Chameleons at Employment: How Job Applicants Fake It to Fit in
Imagine you are applying for a job you really want. Perhaps you greatly admire the hiring organization. Perhaps you’d pick up a lot of valuable job skills. Maybe the compensation and benefits package are very attractive, or maybe you just need to pay your bills.
As part of the hiring process, many organizations require applicants to complete personality assessments. The goal is to measure an applicant’s character and traits to see whether he or she is a good “fit” with the job. For example, if the job involves social interactions or teamwork, a more extraverted applicant would be perceived as a better “fit.” If the job requires attention to detail, as in accounting, a more conscientious candidate will be preferred.
Such assessments are also used to see whether an applicant’s values and personality are compatible with the organization’s core values in order to ensure a “cultural fit.” For instance, an organization known for being competitive may look for people who are less humble or forgiving and for those who are willing to “do whatever it takes” to outperform others and succeed.
Coming back to your job application, what if you realize—upon applying for the much-desired job and being asked to complete a personality assessment—that your profile does not perfectly match what you think the organization is looking for? What if you are truly a humble and compromising person, but after some online searching, you realize that the company’s culture is very competitive? You face a dilemma because you really want the job, but you realize that your personality and the company’s culture don’t match.
What would you do? Would you remain honest even if this means that you will probably be eliminated from the applicant pool? Or would you present yourself as the kind of person you thought the company wanted to hire?
This is exactly the situation we examined in our research. In a series of studies, we put people in a job selection scenario where they played the role of an applicant for a desirable job. We presented them with information about the culture of the hiring organization. In some studies, we depicted the company as having a competitive (vs. less-competitive) culture, and in other studies an innovative (vs. less-innovative) culture. Across studies, we used descriptions of both real companies from the Fortune 500 list and companies that we made up. The organizational culture information was presented either via an email supposedly from a friend currently working at the company or through a series of publicly-available employee reviews.
We then asked our research participants (about 1,500 adult U.S. residents) to complete a personality assessment as part of the selection process for the organization we described. Then, a few weeks later, we asked them to complete the same assessment honestly, so that we could determine whether they distorted—or even faked—their responses to appear to be a better “fit” with the organization and, if so, how and how much. In a final study, we also asked actual job applicants about their experiences.
Overall, we found that applicants distorted their responses to “fit in” and increase their chances of success in the selection process. Specifically, people systematically presented themselves as being less humble, honest, or forgiving than they actually were when applying to organizations known to have a culture that emphasizes competition. And, they presented themselves as being more imaginative, expressive, and risk-taking when applying to organizations that promoted an innovative culture. Notice that for some of these traits, people were willing to describe themselves in terms that are not usually considered flattering (not so honest, not so forgiving) if they felt it would help them get a job. We also found that applicants engaged in such distortions even when they could choose the organizations where they wanted to apply from a list of well-known companies—with different cultures and from different industries.
From the applicants’ perspective, such behaviors are highly adaptive: people are displaying a personality profile that closely aligns with what (they perceive) the hiring organization is looking for in order to increase their chances of getting the job!
From the organization’s perspective, the impact can be both positive and negative. If organizations choose employees based on a “faked” cultural fit, they might overlook other applicants who were truly a better match. And, they might end up hiring people who are not the best performers, who are likely to be less satisfied, less committed employees. And, getting a job that requires a person to be inauthentic may create discomfort.
Yet, individuals who are able to identify what the company is looking for and adapt their responses accordingly might possess valuable skills and social competencies. Those skills may be useful for doing the job and thus also be beneficial for the company. Whether a little faking usually proves to be a good or a bad thing for people who get the jobs they hoped for is a good question for future research.
For further reading
Roulin, N., & Krings, F. (2020). Faking to fit in: Applicants’ response strategies to match organizational culture. Journal of Applied Psychology, 105(2), 130–145. https://doi.org/10.1037/apl0000431
Dr. Nicolas Roulin is an Associate Professor of Industrial-Organizational Psychology at Saint Mary’s University (Canada), who studies applicant impression management and faking, the use of technology in hiring, and employment discrimination.
Dr. Franciska Krings is a Professor of Organizational Behavior at the University of Lausanne (Switerland), who studies workforce diversity and discrimination, biases in personnel decision making, social justice, and (non) ethical behaviors.