Foiling Unethical Job Seekers

What every employer must do... that most don’t.

Posted Sep 15, 2019

Pixabay, Public Domain
Source: Pixabay, Public Domain

My previous article described unethical ploys employers use on job seekers. Today’s focus is the flipside: unethical ploys that job seekers—disproportionately the weak ones—use to fool employers.

I want to stipulate up-front that many job seekers are quite ethical, but enough aren't to justify this article.

The ploy: Having a professional resume writer write the resume or LinkedIn profile. That’s no more ethical than hiring someone to write your college-application essay. Many if not most employers use a resume not just as a recitation of candidates’ work history but as a work sample demonstrating, writing, reasoning, organization, and detail-orientedness. If a candidate hires someone to write their resume, by definition, s/he believes the hired gun has those attributes more than s/he does, thereby misleading the employer into thinking that candidate is more worthy of being interviewed than s/he actually is. Of course, that denies a more qualified candidate that interview slot, that step closer to a job offer—Imagine how you'd feel if you were the unfairly denied candidate. Plus, that candidate denies the employer the opportunity to consider that more worthy (and honest) candidate. In addition, that candidate, if successful, is saddling the coworkers and boss with a less qualified, less ethical person. And that denies the customers of the employers’ products or services of the benefits of a more qualified employee.

Some job seekers who hire resume-writing pros protest, “But lots of people hire resume writers. If I don’t, I’ll be at a disadvantage.” Sure you will, but lots of people also lie, cheat, and steal to get an advantage. Do you really want to justify your dishonesty because there are other dishonest people?”

Foiling the ploy: When candidates come in for an interview, have them write a perhaps 100-word answer to a question on one of the job's core difficult tasks. If the writing/thinking ability in their answer is markedly worse than in the resume, you have reason to wonder whether the applicant is likely to commit other malfeasance in the employee selection process or, worse, after being hired.

The antidotes to the following ploys also will help.

The ploy: Exaggerated claims and outright lies. The following is good practice in general but particularly so if the candidate’s claim(s) of accomplishment seems outsized: Probe and probe.

For example, let’s say the candidate claims (and this is the sort of statement that appears as models in resume and interview guides): “I spearheaded a marketing initiative that yielded $44 million in profit.” And you sense that’s unlikely in light of the person’s mediocre interview answers and perhaps having Google-searched the candidate and looked at his or her public Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Ask something like, “Would you walk me through what you did that generated the $44 million?” Listen carefully and ask a follow-up that both tests the claim’s veracity and assesses how well the candidate would do on the job. For example, “You said you looked at the data and developed the plan. What queries did you make of the data set? What statistical tests did you use?  Usually, one or more inadequate hypotheses precede an adequate one. What was an inadequate one?" Again, I'm not saying that most job seekers exaggerate but enough do to make probing imperative.

Also, and this too is core good interviewing practice, the interview should focus on simulations of common difficult tasks that the candidate would be doing on the job, for example, running a meeting or laying out a strategy for tackling a complex problem. That can substantiate or cast-into question the candidate’s claims. It’s far easier to talk a good game than to play one.

Also probe assertions that are particularly subject to a deceptive answer. That's most likely in response to a potential deal-killer question such as, “Why did you leave your previous job?” or "Why have you been unemployed so long?" Some job-seeker guides and counselors offer such mollifying answers as, “I was caring for my ailing grandmother” or “I was searching not just for any job but the right one and I’m excited about this position.” Before accepting such an answer, probe with questions such as, “Walk me through your day-to-day in caring for your grandmother,” or “Tell me about the jobs you rejected.”

Before hiring a candidate, try to verify key claims with the person’s former boss. If the person doesn’t list the boss as a reference, beware. Sure, sometimes the candidate’s claim is true that the boss no longer works there and the candidate doesn’t know how to find him or her, but often the reason is that the boss would give a bad reference, including debunking the candidate’s claims of accomplishment. You might encourage the candidate to provide the previous boss's contact information by explaining that speaking with the former boss is key to deciding whom to hire.

If that still doesn’t yield the candidate’s former boss’s contact information and you’re not ready to pass on that candidate, try this: Ask the candidate for five professional references’ work phone numbers. Call after hours and leave a voice mail such as, “I’m considering Joe Jones for an important position requiring excellent skills in data mining and a calm but diligent personality. If you think he’d be excellent in the position, I’d love it if you call me. If you don’t, you needn’t call.” Unless you get at least three of five callbacks and they’re quite positive, beware. This technique gets around the common problem that even if an employee is fired for being a poor worker, company policy is to not give references, or that in response to that employee threatening a lawsuit, the employer agrees to provide a good reference.

One other warning. I’ve had clients who knew they couldn’t get a positive-enough reference from the previous boss or even from coworkers. So they listed friends and relatives as their boss and coworkers. That’s another reason to probe the reference for details about the candidate’s work performance. A shill will likely have wafer-thin knowledge of the candidate’s work and will devolve into generalities.

It’s worth the small price to do, subject to any legal restrictions, a background and credit check on your finalist candidate(s) to verify stated degrees and employment, court, and credit record, Here’s a list of top-rated background checking services, and of credit-checking services.

The takeaway

The antidotes to job-seeker deceptions presented here reduce but don't eliminate employers’ risk of getting snookered. In short, employers too often, alas, end up hiring not the best candidate but the most deceptive one. That’s why you’re wise to fill your candidate pool, as much as possible, with people referred to you, ideally raved about, by trusted colleagues and friends.

It's widely agreed that a manager and leader's most important task is to hire wisely. Hopefully, this article's tips will help.

I ad-lib on this topic in a 20-minute YouTube.