Foiling Dishonest Job Seekers

Advice for employers and job hunters.

Posted Oct 09, 2017

Wikimedia, Public Domain
Source: Wikimedia, Public Domain

Whether you’re an honest job seeker or an employer, you’re hurt by dishonest job seekers. The honest job seekers ends up losing jobs to worse candidates who lied. And employers get worse employees, which hurts coworkers, customers, and themselves.

Alas, having been a career counselor to thousands of job seekers and consultants to dozens of employers, I can tell you first-hand that there are a lot of dishonest job seekers who manage to bamboozle employers but not for long...Some are soon back in my office looking for help to find another job, this time with another failure to have to explain.

I consider writing this a bit of penance for occasionally remaining silent, even less often condoning, and even very occasionally, in moments of sympathy for that struggling job seeker sitting in front of me, abetting tactics I wouldn’t be proud to tell my daughter about.

In resumes, cover letters, and interviews, the honest if not saintly job seeker tries to explain away employment gaps honestly or at worst by stretching the truth about how career-related their activities during the gap have been. For example, the stay-at-home parent might exaggerate the work-relevance of being PTA secretary-treasurer.  If they were fired, they’d briefly give the most mollifying answer possible without risking a lightning bolt from above, for example, “I made a couple of mistakes and certainly have learned from the experience.”

The dishonest job seeker with a Grand-Canyon-sized employment gap might claim to have worked for a business that’s out of business and doesn't have the boss's contact information. Or if fired for rampant incompetence and thievery, the liar would say, “Our personalities just were a poor match.” Or more dazzling, they get a friend or lover to agree to play the former employer, and in a reference check to verify that all the resume, cover letter, and interview doody is absolutely accurate if not understated, that the miscreant is an exemplary employee. Of course, the begged question is, “Exemplary of what?”

And, of course, dishonest, low-intelligence job seekers are more likely to use a hired gun to write their resume and cover letter to hide their poor thinking, writing, and organizational ability and that despite the wealth of resume-writing advice and software, they couldn't create a decent resume. A resume is far more than a recitation of job history. It is indeed a sample of writing, thinking, and organizational skills. It's no more ethical to hire someone to write your resume and cover letter than for an applicant to college to hire someone to write their application essay.

Foiling the Pinocchian Job Seeker

  • Get most or all your applicants by referral. Let everyone you respect know the kind of person you’re looking for. Referred-in clients are far more likely to be of quality. Your respected colleagues are unlikely to refer someone like the aforementioned.
  •  Require all applicants to complete a quiz on the job’s common difficult tasks. To avoid applicants using a ringer, make clear that the to-be-interviewed applicants will take a parallel quiz at the interview under proctored conditions.
  • Avoid common interview questions. The worse the candidate, the more likely s/he is to have taken canned answers from an interview guide or hired an interview coach to concoct customized perfect answers. So do not, for example, ask, “Tell me about yourself?” “What’s a problem you faced at work?” “What’s your greatest strength and weakness?” or even “How come you’ve been unemployed so long?” Better to have the interviewees do demonstrations. For example, if their role will be to develop a marketing plan, give them a bit of prep material and have them offer their first thoughts. If the job will include running meetings, have them run a five-minute one. Also, probe jobs they list on their resume—Ask for detail. That has a better chance of revealing both veracity and the applicant’s quality.
  • Look for disparity between the quality of thinking and writing in the resume and and that displayed in the interview.
  • Before hiring, ask your #1 or perhaps #2 candidate for a half-dozen references. Few bad candidates can come up with a half dozen. Then contact the bottom three. (They normally list their best ones first.) Or phone all six after-hours so you can leave voicemail: “Hi, I’m John Jones and I’m about to hire someone for a crucial position: my administrative assistant. S/he’ll need to be bright, ethical, low-maintenance, and good at the Microsoft Office suite. Mary Smith has applied for the job. If you think she’d be excellent, I’d love a call. If not, no need to call back.” Unless you get at least three of six calls, beware.
  • Hire a background checking service to verify education, employment, and other items on the application. It's very cheap insurance.
  • If possible, hire on a trial basis. Even if you use this article's tactics, it's easy to make a poor hiring decision. Of course, you may not have the luxury to hire someone on a trial basis if s/he is highly sought after, but fact is, if your job is a good one, s/he may well accept a week-long tryout, so “both of us can feel good about getting hitched more permanently.”

Let me conclude with a probably inadequate plea for job-seeker honesty. I won’t appeal to lofty ethical values here—If your behavior were governed by that, you wouldn’t be a dishonest job seeker. So I’ll offer a pragmatic reason for honesty. If you dissemble, sure, you boost your chances of landing a job quickly but you also boost your chances of getting let go quickly. Be yourself, yes your best self, but yourself, and you’ll likely soon enough land a job at which you’ll likely succeed. And if deep down, you don’t feel employable, do you need to downscale your job target, gain more skills, or have a change of attitude?

Dr. Nemko’s nine books are available. You can reach career and personal coach Marty Nemko at