It seems to me, if a recruiter prepares a candidate for a job interview so well, that the candidate behaves in a way totally divorced from their real character and personality, and they are hired, the employer may have grounds for a civil suit because of the deception.
End of “law” lecture.
Everyone in business, whether they know it or not, whether they want to believe it or not, whether they like it or not, is in sales. What is “sales?” What is “selling?” For me, it’s the art of persuasion.
I don’t remember the book, but I remember reading a sales book where the author deals with the traditional sales job interview request by the interviewer to the candidate, “Sell me this pen.” The classic response is to ask the person why they need a pen and then, based on the response, to talk about the pen’s attributes and benefits. A more modern approach is to tell a story that will resonate with the prospective buyer by explaining how the pen helped someone, similar to them, in their same exact situation. But the author of the book had a novel approach: His suggestion was to take the pen, put it in your pocket and walk out of the room. If the interviewer wanted the pen back, he’d have to buy it!
After reading the book, I had a job interview for a fundraising position. Sure enough, the interviewer handed me his pen and said, “Sell me this pen!”
I smiled. I put it in my pocket. I got up. I left the room and sat in the Reception area. I had a huge smile on my face. The receptionist asked what I was smiling about. I told her, “You’ll see!”
A minute later the (angry) interviewer, let’s call him “Joe,” appeared. The conversation went something like this:
Joe: Give me my pen.
Bruce: What pen?
Joe: The pen I told you to sell to me and that you put in your pocket.
Bruce: You can’t ask someone to sell you something that they do not own. So, by implication, when you handed me the pen and told me to sell it to you, you were giving me ownership. The pen is mine.
(At this point a delivery guy arrived with lunch for the receptionist and one of her colleagues who were doing their best not to fall over laughing.)
Bruce: Excuse me. How much is their lunch?
(Let’s say, for say of argument he said $17.)
Bruce: I’ll tell you what I’ll do. I’ll sell you the pen for $20 and you can give it to the delivery guy and he can keep the change.
Joe gave the twenty to the delivery guy, I gave him the pen, and he stormed out of the Reception area to the laughter of his colleagues.
Now understand. I’m not stupid. I knew after one minute that I would not work for the guy. I didn’t like anything about him. Not the mess in his office. Not his manners. And certainly not his lack of personality. When we met, he did not stand up, he barely looked me in the eyes, gave me a weak handshake, couldn’t find my résumé in the pile of papers on his desk and actually asked me what my name was. I was not going to work for him! So, seeing that I had nothing to lose, I figured I’d have some fun. And I did!
But, as I said, sales is the art of persuasion. And persuasion is nothing new. If I am not incorrect, Aristotle was the first to address the topic. He said there were three ways to persuade someone to do something: ethos – meaning ethics; pathos – meaning emotion; and logos – meaning logic.
The problem is you don’t know which to use. The good news is, it is easy to find out. Just, and more importantly listening, to your prospect. If, in the case of an employer, they are focused on their company’s mission, you know to use ethos. If they are talking about all the people they help, you know to use pathos. And if they are focused on why the position needs to be filled by someone who possesses all of the requirements listed in the job description, you know to use logos.
The idea for this talk came from a lead article in this month’s (Winter 2019/2010) Inc. magazine, by Cameron Albert-Deitch. It is titled “The Rise of the Fake Applicant: How misinformation is clogging the job market” (pp. 13-14).
That article begins with the story of a woman who lied on her résumé. She claimed to have worked for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Problem was, she applied to a company that actually worked with NOAA and the boss did not know her or of her. During her initial phone interview, he was in the room and asked to meet with her in-person. Realizing she was caught, she withdrew her candidacy and hung up.
Now people have been stretching the truth on their résumés probably since the first résumé was written. I’ll start with an example of someone you might have heard of, John F. Kennedy. As Richard Reves, author of President Kennedy: Profile of Power (Simon & Schuster, 1993) told David Rubinstein in his 2019 book (Simon & Schuster), The American Story: Conversations with Master Historians (p. 243):
Kennedy’s résumé was faked. It said that he had studied under Harold Laski at the London School of Economics and therefore was an expert on Marxism. [Laski was a famous political theorist, socialist, and Labour Party leader.] The truth was he enrolled there but never went to England, never met Harold Laski.
