employer.

Yes, sometimes you must disclose damaging facts before you're asked. If a prospective employer discovers you have a criminal or regulatory record before you tell her, for instance, you're gone. In general, however, there is no need to surrender what little power you have by spontaneously sharing information not relevant to your cause. That's especially so if it's information an employer isn't legally entitled to use in a hiring decision, such as your age or whether you plan to have children.

Impression Management

Here are some of Nager's observations debunking the cult of authenticity. I think they translate well to managing one's career:

"The movement du jour amongst us liberal marketers is 'authenticity.' It's the impassioned belief that companies should be open and honest about who they are and what they stand for - not just because that's a good thing to do, but because that's the only way to succeed....

"In addition to a naive misconception of the consumer, authenticity is based on the conviction that the truth sells. Rather, telling the unfiltered truth can plunge an 'authentic' company into hot water....

"We all know this, even on a personal level. We've learned that there are thoughts we dare not utter, no matter how truthful, in a job interview, on a first date, to a police officer, even to our mates and our families. We're warned to watch what we post on Facebook (or in a blog), no matter how accurately those words and photos reflect who we are...."

If you're a regular reader of eFinancialCareers News, you know we favor a strategic approach: work to ferret out a prospective employer's needs and preferences, then spotlight your unique attributes that can cure that employer's "pain."

In other words, resumes, job interviews and other steps in the hiring process call for filtered truth - what sociologists call "impression management." As a candidate, your overriding goal is sell yourself to the customer, your prospective employer. To achieve that in a manner likely to succeed for both parties, you must discern your customer's needs, understand how to fulfill them, and be confident you'll be able to do so if hired. But remember that prospective employers practice impression management too. An interview is not a confession booth.

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