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SF Examiner: The Rising Decline of Authenticity

Evidence shows that a growing number of job candidates deliberately mislead potential employers. What's more, this practice appears to be flourishing among graduates of Ivy League colleges and top-tier law and business schools -among, that is, those least likely to have trouble getting hired.

The result is that duplicity of one sort or another can be found in nearly every sector of the job market. Employers are seeing an increased number of doctored transcripts, phony degrees, and candidates who accept job offers while continuing to interview with competing firms. But even more difficult to detect are those candidates who reinvent themselves completely.

Lotus Development president Jeffrey Papows is a case in point. Papows lied about his education (he has no Ph.D. from Pepperdine University); his adventures as a Marine aviator (he never flew); and his difficult childhood as an orphan (his parents are alive and well). The head of a billion-dollar project at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory resigned when his Ph.D. from Princeton proved to be nonexistent.

But these highly-publicized incidents at senior levels mask a broader flight from authenticity among recent graduates. And they get away with it primarily because they've co-opted the behavioral interview.

Behavioral interviewing is based on the premise that examples of a candidate's past and present behavior are the best predictors of future performance. This kind of interviewing can be a highly effective method for determining whether candidates have what it takes to succeed in a particular job. The problem is that anyone can now learn the fine points of the behavioral interview on the Web, in books, and even at their college career center.

One of the most common ways in which candidates subvert the behavioral interview is by creating a repertoire of well-rehearsed stories that they can "spin out" with absolute credibility to interviewers. Unfortunately, typical behavioral interview questions, such as "Give me an example of a time when you had to demonstrate . . . (initiative, leadership, or something else)" practically invite counterfeit responses.

One Big Six consulting firm, for instance, recently discovered that three of six MBAs it called back for in-firm interviews had all used the same fund-raising story to prove they had initiative. The firm called the business school and learned that none of the three candidates was affiliated with the school's fund-raising committee. In other words they were all using someone else's example.

A patterned or scripted interview does not work with today's well coached candidates - they may know the script better than the interviewer. Interviewers must directly confront candidates who appear to be less than candid, and use a "drill-down" method of interviewing that uses the previous answer to request specific details and further examples.

Another technique is to ask candidates what they learned from their claimed experiences and accomplishments. It's hard to invent examples of learning when you never had the experience to begin with. The idea, at any rate, is not to do away with behavioral interviewing, but to make it less easy to manipulate.

The trend away from authenticity, at least on the part of job candidates, will continue. Studies do show a significant increase in lying and cheating among teenagers - some of it no doubt perpetuated by identity-bending on the Web. The president of a top U.S. consumer goods company recently discovered that his 13-year-old son had passed himself on the Internet as a 27-year-old. This led to a $25-per-hour job monitoring chat rooms on the Internet.

There has been a proliferation of Internet sites that teach students slick ways to cheat on homework, tests, and term papers. Further, the University of California, Berkeley, reported a 744 percent increase in student cheating between 1993 and 1997.

Seeking a special advantage at the expense of authenticity, some college-bound Scholastic Aptitude Test takers have found a way to get 50% more time to take the exam because of claimed "learning disability." Experts say this can increase a test score by 100 points or more.

Most of the new claimants are from private prep schools or public high schools in wealthy white suburbs. Parents of students in these various schools shop around for a psychiatrist to support such a claim and threaten litigation if the high school does not approve the exemption.

Given all this, it seems likely that job fraud will only get worse as the Net Generation enters the workforce. Distinguishing real job candidates from those giving phony answers is a skill every manager can, and should, learn.