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I work in a small (~25 FTE) ICT company related to energy infrastructure in Germany, Europe. I've recently been promoted to Department leader due to the people above me moving on, and thus have started getting involved in the hiring process.

Early this year, we hired three new people. One of them displayed very poor work ethic (constantly on the phone, showing no initiative on their own...) as well as a severe lack of skills:

They had supposedly finished a course in Electrical Power Engineering, as well as published a research paper on State Estimation in electrical grids. They didn't know Ohm's law, and when asked "What's a Transformer?" they started talking about AC/DC conversion. According to the documents, they studied at the same university as I had, in roughly the same time frame, taking most of the same courses. I can personally attest that the professors there do not hand out grades for free. So, after about a month of experiencing this as their new boss, I decided to let them go, suspecting a case of fraud, but deciding not to pursue legal steps. Before making the decision, I sat down with them and another senior colleague working on the same topics to try and work out a way forward, which was ultimately not fruitful.

Sidenote: I even checked and compared their signature towards what was on their drivers license - turns out they signed in block letters, literally the only person I ever saw doing that, and making forging a signature easy.

Another case came in recently for an interview. They had programming in C/C++, Pascal and Python on their resumé, did a bachelor in telecommunication and ICT, and were currently working on their master's thesis on a battery management system for electric vehicles, some eight weeks into the thesis. They couldn't explain what a Battery Management System actually does, and when asked 'Which compiler/development environment are you using?', they didn't seem to know what I was talking about, i.e. what a compiler even is. They also didn't display any other skill in the fields they supposedly studied in.

A third case, this time for an internship, went really well and they knew their stuff brilliantly, especially for someone who's just applying for internship. When we offered them the position, they declined, saying they found something elsewhere, 'But my twin sibling is looking for an internship in the same time frame'. We invited the sibling to send over their CV, we'll see how they do.

We checked all of the CVs and degrees as well as we could, but did not see them to be fake. We called former employers and found that the story matched what we read in the CV.

So, the questions would be: Is there some kind of fraud scheme going on, akin to letting your sibling "borrow" your degrees to apply at a position? Think of it as an imposter, in which case the impostee went along with the process.

Is it legal for me to call up the university and ask about a degree that I suspect to be fraudulent?

Update: To clarify, I'm not saying they all had identical twins. But the only pictures one gets with the names is the one on the CV, and possibly a picture on their drivers license/ID (though we don't routinely check a person's ID when they come in for an interview - might have to change that). Those pictures are usually several years old, and in that case it's very easy for someone to pass as their brother/sister.

I also updated the questions to clarify where I was going.

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    You can always ask them to present their examination papers as part of the hiring process. I had to recently, to prove I was entitled to a specific set of employment ("overenskomst"). – Thorbjørn Ravn Andersen May 30 at 8:29
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    "...One of them displayed very poor workplace morale (constantly on the phone, showing no initiative on their own...)..." FWIW, that's not what morale means. – T.J. Crowder May 30 at 10:40
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    Next time you hire someone, ask them what Ohm's law is in the interview. All this story tells us is that your hiring process has some glaring holes. You can try to blame the employee, but at the end of the day you're the one who hired them. – J... May 30 at 12:40
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    Possibly relevant: thecodelesscode.com/case/187 – Shadur May 30 at 12:50
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    In the UK students sign waivers at Uni allowing companies to verify qualifications without a data breach. That said... We once hired a marine engineer with excellent qualifications. He was sent out to do an inspection on an LPG support ship, and we had to recall him when he submitted a plan that involved flooding the ship from the inside while in a dry dock to check for leaks. We called the issuing bodies and the qualifications were all fake. – Basic May 30 at 19:55

11 Answers 11

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I work in academia, so I see from the other side that it's perfectly possible to complete a degree and struggle with the basics. That's not to say the students aren't clever, but that there's a gap between what they know and what they need to know.

