“That’s me”, insists Alex, pointing at a figure in a glossy photograph he tells me he produced in his interview. It’s a professional shot of half a dozen mechanics changing the tyres and manically refuelling a Formula One racing car during a Grand Prix pit stop. Each is wearing an identical red crash helmet and matching fireproof overalls – there isn’t much to tell them apart. Nevertheless, Alex succeeded in convincing his current employer to take him on as a test driver with their highly esteemed sports cars team. He told them that he’d walked away from an illustrious career working within a Formula One team. In fact, Alex does have a wealth of knowledge about high-performance cars and the culture that surrounds them. He’s also a very experienced, capable driver. It’s just that he never got anywhere near a real Formula One team, never polished Schumacher’s visor or had to flee shrieking from the pit lane, covered in burning fuel. This doesn’t stop him from repeating these anecdotes to his colleagues whenever he gets the chance – he’s so convincing and enthusiastic that it’s unlikely anyone will ever find out the truth.
The truth? Well, certainly not the whole truth
Meanwhile, Matt was feeling very ill at ease in last Monday’s interview. It wasn’t that he’d neglected to prepare for the anticipated questions; it wasn’t even that he lacked experience compared to the others waiting patiently outside. No, Matt had simply been economical with the actualité when completing his application form. He claimed to have an upper second class degree in International Finance from Edinburgh University. No such degree actually exists. In fact, Matt dropped out of another Scottish university midway through his second year. He puts it down to a mixture of personal and financial problems. He knows that he is definitely smart enough to have secured a good degree and so doesn’t feel too much guilt about the prospect of lying to win a job. He believes he’s more than adequate.
On the other side of the world, James tries a more buccaneering approach. After spending several years unemployed outside Nottingham, he flew out to Thailand last Summer and bought his degree at a street market in Bangkok. He has been working at a leading financial institution in South East Asia ever since. Needless to say, he’s earning a small fortune and enjoying life to the absolute full. At the back of his mind at all times is the fear that he will be found out and instantly ejected from his job, walked from the trading floor arm-in-arm with a pair of security personnel. “I probably work harder than others on this floor”, James concedes. “I’ve got to be better than everyone else so they don’t suspect. I suppose the firm did well to employ me, I haven’t fucked up once!”. He’s been lucky so far because, he claims, his counterfeit qualification amounts to a licence rather than hard-won evidence of crucial training. If he has the brain and balls to succeed without the real thing, then he should be able to get away with it, James insists.
Not harming anyone?
So far, Matt, James and Alex haven’t actually hurt anyone or lost their employers any money. However, there have been dozens of news reports of bogus doctors, anaesthetists, faith healers and cosmetic surgeons setting up practices without being in possession of the appropriate range of skills or training. In these circumstances, it’s definitely not encouraging to find evidence of charlatanism and career fabrication. Questions about an individual’s suitability for a given job may remain unasked for as many years as that person’s professional conduct remains within normal bounds. All too often it’s only when the bodies start piling up or mutilated customers begin to lodge complaints that action is taken against these impostors.
If you’ve nothing to hide then there’s nothing to fear…
But there’s bad news for blaggers. The chances of lying your way into a job and remaining unsuspected and undetected have become slimmer. Last year, Experian, the credit referencing service, decided to expand their offering by holding records of academic achievement. The process for confirming qualifications has been so time-consuming and expensive that only about a third of employers ever bother doing so. At the same time, around 70% of 1,500 employers surveyed by Experian claimed that they had come across serious lying in job applications.
The firm already holds files on around 44 million British adults. They plan to break into a new market by offering higher education statistics to all employers that request them. This part of the plan already has the blessing of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals. One of them, Lord Dearing, said: “The door of employment is wide open to unscrupulous job applicants and this situation makes a mockery of educational qualifications.” Data Protection regulations mean that permission must be sought from the applicant before their academic record is scrutinised – however, anyone refusing to give permission might automatically be suspected of mischief. In many cases, this might be enough to relegate a candidate to the rejection pile.
Can you keep a secret? I don’t think you can
What implications is this new window into the working populations’ past going to have on the employment market as a whole? First of all, thousands of employees face the possibility of being thrown out of their jobs or at least being offered less favourable terms, if their dishonesty is uncovered. It’s not inconceivable to imagine paranoid employers screening their current employees retrospectively. So, Experian’s database may change the entire working landscape. To what extent depends on just how many employees are telling porkies. Maybe one day, without warning, your manager will end up working for you because it’s proven that his MBA is in fact an HND.
Secondly, applicants for every job will have to be very careful when putting together their CV. Honest mistakes about whether you got a B in Maths or a C in Biology might be construed as attempts to tamper with your academic record. At first, the database will only hold higher education records going back to 1995 and will not cover any details of GCSEs or A-Levels. But it will almost certainly hold a record of one’s achievement at school in the near future. It might be revealed that your claims to have spent Thursday afternoons as a voluntary worker with the old and infirm would be more accurately described in terms of dabbling in shoplifting and recreational drugs.
Finally, it might turn out that the British economy is as dependent on fibbing and dissembling as the early American economy was on cotton-picking slavery. By uncovering endemic academic and professional lying, the database could undermine the structure of the workplace forever, sending the UK economy and its reputation abroad into a terminal flat spin. Not very likely, but it might lower standards so much that we’ll all get away with embellishing the truth and spinning our achievements ever further.