June 20, 2014

The Art of Timing Your Critical Disclosures

At some point in the interview, you have to tell the candidate that the job requires an annual 3-month summer posting in Mogadishu, Somalia, and in a suffocating clown suit to boot.

In an opposite situation, you’re pretty sure that at some point you have to tell the graphic design company interviewing you for a designer job that you are colorblind.

The two critical crossroads in the disclosure process are the decision to tell or not and the timing of disclosure, in the event that you decide to come clean.

It’s going to be a risky, if not painful process in any event, so any guidelines to reduce both the risk and the pain should be welcome. As an expression of my compassionate nature, that’s what I’ve cobbled together, as the following list of questions, rules of thumb and examples to consider when considering any disclosure and its timing.

Although the illustrations are drawn from opposite sides of the hiring deal, viz., applicant side and recruiter/employer side, the questions checklist, if not all the rules, apply equally to both.

So, here we go:

Would both sides like to pretend there is no problem or that they don’t know it exists? Consider the example of a work permit for an American applying for a job in China. She and the obscure language school want to agree to her hire as a language teacher, despite her having only a tourist visa and no degree, which they both know legally preclude her teaching at any level in China, even though they have not mentioned it to each other.

In this case, willful non-disclosure will result in unlawful and punishable collusion. But in other instances, where nothing illegal will transpire, a conspiracy of silence may be safe, therefore tempting and even smart.

Example: The HR manager is pretty sure there are gaps in the applicant’s skill set, but sees him as a quick study with all the other right qualifications. The applicant perceives himself the same way, but is hesitant to disclose that.

Their unspoken agreement to say nothing about any of this works: He’s hired on the manager’s recommendation, puts in the extra time and effort to catch up. Six months later, at a nearby pub happy hour, they “confess”, toast each other and officially bury the issue.

Is the disclosure about a necessary condition of employment? If what needs to be revealed is that you do not meet a strictly necessary condition for employment, in general, you really have little choice.

For example, if having an MBA or your own clown suit is a non-negotiable requirement and you don’t have one and aren’t about to be getting one anytime soon, you will fail to meet at least one critical, necessary condition.

The horror of that is that, by definition, lacking any necessary condition is sufficient for rejection—unless you’ve created such a strong impression that you can get the employer to waive the condition.(If you can pull that off, a job offer should virtually be in the bag.)

Generally speaking, the sooner you disclose that shortcoming the better. Although in the vast majority of cases, this will close, if not slam the job door behind you, it may, in the rare instance, ingratiate you to the employer because of your candor and consideration in not wasting anybody’s time.

However, this is unlikely to work at all if you were made aware of the necessary condition before you showed up for the interview.

Nonetheless, it can pay off big-time if the disclosure is belated on the part of the recruiter or employer, especially if guilt for tardiness kicks in and creates a sense of owing you something, even if only special, sympathetic consideration.

(Unconsciously, the management may wonder how important the condition can be if they forgot to mention it; so, that could work for you too.)

On the recruiter side, the example of the Mogadishu clown gig should suffice: Here, basic psychology suggests a strategy diametrically opposite to that of the colorblind applicant.

Postponing mention of the clown stint as a necessary condition for employment is advisable if the applicant can be hooked by everything that precedes it, including not only an enthralling array of bait and information, but also incrementally elicited commitments, in the form of time spent with other staff in an office walk-through, presentation and preliminary selection of a prospective office or business cards, filling in the membership form for the elite corporate gym, etc.

The crude, but effective psychological technique and principle involved here is the classic investment fallacy on the part of the applicant: “I’m in so deep now that I can’t or shouldn’t back out.”

(What makes it a fallacy is that it lopsidedly focuses only the costs of bailing out, rather than the potentially greater costs of hanging in, while ignoring the benefits of cutting one’s losses and of allocating investments elsewhere.)

Alternatively, postponing the disclosure can trade on another brute fact of psychology: the increased tendency to bond the longer the pleasantries continue (which is a variation on the “Stockholm syndrome”, in which captive and captor slowly bond with each other).

Now, if this works for the recruiter, why can’t it work for the applicant? Create a strong impression, work it into a budding bond, evade and postpone the disclosure as long as possible. When it seems the company loves you, then and only then disclose the grim truth.

The main reason the applicant is likely to have less leeway here is that, in general, the burden of proof, so to speak, is on the applicant, who usually initiates the expression of interest (e.g., in response to an ad).