In particular, case 2: 8 weeks into a masters project they should have reviewed the literature, but some really struggle with the independence of such a project. Even bright students can end up essentially going through the motions, just doing the bits they understand and not grasping the big picture. The same students could very well be doing a master's because they came out of their bachelor's not very employable.

New graduates are effectively encouraged to put everything they've touched on their CVs, and don't have much chance to poke around. A short course in C using the tools installed on the university machines could lead to exactly the outcome you observe. My students use Python, and even those that do well at it would struggle to name the IDE we give them.

So I believe your 2nd example at least didn't lie, but oversold their experience (a severe case of interview nerves wouldn't help their case). It sounds like you successfully weeded them out at interview.

The first case seems worse on the face of it, and the one declaring a twin is probably honest but attracted your attention after the others made you suspicious.

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    I think its important to add in Germany academia, atleast in engineering, the students are given everything, and are rushed to finish their degree within 7 semesters...one of those an internship. There simply isn’t time to bother learning the name of programs 90% dont care about or want to use let alone something like a compiler. – morbo May 30 at 18:18
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    I work at a senior level in IT and don't have a related degree - I decided to get the 'bit of paper' in 2011, after working in the industry for 15 years, and signed up to an Open University ICT degree. The quality of the knowledge they were teaching was appalling, and most of it was woefully out of date (as in became something we wouldnt do in industry 5-10 years prior) and completely inadequate and inappropriate for any graduate to take into industry. So no, it doesn't surprise me that you say its perfectly possible to get a degree and still struggle with the basics. – Moo May 31 at 0:43
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    @ChrisH I've worked with UK ICT degree holders who were very good, and I've also worked with UK ICT degree holders who couldn't hold their own in any sense and were not worth their salary. But my personal experience with the OU was just astoundingly bad, laughingly so. – Moo May 31 at 6:43
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    I know this happens a lot but it's very difficult to believe that an EE grad not knowing Ohm's Law isn't some sign of fraud. – jcm May 31 at 8:53
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    @morbo A compiler isn't "let alone knowing this exotic thing" territory, not for programmers at least. A programmer not knowing what a compiler is would be like a writer not knowing what a word processor is, or a carpenter not knowing what a saw is. – Mason Wheeler May 31 at 17:13
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If you want a "solution" so that you don't end up employing them, then consider an exam or test as part of the interview process.

Had it done to me, as I said "yes" to having Excel skills... They had a computer with Excel ready and some data to work - just basic stuff if you know what you are doing, but if you don't, it becomes obvious...

I know another time where they put together 50 multiple choice questions such as Ohm's law, transformer windings, etc and that went well...

So, set up a little test - only needs 15 minutes... and you find out what you need.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Mister Positive May 31 at 11:12
  • @MisterPositive there were some useful nuggets of information that you could have kept though - making them less accessible is not always best... – Solar Mike May 31 at 11:41
  • If you think some of the nuggets will be useful, feel free to incorporate them into your answer. ( which is excellent btw ) – Mister Positive May 31 at 11:45
  • I would add, make it a pre-screening test. Something trivial that a non-technical HR person or recruitment agent can use, so that you never even see the candidate if they fail it. Simple questions that demonstrate a cursory understanding and just require that half of them are answered correctly. Make them have one obvious answer so the non-technical hr person isn't unsure if they know or not. Ask them over the phone so they can't google the answers, e.g. in excel how do you total up a column of numbers, what's the name of the operation to select a cell and copy it to all those underneath etc – NibblyPig May 31 at 16:12
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Is there some kind of fraud scheme going on where people take their siblings accolades to apply for jobs? Perhaps an uptake in forged degrees in Europe, possibly related to the migrant influx? Is it legal for me to call up the university and ask about a degree that I suspect to be fraudulent?

You're approaching this from the wrong angle and running into a red herring. Of course you can call and verify a degree with a university, but that information won't do you much good. What you need to find out is if the person applying knows their stuff.

So devise a skill test for new hires, or invite your existing engineers and technical people to sit in on the interviews and ask technical questions. If you're worried about outright fraud, no fraudster will withstand a technical on-site assignment or pointed questioning by professionals.

