what can you conceal?


If the interviewer’s key unstated question is “who are you?, they might want to know about your core values. If the question appears to be dangerous territory, trying to avoid it altogether can be worse.

EN9 01-11-2015      Author: Philip Wells
A client once described to me her education as an engineer, and the reasons why she had decided to enter the profession: “I wanted to work at the interface between engineering, which is really applied physics, and human physiology. That just seemed thrilling.” Twenty years down the road, she had built up a reputation as a designer of lighting installations in parks and buildings, and now specializes in lighting projects in which there are biological impacts. The question of why she had entered the profession had seemed unimportant to her until I put it to her directly. The fact is that this is exactly the type of information that defines your core values, and it’s extremely important to provide it, because it defines not what you do, but why you do it, and this has to fit in with the prevailing corporate or team culture of the hiring company.

Of course, whichever way you answer this question, you’re taking risks. You may think you know enough about the corporate culture of the company to be able to answer what they most want to hear. But don’t expect it to be too easy. Remember that the core values question is unstated; the answer is not in what you claim, because anybody can do that, but in what your past career decisions and events say about you. They may have arisen from a vocational drive, as in the example cited at the beginning, or from a challenge, or an early realization that you were particularly good at something. Nobody does their job by accident, let alone apply for one.

You may have decided that your values are something personal which, in a just world, should concern nobody but yourself. But the question of what drove you to apply for this job is legitimate, because why we do things is both an important predictor of future success, and also because it is essential to our statement of identity, and ultimately, recognition as a potential hiree. For certain candidates, particularly second-language applicants, where the strength of the profile has to compensate for the narrower linguistic range, motivation and drive are qualities which are particularly playable, and core values matter in

If the interview finishes with gaps in the interviewer’s mind on key unstated questions, or the sense that you have something to conceal, preference will go to other candidates...

bridging the linguistic or cultural gaps. What about the risk? You cannot exclude that risk. At best, you can control it, by ensuring that the career decisions and history which you cite in the interview make up a coherent narrative. If it seems tempting to opt out of the core values question, the interviewer may change tactics, by switching to a behavioural approach (the question, “what would you do if…”), or slipping in a question about how you feel about an event or situation. They may resort to putting the question directly, “what drives you?”. Or they may decide to give up altogether.

None of these outcomes are desirable if they are generated from frustration. Successful interviews are based on good contact, and as in all commercial transactions, a measure of trust. What is offered simply gains in points for frankness and credibility. If the interview finishes with gaps in the interviewer’s mind on key unstated questions, or the sense that you have something to conceal, preference will go to other candidates who have made an attempt to answer this question. That credibility comes from the coherence of your professional narrative, and your behaviour, separately and in combination.

In a world in which job vacancies are becoming increasingly oversubscribed by applicants, core values matter. And if you're convinced that your core values might be at odds with the company's, then it's certainly worth asking why.


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