Now if I may dust off my Ph.D. in International Relations for a moment, his lie led to all sorts of troubles, including (in part) the Cuban Missile Crisis, because when he met Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna, and tried to debate him on Marxism, the Soviet Premier made a fool out of him and believed he was an amateur who he could beat at will. But that’s another story.
Let me give you a few personal examples of résumé lies that I could use. I never have. I never would. But if I did, I would not exactly be lying.
I am an award-winning athlete. Anyone who has seen my chiseled features and rugged good looks will not be surprised by that and would not give it a second thought. The sport was bowling, and the trophy was for perfect attendance. (I can’t prove it because I threw it away decades ago!) But, technically, that makes me an “award-winning athlete.”
I am the author of six books. My master’s thesis and doctoral dissertation (highly recommended for sufferers of insomnia) were published by leading academic publishers. That’s perfectly true. I also wrote four other books: one was a textbook for my students (Don’t waste your money; it’s dated.); one was a tongue-in-cheek look at the trials and tribulations of job seekers (a little dated but still pretty much relevant); the third is a serious look at conducting an effective job search (highly recommended by all people of good taste!); and the fourth is about some of my experiences living in/moving to Israel (which is not very popular in some quarters).
Now I wrote all six books, but only the first two were actually “published.” The final four were self-published. In essence, that means they were not “published” at all, just “printed.” This country has a long and proud history of self-publishing. Benjamin Franklin comes to mind. I believe The Federalist Papers were self-published. But when you self-publish you are not going through a peer-review process. All it means is that you wrote a bunch of words and paid someone to print out the pages and bind them in covers. That’s it. You had the money to make the books, not necessarily the brains to write on the topic.
But here is where things get tricky. The “tongue-in-cheek” book was a Number Four bestseller on Amazon. The book about conducting an effective job search was a Number One bestseller on Amazon. And the book on Israel was an international Best Seller on Amazon reaching Number One in the US and Canada and Number Five in the UK. All quite true. And all quite irrelevant since being a bestseller on Amazon is not like being a bestseller on The New York Times or Wall Street Journal lists. All it means is that for one hour, of one day, the book was in the top 100 in at least one category in which I chose to list them. Now in my case, I took it seriously and did not choose frivolous categories. I’m not so certain that everyone does that because they all want to claim to be an “Amazon bestselling author.” It looks good on the bio when they are introduced at a speaking event, and it looks good on the résumé. Unless, of course, people in the audience or the job interviewers, have seen my video where I reveal the deep, dark, ugly secret of how to do it, or at least how I did it. (I’m not sure, but if the author were to buy, let’s say 100 copies of their book, and they system were to allow the purchase, that would probably make it an instant Number One bestseller!)
Now some people “fudge” their accomplishments on their résumé. I’ll use myself as an example. I can honestly say that, when I was a fundraiser, I brought in the largest one-time annual gift that 150-year old charity had ever received, to the best of our knowledge. That’s true. But it was only $25,000. For us, that made me a “major gifts” fundraiser. I was a hero for a day. Fundraisers at large non-profits, reading this, are now falling on the floor laughing because 25 grand is NOT “major” for them, but fairly “minor.” In the four years or so I was at that charity, I increased donations almost four-fold. That’s true. But it went from around $200,000 to about $750,000. On my résumé, I included the numbers, not just the percentages. Whenever I receive a résumé that states financial goals were reached, but there are no hard figures, I have a pretty good idea that we are not talking about significant financial successes. And when I ask the applicant to include real numbers, I have almost always been proven correct.
In his article, Albert-Deitch reports that employers are seeing totally false résumés, with phony employers. That’s not surprising. (More on that later). Also, with all the information available about companies and their key employees, a good con artist, and that’s what they are, can tell an uninformed interviewer everything they want to know about a company and its leadership simply by spending some time on the company’s website and LinkedIn. They know everything about the company, and their chosen supervisor, but they never actually worked there.
That is something that in my 17 years as a recruiter I have never seen. I have had people claim to have degrees, which I guess is technically true, from unaccredited “universities.” I have spotted many. I never attack the candidate or accuse them of lying, I simply asked, “Why did you attend an unaccredited university and list it under ‘Education’ on your résumé?” And they always respond the same way: Click – they end the call or leave the room.
But this all has to do with “fraudulent” practices by candidates, not recruiters. There are, recruiters who advise candidates to “fudge” their résumés. I won’t even try to guess how many times I have been told, “The recruiter told me to change it,” when I asked about a job title or even dates of employment.