I don't think identical twins taking the test for each other will be a regular occurence, as identical twins are rare in the grand scheme of things. But if it actually happens, you're in germany, you have the opportunity to offer up to a 6 month probationary period, which should be plenty of time to find out if someone is the real deal or not.

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Is there some kind of fraud scheme going on where people take their siblings accolades to apply for jobs?

You are implying that this behavior is common enough to be an identifiable pattern. This is highly unlikely given how specific it is (not everyone has siblings, and those who do don't necessarily have siblings doing similar work).

No, what you are experiencing is known as "dealing with humans". Yes, people lie on resumés. It has been going on for a long time, and happens the world over.

I live in the U.S., work in the software industry, and have personally seen this happening for the past 20 years, in different companies, in different states, etc.

Sometimes people exaggerate an otherwise factual claim. Sometimes they outright lie. I have seen people claim to have experience with X because they knew that companies were looking for that, yet the person didn't know what X was (similar to what you are seeing). I interviewed one person who claimed to have experience with SQL Server 2012 when it was fairly new. I asked the candidate what their favorite new feature was and the response was, "I'm not sure yet. I am working on getting it installed." Technically speaking, that is "experience", at least on some level. But clearly "running setup.exe" is not what is usually implied by "experience with ___". One time I asked a person to describe a project listed on their resumé, something like, "Built a system to automate XYZ". Their response was, "Well, I didn't actually design it. I was on the team and ran scripts given to me."

There are various reasons why people lie: maybe they are desperate for income, maybe they don't realize how a particular phrasing of something will be interpreted, maybe they feel like they know some things and can learn the rest on the job, maybe they just don't care, etc. Who knows. The specifics don't really mater, you just need to identify these candidates so they can be rejected.

There are a few things you can, and should, do to help prevent hiring someone who is lying:

  1. As others have mentioned, come up with a test.

    1. I'm not sure how your industry works, but when hiring developers / programmers, we would start out by doing a short (10 - 15 minute) phone screen. We had a short list of basic questions, and had reviewed the resumé so we could ask a question or two about that. If they couldn't answer the basic questions, or couldn't talk about what was on their resumé, then the process was over for that candidate. If they answered the questions correctly and could talk comfortably about their resumé, then we would schedule an in-person interview.
    2. In the in-person interview, have additional technical questions, some basic, some intermediate, some advanced. Be sure that all candidates are given the same questions always (to keep things as fair and objective as possible).
    3. My preference (though not everyone agreed with me) was to ask at least one open-ended question. This was usually on something that was a contentious topic, hence it was highly likely that everyone had an opinion on it. The particular opinion did not matter, this was designed to generate discussion. Some candidates are good at memorizing facts and can pass an interview on that knowledge and yet not know how to do the job. If someone didn't have an opinion, or didn't know what the question was even about, they didn't get hired.

      Also, knowing the technical info required to discuss the topic yet not having the communication and social skills required to have such a discussion provided valuable insight. A smart person who either cannot communicate, or cannot handle differences of opinion, is not going to be a productive employee.

