October 25, 2017

Recruitment as an exercise in trust

They say that comedy is tragedy plus time, and with that in mind, I feel like I'm finally able to talk about one of my most difficult hiring experiences of recent years.

It began with a technical test which my company gave to all prospective candidates, as a way of gauging the applicant's experience with writing test automation frameworks and producing elegant, well-encapsulated code. There were various discussions as to how complex we should make this assignment; we wanted it to be sufficiently complex that we would be able to judge between "good" and "bad" solutions to the problem. Yet we recognised that the task would likely take several hours to complete, and we'd miss out on some strong candidates who didn't have the time to spare, or the inclination to do a bunch of work without compensation.

At the time, we reasoned that we could live with this, because it should have left us with a strong pipeline of candidates: people whose interest in working for us stretched to completing a challenging task, and a strong result in the test would indicate that they were perfect for us.

And then, this happened:

Our technical test lived in a public GitHub repository, and for some reason (completely unrelated, I think) I'd done a search to see if the content of the repository was being indexed by Google. And in doing that search, I found this:

At the time, this project was still listed as "In Progress".

If you're not familiar with Freelancer.com, or what this is showing, let me explain: Somebody (one of our potential candidates) had decided to farm-out the writing of his technical test to the highest bidder! (The description contained the complete text of our test, which is how I had found it).

This left us in a massive bind. Effectively, we had to find out who the "client" was for this task, so that we could identify them. Otherwise, we wouldn't have been able to trust ANY of our candidates' submissions. (Of course, we would always ask candidates to elaborate on their solution, to determine whether they'd done the work themselves, but the Freelancer project author had asked for some coaching to help them through this.)

We ended-up ensuring that we won the bid, and were able to successfully determine the candidate and remove them from the process. But the whole situation was a giant comedic mess.

It's baffling from the candidate. Even if they had successfully achieved this ruse, they would surely have been found-out as soon as they had started work with us. Unless you're especially committed to the deception, the truth would ultimately have outed. Ironically, we were more than happy to recruit good (and honest!) people who demonstrated a willingness to learn, so it's not even as if this was a necessary ruse. My only guess is that the candidate was potentially looking for a work visa, and was using us as a conduit for this; anything else is too bizarre to consider.

It's rather baffling from the employer too. Much of recruitment is an exercise in trust: sure, there are references, but we place a lot of faith in the honesty of candidates, the skills that they claim to have, and the ones that we ask them to demonstrate. (Similarly, candidates trust that their potential employer is being honest about the opportunities that are being offered to them.) The ultimate purpose of this technical test was as a "foolproof" means of ensuring we had skilled candidates coming through; and yet the exercise proved to be flawed.

The whole incident left me very raw and jaded when it comes to recruiting. I mentioned this episode (in an even more anonymised fashion) at TestBash Manchester 2016, and fellow attendee Tony Bruce said that experiences like this were why he very rarely reads/writes CVs these days: most of his recruiting activity is now conducted via his existing network on LinkedIn (and as somebody who has both been placed and had candidates recommended by Tony through this method, can say it seems to work well). LinkedIn has its critics, but it ultimately exists as a platform of trust: if a known candidate gives you a first-hand recommendation of a prospect, much of the preceding rigmarole can be avoided.

Still, it's a funny story though. Feel free to share your own in the comments (or share tales of bad LinkedIn experiences!)

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