The Swedish have a word, Jantelagen, that means you shouldn’t boast about yourself or pretend to know more than you do. In Australia, we have a term for people who do this. They’re called bullshit artists and life can be reasonably kind to bullshit artists. We generally let them get away with a lot and hope that karma comes calling.
In a previous role, I watched a freelance trainer messing up some basic training. I had to let her go. She had been extremely confident when we met and sold herself well. Unfortunately, her background knowledge was poor and her ability to train adults was woeful. And so, we parted. She blamed me for not giving her detailed notes or a script. In fact, I was to blame. I did not take the time to properly check her out, and her boastful pitching for the work – should have been a clear warning.
She describes 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.
In her chosen line of work, there is no barrier to entry. Anyone can set up shop in the coaching and facilitation arena, and the market is heavy with vision shapers, culture gurus, wellness and happiness whisperers and so on. They drop in the words ‘global’ or ‘strategic‘ and off they go.
I have been sent the CV of someone who is calling herself a DoGooderist. She made a virtue out of failing to finish school because, she attended the school of life instead. Didn’t we all? I keep encountering a shameless self-promoter who calls himself a Mental Health Ninja.
And some years ago I crossed paths with a guy who described himself as a Serial Entrepreneur. He was later in the news – his entrepreneurial brilliance having resulted in investors losing over $90 million in his failed Neo Bank. When he started this bank – he proudly described himself as a disruptor. Well, that turned out to be spot on for investors whose retirement plans were well and truly 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 our preciously guarded funds. He spat the dummy, moved on, and sadly became a problem to others.
These folks are all out in the marketplace, still, some of them are giving speeches, nominating themselves for awards, occasionally creating dubious awards, 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 feel rather weary to see people that you know indulging in this ‘fake it til you make it’ mythomania.
We allow this market for the shameless bullshit artist because we rarely call them out. We are being shamed into being non-judgmental and as a result, we are normalizing the lies.
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 accept this award’ that I nominated myself for. I was so privileged to run fifty miles for charity. Doing something without the need for a round of applause or a boost to our personal brand, now seems quaint or old school.
The inevitably sad result of all this, is that the workplace con artist finds it so much easier to get through the gate. They will stick the jargon on their applications, attract the algorithms and get the interviews. And they can interview very well. Since it is very hard to get honest reference checks anymore, they race out of the barriers. They benefit from the fact that we recruiters generally hate admitting a mistake in our judgement and want to be right about our decisions. This is 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 ‘change’ and 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 if they are sent packing, they can even bank a decent pay out. 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”. And I’ve been as guilty. 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 normalized, 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.
Fair systems matter. Honesty matters. Our perception of organizational justice can pull our motivation up or down.
And 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. If you think consultants or weird and wonderful ‘influencers’ cannot do any damage, I beg to differ.
Can we all call out deception and fraud 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.