  2. Ask about the experience(s) listed on their resumé!!!! This is not optional! Sometimes people copy and paste from others and haven't even read it (seriously!) This is a very easy way to catch someone that is lying. You don't need to ask about everything, just a few things. And if an explanation is taking too much time, say "thanks, how about this other project". And (maybe) ask a simple question about where they graduated from if they have only a few years experience post graduation (something like, "what was your favorite class").
  3. If possible, I also prefer to have the candidate do a little bit of the work that they will be doing if they get hired. If you are hiring a programmer, have them do a short program. If they are a designer, have them do a simple design. Don't make it tricky or difficult since interviews are usually stressful for the interviewee, and they might miss something that they would normally not miss. If the candidate isn't sure what to do, or does a bad job of it, then you have your answer.
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    Re "claiming to have experience with X because employers want that" - This does cut both ways. Some employers ask for "5 years X experience" when X itself is only two years old. Sometimes HR picks requirements at random. I've seen recruiters mix up Java and Javascript. And so on... It seems that, for the industry as a whole, neither side of this transaction takes this part of the resume seriously. – Kevin May 29 at 21:23
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    Hi @Kevin . I'm not sure I get your point. If some companies post inaccurate requirements, that doesn't mean I should care less about someone lying to get a job. Requirements are flexible in many cases anyway, and my point here isn't even about matching them exactly. I'm pretty sure every company I've worked for required a CS degree, yet my degree is in philosophy. If asked about it, I explain how it's relevant. I don't think I've ever known all of the "required" technologies. Those lists are usually "ask for everything and see what sticks". But, if you say you know X, you had better know X. – Solomon Rutzky May 30 at 5:50
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    @Kevin to clarify: the example of the candidate who claimed to have experience with SQL Server 2012 yet had only done the install, and not even completed it. This wasn't even a requirement of the position. We were looking for "experience with SQL Server 2005 or newer". This person had experience with some combination of 2005, 2008, and 2008 R2. The 2012 was extraneous. Had it been honest, it would've been, "cool. here's someone who is independently learning the upcoming version". Had it been "learning 2012" that would've been fine. But if they lied about that, what else will they lie about? – Solomon Rutzky May 30 at 6:00
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    "Sometimes people exaggerate an otherwise factual claim. Sometimes they outright lie" - also if a candidate was referred to you by an agency, be aware that there are cases of agents massaging CVs to make their candidates look more attractive, without the candidates being aware this has happened. I for one could (but for legal safety won't) cite specific examples. – David Spillett May 30 at 9:14
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    This echoes an experience that we had interviewing someone - he was asked what his favorite project was, and it was something involving some handheld scanners. When pressed for details, he couldn't offer up anything like realtime systems, interrupts, wireless communication, embedded systems... like, he couldn't talk about the project at all. That's a pretty big red flag. – Wayne Werner May 30 at 12:50
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Degrees are not a measure of competence. I worked with a CRT expert with a master's EE from an engineering college in an Ivy League university. He did not understand inductors, was certain he understood, but was clueless about magnetic deflection sysrems.

You must verify the talents or competency you desire. Checking degrees tells you little about the employee's true ability.

There is no conspiracy, other than schools maintaining the illusion that their students are, by virtue of their degree, capable.

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One useful technique is to ask for samples of work. Get them to submit some example code or schematics, even if it's only hobby stuff or for their university course. Also ask them to write a few paragraphs explaining it.

You may just be unlucky. Sometimes people, especially young people looking for a first job out of university, interview badly. They get nervous or confused, answer questions badly. You may be reading to much into it, especially as you seem to have an issue with migrants. It could also be your interview technique is making it worse for them.

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People who can't perform the basic functions of their profession exist. We can all speculate why these people exist, but the really important thing to know is that they do exist, even at senior levels with 20+ years experience and multiple promotions on their resume. Verifying the CV won't turn up anything: they went to school, they worked the jobs, yet they know nothing about their profession.

In software, the solution is FizzBuzz, and it is perfectly applicable in other professions as well. Make a basic 5 minute test that is relevant to what the applicants should know in the position you're hiring them for. Nothing complex, just the basics that really matter. E.g. let the electrical power engineer solve a resistor network.

The goal is to provide a cheap and effective filter that gets rid of the thoroughly incompetent and doesn't put an undue burden on the competent. Keep in mind that recruiting companies will occasionally manage to get a copy of your FizzBuzz tests and train their candidates in them, so you have to change them regularly.

In the end, it absolutely doesn't matter what school they visited or what jobs they worked. What matters is their competence, so that's what you're going to look at.

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I was on both sides of the fence several times, both interviewing and being interviewed. Time is money, and there must be a strategy to select candidates.

Given the prevalence of Internet connectivity nowadays, a good screening test can be done before the interview. Timed 15-20 short, basic questions, multiple choice, done for instance in hackerrank.

Depending on the position, there can still be a practical test after the question phase. I had once a 6 challenge quest that had to be done in an interview process, and pretty much enjoyed doing it.