Hence, since part of that burden is to be as forthcoming as possible, there is likely to be a subtle asymmetry in the obligation to make disclosures, with the applicant being under tacit, but present pressure to disclose such essentials.

This is especially so when jobs are scarce and it is a buyer’s market, from the employer perspective.

(A parallel example is the housing market in which it is the “applicant” responding to a property listing who has to be “qualified” by the agent as the first step, the presumption being that the property owner has demonstrated enough in the ad to take things to the next level.)

Is the disclosure about a cause for concern? To answer this question, you have to know what it means. The preceding discussion was about a worst-case scenario, in which the disclosure is about a presumptively necessary condition for employment that in being generally non-negotiable represents an inflexible, insurmountable obstacle.

This case is different: Conditions that can trigger concern allow for more latitude in the timing or occurrence of disclosure.

For example, although perfect color vision may not be a formally necessary condition for employment as a graphic designer, falling short of that standard may be a cause for employer concern.

As a shortcoming, it is less serious than lacking something absolutely necessary and non-disclosure is therefore less likely to be fatal to the prospect of being hired.

So, how do you play out the “concern” scenario?

Apart from total silence about the matter, a good alternative to disclosure is ask rather than disclose, i.e., to probe: Try to get a feel for whether or not the shortcoming is likely to be a deal breaker, but without calling attention to it.

That can be a very tricky challenge, but not insurmountable—e.g., for the colorblind designer: “How do you validate final design proposals—for example, primary presentation media, proportion, materials, textures, color…?”

Even better is to create an institutionalized, permanent employer shift away from reliance on that which you lack or shouldn’t have.

For example, a reporter being interviewed for a job that includes, in addition to the kind of community news he likes to cover, a focus on sports (in which he has very little interest), could simultaneously find out how much of a focus it is and attempt to shift it by asking, “Whatever your current mix of community and sports news, if creating community loyalties and promoting fitness is what local sports are really about, would it make sense to shift to greater coverage on broader community-building and fitness-promoting developments?”—to be followed up with an enquiry about the current mix.

Although the circumstance of an unmet necessary employment condition can, for an otherwise especially strong candidate, be overcome by convincing or inspiring the employer to ditch it, mere “concerns” seem more likely to be overcome in this way, if only because entrenchment of a necessary condition within the organizational mindset is more likely to mean organized, formalized, articulated, broad resistance to a shift away from it.

As for the timing of disclosure of the concerning shortcoming, the smart thing to do seems to avoid raising it until it seems necessary—e.g., through some direct reference to the concern as a general issue, rather than in reference to yourself.

At that point, and prior to disclosure, the induced-shift of focus and other defusing gambits can be explored.

If those fail to get the desired result—viz., neutralization or elimination of the concern, stick to the common law presumption of “innocent until proven guilty” and opt for continued silence, leaving the burden of proof that you are or are not suitable to the employer and recruiter (unless you believe that you won’t be able to perform the job as required because of the concerning shortcoming or otherwise surmount it, given enough time to do so).

Would the disclosure accomplish nothing positive or negative? There’s a story (which I will compress here) about a very old man in a confessional who is recounting and seeking absolution for a WW II indiscretion: Passing by a cottage in Nazi-occupied France, the then newlywed G.I. noticed a young woman cowering behind and peering from a curtained window. Beckoned to enter, he did.

Clinging to him for protection, the woman, overcome with emotion, gratitude and relief, succumbed to the moment, as did he, in the only act of infidelity he would ever commit. Granted absolution by the priest, who understood how the stresses of war can cause moral lapses, the penitent, comforted up to a point and wondering whether there was something more to confess, raspily asked, “Should I have told her the war was over?”

The relevant point of this story is that the belated disclosure neither unambiguously benefited nor harmed the woman (who never found out), the priest nor the old man.

If your interview situation is like that, i.e., the disclosure will neither clearly benefit nor harm anyone or anything, including your chances of closing the deal, go ahead, blab…

…especially if the punch line is as good as the old man’s.

Read more in Interview

Michael Moffa, writer for Recruiter.com, is a former editor and writer with China Daily News, Hong Kong edition and Editor-in-chief, Business Insight Japan Magazine, Tokyo; he has also been a columnist with one of Japan’s national newspapers, The Daily Yomiuri, and a university lecturer (critical thinking and philosophy).