Branding vs Embellishment


Joshua Mitchell / July 26, 2018

5 min read

I was talking to a recruiter about my resume the other day. One of the suggestions he made was to combine my TA experience (9 months) and my research experience (3 months) and just say I did research the whole time.

The Line between "Branding" And "Embellishing"#

Part of me was for it. If I can do the job I get hired for, why does it matter?

The other part of me felt slimy about doing that.

"It's all about branding," he said.

"Nobody cares that you were a TA or what your official title was at what time. They care if you can bring business value. Being a researcher is a better signal that you can do that. Everyone does this kind of thing. If you don't do it, you're behind. If everyone else is doing steroids, why shouldn't you?"

A strong argument - but I'm still not (both literally and metaphorically) going to do steroids. Doesn't sit right with me.

That being said - where is the line? A thought experiment:

Let's say a company is looking for THE best candidate ever. Let's call this candidate Ideal.

We can think of everyone else as being some "distance" away from Ideal (too much x, not enough y, no z, etc).

Branding could be thought of as drawing attention to your Ideal-like traits (I have x and y).

Embellishing could be thought of as branding, except some of what you're saying is untrue (I have z! Except not really).

In this case, the line is lying. But where does this line get blurry?

Some "Blurry Line" Examples#

  1. We know that some interviewers positively note when candidates dress nice to interviews.

We also know that some candidates like to dress nice in general, and some never dress nice in general.

If you never dress nice, but you decide to just for the interview, is that dishonest? Is that embellishment?

One could argue that, no, you're not making any particular statement directly. You're just dressing nice.

One could also argue that everyone who dresses nice to an interview knows that employers associate dressing nice with being responsible, exceeding expectations, etc, so by dressing nice, you are knowingly signalling yourself as someone who fits that bill. If you're usually not responsible, but you dress nice to an interview, that's arguably embellishment.

You might say that it's the employer's fault for inferring, but that logic doesn't hold generally. For example, if you dress exactly like a police officer in public, that's illegal. You are sending a strong, untruthful signal.

  1. A lot of standard interview questions are touchy subjects due to their subjectivity.

"What's your greatest strength?"

You're best at X, but you know they don't care about X. You're pretty good at Y. They really care about Y.

Is it embellishment to say you're best at Y?

How does one measure what their greatest strength is?

Should you do what most people do and tell them what they want to hear, even if it's not the truth?

"Tell me about a time when..."

You have lots of examples to choose from, but let's look at time A and time B.

Time A would cause them to infer negatively about you. Time B, positively.

Giving them both would paint a more honest picture, but giving them only B would increase your chance of getting the job (and wouldn't be lying).

Is it branding because you're putting your best foot forward? Or is it embellishment because you didn't tell them the whole truth?

Is Embellishing Ok?#

I get nervous about presenting statements as absolute truth, so I hesitate to say that all lying is bad. For example, would I lie to save my family? Absolutely.

How about for getting a job?

You could argue that everyone's gotta eat. You could argue that not telling the whole story is not lying and is therefore okay. You could argue that it's not your job to help them reject you by presenting unfavorable evidence.

The principle I follow is, to borrow from Jordan Peterson: Tell the truth. Or, at least, don't lie.

If the job calls for 3 years of experience in Angular, and I have 3 years of experience where I used it occassionally, then I'll apply and that'll be on my resume.

It might be the case that I have 3 months worth of Angular experience repeated 12 times because I never bothered to learn it well.

It might be the case that I worked with it for 3 years, but I was using an ancient version (1.x).

However, I meet the requirements it says, so I'm not going to screen myself out. If they grill me on Angular and I sink, that's totally fair, but otherwise, I'm not going to assume I know what they're looking for, specifically.

Is that embellishing? Technically, I'd say no.

But I do think it's somewhere in the gray area between branding and embellishing, and I'm still on the fence about it.

In the meantime, I'll just tell them what they want to know, when they ask it.

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