Tristan Schmurr, CC 2.0
Source: Tristan Schmurr, CC 2.0

Employment expert Claudio Fernandez-Araoz described a job interview as “a conversation between two liars.” No wonder that 1/3 of new hires are no longer there within six months.

In a small effort to help ensure a better match between job seeker and employer, here are three employer and three job-seeker ploys and how to foil them.

Employer ploys

Hyping the job. Consciously or not, it’s tempting to make a job sound better than it is.

Foiling that ploy. Unless the interview is one in which you are not allowed to ask questions until the end, ask a few probing questions during the interview, for example, “What should I know about what it’s like to work here that mightn't appear in the employee handbook?”

Of course, the employer could dissemble so, when offered the job, it’s wise to say, “Rather than negotiate terms by phone, would you mind if I came in?” That not only implies you won’t necessarily be taking the employer’s first offer, it gives you the opportunity to check out your workgroup: Do people seem contentedly busy, bored with too-neat desks, or is it chaos?

Also, hang out in the break room and ask, “I’ve just been offered a job here. Can you give me a sense of what it’s really like?” Of course, the person might say little but even tone can tell much. A monotonic “It’s fine" is very different from an enthusiastic “It’s fine” followed by specifics. 

Vague promises. Again, sometimes the deception is unconscious. Like many people, your boss may just be unrealistically optimistic about the candidate and the chances of a promotion, of the company getting a big new client, etc. Alas, other times, the employer consciously figures, “It can’t hurt to err on the side of optimism.”

Foiling that ploy. The antidote to vagueness is to demand specificity. For example, when offered the job, ask the employer to commit in writing to, for example, an automatic 10% raise after the first three months unless terminated for cause. If you’re taking the job on the assumption you’ll soon get a plum sales territory, ask that the contract give you a 20% compensatory bonus if you don’t get that territory within six months.

Getting free labor from all the applicants. The employer asks the candidates to provide a “work sample:” a difficult task the employer needs done, for example, a marketing plan for the new product. That gets high-level input from many people for free. In that ploy’s worst incarnation, the employer doesn’t even have a job opening. S/he just wants free high-level work, knowing that all those job seekers will do their best.

Foiling that ploy. Provide a sample large enough only for the employer to judge your competence. At the end of your sample, write, “Hire me and I’ll show you the rest.”—perhaps even with a smiley face. If your boss objects, you have to decide whether to capitulate or to explain that if feels unreasonable to ask for more than necessary to ascertain your competence. Yes, that takes guts but it shows moxie. Besides, the employer who takes advantage of candidates will probably take advantage of you after you’re hired. You may be better off working elsewhere.

Job-seeker ploys

The deceptive resume. Employers use resumes not just as a recitation of a candidate’s past jobs but to assess ability to write, think, and organize. So hiring a professional resume writer is no more ethical than a college applicant hiring a shill to write the application essay. If it were ethical, why don’t professional resume writers sign them, “Written by Jane Jones, Professional Resume Writer?”

Worse, many resumes contain “creative writing,” for example, to misleadingly explain away an employment gap that’s wider than the Grand Canyon.

Foiling that ploy. Look for a gap between the candidate’s language and thinking ability as demonstrated in the interview compared with that in the resume. In the interview, probe suspicious items, for example, that long period of being a consultant to an organization you’ve never heard of. Ask for details about engagements and for the names of the person s/he worked most closely with.

Another example: If the person doesn’t seem bright but claims a degree from a highly selective university, ask for the transcript. Background checking services can reveal surprising things. I recall an applicant who wrote that his last five years were spent getting a college education. A background check revealed his “college education” consisted of a couple of online courses he took while in prison for his third felony.

The primped interviewee. The weaker the applicant, the more motivated s/he is to spring for an interview coach. Even LinkedIn offers them now. Typically, such coaches use video to ensure the candidate is primped to perfection, from posture to tone, to message, which, alas, wouldn’t always pass a lie detector test.

Foiling that ploy. Avoid stock questions. Interview coaches know to prep their candidates for “Tell me about yourself," "What’s your greatest strength and weakness?" "Tell me about a challenge you faced?" "Tell me why you left your last job"  and "Tell me about your gap in employment.” Best is to make the interview simulation-centric. Ask the candidates to say or, better, to show what they’d do in a common difficult situation on that job. Also, for each relevant job on their resume, probe: “Tell me about the kind of problem you faced on the job.” After s/he responds, go deeper: Keep asking questions to ascertain how high-level the work was, how intelligent and/or persevering the person was, the problems s/he may have been unable to solve.

The phony reference. Bad candidates often get fine references. Most often that occurs by their finding someone (not the person's boss) at the former place of employment who liked him or her, or having twisted the arm of the previous employer to give a positive reference in exchange for the employee not suing for wrongful termination. Sometimes that’s insufficient, so rather than living with the consequences of a bad reference, the bad candidate gets a friend, relative, or romantic partner to pretend to be the candidate’s boss or coworker.

Foiling that ploy. Have the #1 candidate supply six references. A bad candidate is  unlikely to be able to come up with six phonies. Phone each after hours and say, for example, “I’m hiring for an important position: my personal assistant, who needs outstanding judgment, ethics, and office skills. I’m considering Mary Smith for the position. If you think she’d be excellent, I’d love if you’d call me. If not, feel free not to call back.” Unless you get at least 50% callbacks, you’d be wise to consider another candidate. When you do speak with a reference, stress how personally important it is to you to hire the right person. Then probe for details about the candidate That should, if only from tone, suggest how good that candidate really is.

The takeaway

Job seekers, amid the pressure to find good work, especially if you know you're not the strongest candidate, it can be tempting to package yourself so you look better than you are. It's been said that some candidates' best workday is the interview day. In the end, both for pragmatic and ethical reasons, you're best off in revealing your authentic self. The wrong employers will reject you but a right one will accept you, and on that job, you're more likely to succeed.

Hiring is a manager and leader’s most important task. Hire the best candidate, not just the best-appearing, and not only do you benefit, so do the people in your workgroup, plus, the products or services are likely to be better, which benefits your customers, and indirectly, all of us.

Dr. Nemko's nine books are available. You can reach career and personal coach Marty Nemko at mnemko@comcast.net.

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