The problem is getting worse because the economy is so good. It’s a tight job market and, especially in IT, and especially in cybersecurity, there is a shortage of qualified candidates. It has gotten so bad, based on Albert-Deitch’s article, that apparently candidates have their qualified friends handle the initial phone interview, get them the in-person interview, and then they show up for the actual interview hoping that the interviewer will not remember what they sounded like over the phone. But, again, that’s not the recruiter, that’s the candidate.
However, according to the article, recruiters prep candidates for interviews “or feed answers to inexperienced candidates in real time.” And some, unbeknownst to the candidate, redo their résumés so that they will pass the algorithms used by the employer’s (the recruiter’s client’s) Applicant Tracking System so they will be considered for the job.
The reason recruiters do these things is that they only get paid if their candidates are hired. They want to close the deal. So they help the candidates any way they can, ethics be damned.
In the Inc. article it was reported that there are numerous résumés on Indeed with the same formatting and identical wording, except for the candidates’ names, contact information and employer names. Apparently, this may include totally fictitious companies.
So, what can an employer do to catch the disreputable?
First, if you have never heard of a company listed on a résumé, see if it exists. Don’t just Google them to find a website. After all, anyone can set up a website. And even if you call the listed phone number, so what? If the person is willing to set up a phony website, why wouldn’t they get a “burner” phone and give it to a friend to play receptionist? Go to the state website, usually the office of the Secretary of State, and see if the company is actually registered in that state.
Second, ask for clarifications. If an applicant claims to be a “published author” and there is no list of publications on the résumé, ask for it. Are we talking books, articles, letters to the editor, or blog posts? If they claim to be a recognized expert, ask who recognizes them? If they say they have been quoted in the media, ask for the list. If they claim to have been on television, ask for the links. If they claim to be “award winning,” and there’s no “Awards” section on the résumé, ask about the award. In other words, make them prove that their claims are valid. And if you do that during the initial phone interview, you’ll probably save yourself a lot of time and aggravation.
Third, check references. I once had a candidate tell me that he had more references on his LinkedIn profile than anyone else. And that may have been true. There were a lot! So, I printed out the first page of references, handed it to him, and told him to get me the phone numbers of the first 10 and I would choose three to call. I promised I would tell him in advance so he could reach out to them. (Fair is fair.) I never heard from him again.
Fourth, contact HR at former places of employment to confirm that the person actually worked there, their title and pay range.
Fifth, conduct background checks. In the end, you might save money. And this is not just in the case of persons who will have access to money. Everyone you hire will have access to your most important asset: data, yours and your clients’. Are they going to use or abuse it? Everyone should have to undergo a background check.
Fifth, if it is the type of job that requires hard-skills, using a certain software, coding, etc., bring the candidate in for a day, pay them, and give them actual work to do. Don’t give them access to your network but see if they can deliver on what they claim. They may actually and honestly believe, for example, that they are great with QuickBooks or Excel, but their definition of “great” and yours may be totally different.
Seventh, and most importantly, protect yourself from unscrupulous recruiters. (Pause for blatant self-promotion.) I give a six-month guarantee that if for any reason a placement does not work out, I will conduct a replacement search, for that position, for free. It is not in my self-interest to con a client for a quick pay day. That’s why I don’t prep candidates. I don’t tell them, “The last guy who went in for an interview did this, that or the other thing, which really bothered the owner, so don’t do it.” I need the candidates to be themselves because I do not like having to honor my guarantee. (And I have only had to do it maybe five times in the 10 years I have been in business for myself.) A six-month guarantee is reasonable for all concerned, albeit not for industries notorious for having high-turnover rates.
Most recruiters, I would like to believe, are honest. But, as employers, you have to be suspicious. It’s called “due diligence.” It’s a good thing to practice!
Bruce Hurwitz, the Amazon international best selling author of The 21st Century Job Search and Immigrating to Israel, is an executive recruiter and career counselor. He has helped scores (thousands if you include attendees at his presentations) of people, including veterans, not only change jobs but, on occasion, change careers. Having successfully transitioned from academia to non-profits to the recruiting industry, he has been there and done that! A five-star rated speech writer on Fiverr, he is the host and producer of the live-interview podcast, Bruce Hurwitz Presents: MEET THE EXPERTS.