The Swedish have a word, Jantelagen, and It means that you should not boast about yourself or pretend to know more than you do. In Australia, we have a less attractive phrase for people who do this. We call them bullshit artists.
About a decade ago, after a few days watching a freelance trainer mess up a basic training course, I had to let her go. She had been extremely confident when we met and sold herself well. Unfortunately, her background knowledge was frighteningly poor and her ability to train adults, was woeful. And so, we parted. She blamed me for not giving her enough detailed notes. In fact, I was to blame. I did not take the time to properly check her out, and my gut reaction to her self-promoting conversation should have been a warning.
She’s still out there in the market, describing herself as a cultural alignment specialist, supporting 21st Century leaders and executives to drive business growth. In the extensive blurb about herself, she writes, I was born to educate leaders.
I have also crossed career paths with a guy who called himself a Serial Entrepreneur. He’s been in the news of late, his entrepreneurial brilliance having resulted in investors losing over $50 million in his failed Neo Bank. When he started this bank (and how on earth did he get a licence, someone tell me), he was describing himself as a disruptor. Well, that turned out to be spot on for the people whose retirement plans have been disrupted.
We did not get on when we worked together. He accused me of failing to think ‘outside the box.’ Mercifully, most of my colleagues also joined me in thinking inside the box, and we resisted his attempts to invest the funds we were tasked with guarding responsibly. He spat the dummy, moved on, and sadly became a problem to others.
I have just been sent the CV of someone who is calling herself a DoGooderist. She makes a virtue out of failing to finish school because, as she writes, she attended the school of life instead. Didn’t we all? And about five years ago, I met a shameless self-promoter who called himself a Mental Health Ninja.
We can laugh at the stupid job titles, but these people are all out in the marketplace, giving speeches and selling expertise and experience that they do not have.
I have waded through thousands of CVs and conducted too many interviews in my career. It’s one thing to be suspicious of a stranger, but it makes you rather weary to see people that you know, indulging in this mythomania.
I have watched former colleagues who occupied mainstream, ordinary jobs, sometimes purely clerical roles, giving themselves titles such as Guru, Culture Transformation Expert and Emotional Intelligence Coach. Some of them are calling themselves ‘Founders’ of organisations when they are simply self-employed sole traders. Human Resources is especially rife with this rubbish, and with new fads in resilience, wellness, culture, employee journeys and inclusion, everyone’s a somebody. Drop the word strategic into your biography and off you go.
And we are all to blame. We allow this market for the shameless bullshit artist because we rarely call them out. We are losing this cultural sense of Jantelagen, being groomed to be non-judgemental and as a result, we are normalising the practise of boasting.
We are also living in a world of self-promotion, where not only is a selfie unremarkable, but airbrushing selfies is becoming common. Humble brags proliferate. ‘I was so privileged to do a thousand cartwheels for charity recently’. Doing something quietly, without the need for a round of applause, now seems quaint or old school.
And here is the sad result of this perfect storm of delusion and vanity without a brake applied, it means that the workplace con artist will find it so much easier to make it through. Fake it ‘til you make it. This is their motto. They will stick the jargon on their applications, attract the algorithms and get the interviews. They can interview very well. Since it is very hard to get honest reference checks anymore, onwards they go.
The manager who recruits someone, wants to give that person a chance and wants to be right about their decision. It’s called Confirmation Bias. Onlookers and former colleagues who speak up with early concerns, can be accused of being embittered, negative or envious.
And sometimes, even when the selecting manager becomes increasingly concerned or embarrassed about their mistake, they can try to hide it and hope the person will justify their decision. The incumbent may well survive probation. It takes a robust soul to call out the faker, and by then, the candidate has gathered another line on their CV and possibly a decent pay out, if they are sent packing.
This cycle happens over and over again. I’ve watched managers trying to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear because they just couldn’t say, ‘I think I got it wrong. I think I was duped”. This is how all cons succeed.
You might think, ‘well, what’s the harm really? We’ve always had people who talk their way into positions they were not fit to hold’. But there are dangers beyond the inane job title or airbrushed CV, and it’s not just about the casual destruction of modesty and integrity.
When CV lies become normalised, fraud will inevitably flourish. Calling yourself something you cannot possibly be, like a cultural transformation expert, is not far away from making other claims, to licenses, certificates or qualifications you do not have, or handing over fake references, or writing creatively about lengths of service and former employers.
A teacher in Victoria has just been exposed after 27 years for being unqualified. Does it matter if no-one died? Yes, it matters. At a minimum, it matters to the people who wanted to be teachers and were unable to pursue their chosen career. Fair systems matter. It mattered every time he passed himself off as qualified. He rose to the role of Headmaster. How did he deal with pupils or staff members who were dishonest and faced disciplinary measures? Avoiding hypocrisy matters.
Safety matters. How would you like to be operated on by an unqualified surgeon? Or drive on a bridge designed by an unqualified engineer? Consider being flown by an unqualified pilot or even having to worry about whether the person who checks the tyre pressure on the plane is qualified to do so.
It is all deception. It is all a fraud. Can we all call it out when we see it? And can we celebrate all the people who finish the qualifications, put in the hours, get there on their merits and know what they’re talking about.