“Fake News” and the Hiring Process: Addressing Risks Before It’s Too Late

"Fake News" Newspaper Headline On White BackgroundFake news is on everyone’s minds these days to say the least.

Susan Meisinger recently addressed the issue of HR and fake news in her Human Resource Executive column, focusing on some commonly—and widely—held beliefs about HR practice that simply aren’t true.

For instance, she says of many HR professionals, “They’ll opt for a test that measures conscientiousness instead of intelligence, because they don’t know that research shows intelligence predicts job performance better than conscientiousness.”

That’s certainly one way that “fake news” can negatively impact the hiring process. But there are others.

False claims made by job candidates in their resumes and during interviews have plagued HR leaders and hiring managers for decades. Today, these claims can be spread even more broadly through various online communication channels including LinkedIn, and media coverage that has been based on misinformation attained through individuals’ own social media profiles, websites or claims.

For instance, in 2016, Wayne Simmons, who had built a (false) reputation as an ex-CIA employee and intelligence expert, pled guilty and was sentenced to 33 months in prison on fraud charges. Simmons, who had been a regular Fox New contributor had apparently never worked for the CIA at all, yet had created a reputation that was perpetuated online for a number of years.

The examples can be even more egregious. Earlier this year, 26-year-old Jordan Bautista Gunter was sentenced to 63 months in prison for posing as a law enforcement officer. But that’s not all. Gunter, in fact, was a convicted criminal who had a history of impersonating officers.

Yes, there have always been people who have claimed to be something they’re not. Before digital communications, though, it was more difficult to support and spread the false information that can lead to altered identities—and credentials. Say it (or write it) and it often becomes so.

Just ask Rachel Dolezal, who rose to the top position of branch president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and was widely recognized and lauded for her civil rights activism—until it was discovered that Dolezal, contrary to how she had presented herself for years, was not African American but a naturally blonde white woman.

And then there’s Dan Nainan who had established himself as a comedian and 35-year-old former Intel engineer, performing for such luminaries as President Obama. Nainan quickly became a media darling, a millennial who had made it big. Yet he wasn’t. He’s actually in his 50’s.

Selecting, claiming and communicating about an identity these days, however false, is relatively easy to do in a digital environment where virtually anyone can be a “publisher,” disseminating information that appears credible to others but that may not be. It’s not so easy, though, to discern fact from fiction—whether related to media reports or candidate claims.

No Substitute for Vetting

Kim Turnage, PhD, a senior leadership consultant with the Lincoln, Nebraska-based Talent Plus, Inc., says, “Vetting candidates has always been a multi-faceted process, but in an age where information abounds, and not all of it is accurate, nothing can substitute for a validated structured interview process. Do all the research and vetting you like through news sources, social media accounts and interpersonal networks. But don’t stop there. And don’t give information gleaned from those sources priority over what you learn from interviewing the person.”

Kim Shirk, a senior marketing analyst at Talent Plus, and a former news reporter adds, “The very best way to avoid ‘fake news’ in the hiring process is to take the subjectivity out of it. Using scientifically validated assessments as a part of your hiring process not only allows hiring managers to see below the surface messages of social media, a resume or a smile and a handshake, but allows insight into the true nature of a person.”

The true nature of a person can also come out during the interview process says Mark Murphy, the founder of Leadership IQ and author of “Truth at Work” (McGraw-Hill, 2017). Murphy says, “The fake news epidemic has made it increasingly socially acceptable to speak in absolutes, hyperbole, loaded language and outright lies. And that means a new level of vigilance and more advanced hiring tools are needed to recognize the signals when candidates share their own fake news stories.”

The ability to discern the true nature of candidates can go both ways, notes Fletcher Wimbush, CEO of The Hire Talent Assessment Company, in the Los Angeles area. “Objective, detailed, in-depth questioning is key for those who look bad on the surface but are diamonds in reality as well; it’s not just to sniff out the bad people,” he says.

HR Wisdom Still Matters

Despite the proliferation of fake news on many fronts, common HR wisdom is still relevant. Do your due diligence when hiring—check out candidate backgrounds and conduct thorough reference checks.

“References from past direct supervisors and lots of them are key,” says Wimbush. “We don’t buy a pair of shoes or get in an Uber these days without collecting thousands of references of the product or service we are about to buy. Doing this for candidates allows you to find out the objective truth and decide for yourself whether the candidate is ‘fake’ news or real news!”

“It’s one thing to ‘enhance’ the details of your experience or background, and quite another to misrepresent entirely,” says Peg Newman, founder of Sanford Rose Associates—Newman Group, a recruiting firm in Salt Lake City. She recommends taking a “trust but verify” approach to vetting candidates.

The bottom line: you can’t believe everything you read, whether in a newspaper, online or on a social media site. If you’re a discerning media consumer, but particularly if you’re an HR professional or hiring manager, it pays to heed the following steps:

  • Think critically;
  • Do your research; and
  • Focus on the facts.

HR also should look for consistency between sources, check dates and transitions carefully, and seek input from others who know candidates personally. The 21st century communication environment is one that favors those who don’t cut corners.

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