Hiring heads-up: Watch out for phonies

HR loves him, the CEO is impressed. But you'd still better check those credentials twice before you make a job offer

The computer service agency where I work provides around-the-clock support for thousands of clients around the world. Because our customers are an international group, we hire staff from all over the world. Most of them are highly qualified.

Take “Doctor T,” for instance. He came to us from a nanotechnology research facility outside Edinburgh, where one of our staffers -- a young woman named “Michelle” -- met him when she was fresh out of school. At the time, nanotech was a hot topic with plenty of potential grant funding, and Michelle was impressed by the charismatic scientist. Years later, when budget cuts hit his lab, Doctor T broadcast his résumé and a copy landed on Michelle’s desk. By this time, she was our director of hiring.

Staffing at our company was often slowed by a careful, time-consuming credential-verification process. But not this time. Doctor T’s application was pushed through quickly, and he became our new chief engineer. In that capacity, he spoke eloquently of a grandiose vision, and it didn’t hurt that he was an officer in a professional association that spread large sums of money around. He endeared himself to our upper management. And his high-level degree bestowed academic credibility on the department.

And yet … Doctor T never seemed to do anything. He mostly squirreled away in his office, chattered on the phone, or made speeches at out-of-town meetings. He rarely made a policy or design decision until it was clear which way upper management was leaning. His real areas of expertise appeared to be avoiding controversy, steering clear of risk, and claiming credit for high-profile projects only after they became successful. He was also very good at flattering the CEO, who adored him.

One day the CEO asked me to show off a program written by Doctor T to a visiting dignitary. I tested the package and it failed almost immediately. An examination of the code revealed glaring programming errors that might be expected of a novice. I had to spend three days rewriting the code before it would run.

I assumed Doctor T had been too distracted with his high-visibility appearances to debug the code. But when I mentioned the problem to him, he seemed annoyed. He stated that his work was far more important than hacking code.

Nonetheless, under his leadership, project initiatives began to stall. We missed deadlines, and we neglected opportunities for grant funding. Soon our clients began signing up with competitors, and we had to resort to layoffs. The first victims: productive staff members, not the Doc.

Eventually, when there was no one left to blame, Doctor T resigned. A short article in the local paper mentioned his school name, and I sent an e-mail to its registrar. By now I wasn’t surprised to discover that he had no advanced degree. He had dropped out. A successful company had been pushed to the brink of failure by someone who had no business being there in the first place.

In the past few years, we’ve struggled back to our previous level of business, and our credential department now has the ultimate say on all hires. There’s no question that the most successful IT departments are based on the knowledge and experience of their staff, but that works both ways. People are the best resource … or the worst.

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