After the online tests, a remote interview, zoom or skype, to talk with the candidate, and have a feel of the guy and ask a few more questions.

For the ones that got past the remote interview, a in-house interview as the last phase will do good. There, you can still do another test and some questions about the previous tests just do double check you are dealing with the same person who did the online tests.

If they do cheat in the online questions and challenge phases (e.g. someone else doing it), you still have the experimental phase of the contract where you can let them go.

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Mookuh, I had the same problem 20 years ago when Internet related IT was relatively new in Australia. What I eventually did was prepare a questionnaire for all new applicants. This was done after a person faked their way into our company and proceeded to destroy several important client accounts.

I prepared a list of 30 questions per job application, relevant to the job description. These were not multiple choice, so guesswork was involved. They either knew the answer, or they did not...

We also had several staff who were borderline in their jobs and we applied these questions to them after checking their CV's. We lost several people this way, and sales/customer satisfaction improved in my opinion.

  • did you mean "guesswork was not involved" there? – Geoffrey Brent Jun 3 at 0:58
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Such a direct lie is imho unlikely from most applicants, it would be too dangerous. No applicant will directly lie, but all of them "tune" the facts to look better as they are.

I think, this "battery expert" actually did what he had, he only created his CV with some external help. An electric engineer can often get his degree with nearly-zero software development experience.

For example, maybe he developed some minimal microcontroller code on the University, but he has not an idea, what is the difference between "compiler" and "IDE".

You can call the University, but it is possible that they won't say it on their data protection policies. Which is very surreal, for what ever is a degree is then for? But that is the unfortunate reality today.

Pascal is such an oldie thing today, that it is very unlikely that it would exist in any professional CV.

I would not close out that you've found a really criminal case, including document forgery, but not this is the typical. The typical is that the candidate tricks his CV, but without any direct lie.

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How you can test the person in front of you is competent - apply any suitable test you can think of.


How can you protect against identical twins impersonating each other?

Well, you cannot do that directly. But you can ask all "winners" of the recruiting process to fill in a statement that they do not have identical twin brother / sisters and that they allow you to make research on that statement if needed. If you notice some gap in the knowledge before and after the interview, start investigating.

@Steve-o169 provided in a comment a significantly improved version of my idea:

I could see adding a statement into the contract upon hiring along the lines of "By signing this agreement, you certify that you, the applicant, have the skills/experience outlined in the CV provided to HR, etc.." with provisions and legal ramifications if that turns out to be false. But a separate document for this rare situation doesn't seem necessary.

Consult with a lawyer on this too, to be on the safe side of things.

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    "that they do not have identical twin brother/sister"- What if they actually do have an identical twin? That can't a legal reason not to select somebody. Characteristics that you cannot change (race, sex, etc) are typically protected. – Donald May 29 at 13:52
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    Not really a good answer. Are you really suggesting every single candidate be asked if they have an identical twin? Just seems like an unnecessary extra step. I could see adding a statement into the contract upon hiring along the lines of "By signing this agreement, you certify that you, the applicant, have the skills/experience outlined in the CV provided to HR, etc.." with provisions and legal ramifications if that turns out to be false. But a separate document for this rare situation doesn't seem necessary. – Steve-o169 May 29 at 14:34
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    ... this almost sounds like something out of the plot of a bad soap opera. "Darling, that was my identical twin who went to the meeting!" "Ricardo, how dare you! You promised me you didn't have an identical twin!" "No... that was my twin who promised you that." – Kevin May 29 at 16:05
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    @Kevin I don't have a twin...wait, it turns out we were separated at birth! – user3067860 May 29 at 22:08
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    Rather than just striking out your original suggestion and copy-pasting Steve-o169's comment below it, you should edit your answer to stand as if it were always the best version of itself (crediting others where appropriate, of course). Integrate Steveo-169's recommendation more naturally, rather than just crossing out your suggestion and putting his below it. – V2Blast May 30 at 5:31

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