As long as job search books advise job seekers to sell themselves, job seekers will struggle where to draw the line between honesty and embellishment.
Jo VanEvery neatly addresses the topic of honesty on CVs. In particular, she points out the danger of falsely implying that publications are peer reviewed, or that articles have been accepted for publication, if the truth is otherwise.
Every now and then, I hear someone claim that “everyone” lies on resumés and cover letters. And that may leave you wondering whether you need to exaggerate in order to compete against people who are embellishing their job search documents. If a lie doesn’t get caught during the application or interview process, though, it can catch up with applicants after the fact. People who get caught lying about their qualifications and experience can find themselves unemployed and working against a newly tarnished reputation.
But I want to address a circumstance in which you don’t have to fess up. If you’re a parent, potential employers generally do not need to know. Employers can’t legally ask you whether you have children (or whether you’re married, what your sexual orientation is, what your ethnicity is, and more).
Sometimes, it’s tempting to disclose this information anyway. For example, interviewers sometimes ask interviewees about their greatest accomplishment, and I’ve met some people who talked about becoming a parent. If you offer parenthood as an example in a job interview, you’re giving employers information they shouldn’t have access to, and you’re quite possibly overlooking examples that might be just as or more relevant to the work you’re applying for. Not only that, but you may well be picking an example that doesn’t distinguish you from other interviewees.
Does it always necessarily harm applicants to disclose that they’ve had children? No. There may be situations in which it’s clearly relevant (for example, if you have a publications gap that you want to address in your academic job search). You may know for certain that the organization as a whole and all the interviewers and decision makers in the hiring process are family-friendly.
Even then, it’s useful to draw a line between what you’d say in a personal setting, and what you say in the professional context of the job search.
A woman I recently interviewed about her academic job search is glad she informed the committee that she’s a parent, but also feels she could have put tighter limits on what she shared:
“I would be less candid about my feelings about being a new mother – be it fatigue or maternal pride and happiness. To talk with candor about parenting still appears to be at odds with the cherished or cultivated persona of the successful and ultra-dedicated professor.”
So, when considering what to disclose, consider whether the employer is legally entitled to ask for the information, whether it’s relevant to the job, and how much information is right for your audience.