Corporate chameleons: How applicants adapt their assessment responses to get hired

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Job applications are often highly competitive. Inevitably applicants will try to present the best, most suitable version of themselves to the hirer. But just how far will they go to appear an attractive applicant?

5 min read

Franciska Krings is a professor of Organizational Behavior. Her research interests include workplace discrimination, stereotypes, and justice.

In an era where fake news in the media seems commonplace it is perhaps no surprise to discover that fakery has infiltrated the world of executive appointments, or more particularly the job application process. When the career stakes are high, and the need for employees to mesh with an organisation’s culture increasingly important, would-be employees, it appears, are faking to fit.

Cultural fit can improve performance

It makes sense that organizations want to hire employees with values and personality, attributes and traits, compatible with the hiring organization’s DNA – its core culture. Especially when evidence suggests that employing someone with a high level of cultural fit can lead to better job performance, organizational citizenship behaviors, and organizational performance. Consequently, assessing person–organization (P-O) fit is often built into the hiring process.

Understandably, applicants are keen to demonstrate that they are a good fit with the prospective employer, but how far will they go to do this? Some distance, it turns out, according to research by Nicolas Roulin (Saint Mary’s University, Halifax) and Franciska Krings (HEC Lausanne, University of Lausanne) in their paper ‘Faking to Fit In: Applicants’ Response Strategies to Match Organizational Culture’. Even to the extent of projecting inauthentic or exaggerated personality traits and characteristics.

Existing research shows that job applicants can be loose with the truth regarding aspects of their personality they think are socially desirable, such as emotional stability and conscientiousness, in order to match specific job requirements. As cultural fit is high on the agenda of hirers, the authors set out to test whether individuals adapted and targeted responses during job applications, depending on the dominant culture of the hiring organization.

Two specific and common dimensions of culture were investigated: competitiveness and innovativeness. The suggestion being that job applicants would adapt responses, depending on whether an organisation was more or less innovative or competitive. Competitiveness was assessed via two specific traits shown to be associated with an individual’s degree of competitiveness – honesty-humility (H-H) and agreeableness. The lower the score for either H-H or agreeableness, the more competitive the individual, and vice versa. While openness and extraversion measures were used to investigate innovativeness – greater openness and extraversion scores indicate a more innovative individual.

A number of studies were devised to investigate the willingness of job applicants to fake cultural fit on these two dimensions. The initial studies involved participants applying to an imaginary firm online. The participants were divided into three groups. Each group completed an online personality test, which participants were told was to be used to identify candidates for interview. Prior to taking the test the participants in two groups were culturally primed, with one group receiving an email from an “employee” of the firm suggesting that the culture of the organization was very competitive, and the other group getting an email indicating a non-competitive culture. The third group did not receive an email. Two weeks later, for the second part of the study, participants were asked to complete the same online personality test, but with the instruction to respond as honestly as possible. The same exercise was conducted for the innovation dimension.

The authors could then assess the differences between the ‘primed’ and the ‘honest’ responses, and compare those with the non-email control group. The results showed that the applicants behaved like corporate chameleons, adapting their behavior to the immediate circumstances in order to improve their odds of hiring success. They did so by skewing their personality questionnaire responses to create the impression that they possessed certain personality traits – more or less competitive or innovative than they actually were – depending on the perceived organizational culture of the employer.

Further studies confirmed the link between the participants’ perception of an organization’s culture and the participants’ responses. They also demonstrated that participants will still adapt their test answers, although to a lesser extent, even when able to choose the organization they are applying to (and therefore theoretically more likely to select an organization that is naturally a good cultural fit). The findings were also replicated using real job applicants and regardless of job type or level.

The impact of faking

Although the tendency to fake was well established by the studies, it is less clear what effect the faking phenomenon has on the performance of an organization. The authors suggest that both positive and negative consequences are plausible.

It is possible that an applicant’s ability to infer the characteristics and qualities valued by a specific organization indicates skills and abilities in an applicant that may translate into higher work performance.

However, on the downside, research has shown that a high cultural fit between employee and employer is positively associated with a number of desirable employee work attitudes and behaviors. If applicants are faking their person–organization fit it is very possible that these benefits may not be obtained by organizations. Indeed, a lack of genuine cultural fit may cause problems, such as lower job satisfaction and commitment, and higher employee turnover, negatively impacting both applicants and organisation in the long run. Also it is possible to imagine situations, where person–organization fit is particularly critical for job performance, so much so that faking cultural fit could prove a significant problem for organizations.

The authors also note that existing methods to identify or deter fakery may not be that effective when dealing with job applicants that skew their responses to maximise cultural fit. It is not really possible to fact-check the personality of all applicants and reveal the corporate chameleons behind the camouflage. In conjunction with specialist assessment psychologists, perhaps assessment processes could be devised that disguise the intention of the exercise and reduce the likelihood of faking to fit. Or alternative methods found for assessing applicant suitability alongside personality assessment. At the very least, though, the research by Roulin and Krings highlights an issue that hirers need to be aware of and account for during the recruitment process.

Related research paper: Roulin, N., & Krings, F. (2019). Faking to fit in: Applicants’ response strategies to match organizational culture. Journal of Applied Psychology. Advance online publication.

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