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Companies Are 'Catfishing' Job Candidates

A woman is talking to a man in a business meeting.

​In the past decade, the term "catfish" has become a staple in pop-culture lexicon with the rise of deceptive online dating practices and a TV show of the same name.

Catfishing is the process of luring someone into a relationship by means of a fictional online persona. But a recent survey showed that businesses are also using catfishing-like tactics to attract job candidates under false pretenses.

In September, software company Greenhouse released a report revealing that some companies are using sophisticated webpages with overt promises of a great company culture and impactful diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) commitments to get candidates to interview with them.

These employers then often ask inappropriate questions or engage in other practices that sour the candidates' opinion of the company.

"Company catfishing is when there is a disconnect between how an employer brand presents its culture to the world and the reality of that company culture," said Donald Knight, chief people officer with Greenhouse. "Businesses that use these tactics might pique a candidate's interest with the job description but won't be able to retain them past the interview stage."

The report, which surveyed about 1,500 U.S. workers, showed that:

  • About 45 percent of respondents have rejected positions after being "catfished" during the interview process.
  • Nearly 33 percent of candidates have faced discriminatory questions during a job interview.
  • Black candidates were over 25 percent more likely than white candidates to be asked unlawful questions, such as asking about their race.
  • Female candidates were nearly 20 percent more likely than male candidates to be faced with unlawful interview questions.

The survey also found candidates were inappropriately asked about their:

  • Age (35 percent).
  • Race (30 percent).
  • Marital status (28 percent).
  • Gender (28 percent).
  • Religion (20 percent).
  • Parental status (18 percent).
  • Sexual orientation (17 percent).
  • Pregnancy status (14 percent).

Inappropriate questions such as "Are you married?" and "Do you have kids?" can lead to a lawsuit against the company.

"The data tells us that the hiring process is broken," Knight said. "And companies must wake up and face that reality."

How 'Catfishing' Tarnishes Your Brand

The Greenhouse report showed that about 60 percent of respondents defined employer brand as internally focused, such as companies putting their workers at the center of their decisions. Yet nearly 25 percent of respondents have written a negative employer review on an external platform.

"It speaks to the company culture needing to align with the employer brand," Knight said. "Otherwise, there could be a mismatch with employees who may feel the organization was dishonest in their job postings."

Knight said a company can paint itself in a positive light, but if it can't make a lasting impression or if it fails to live up to its stated principles, revenue and profit can suffer. Catfishing has caused many workers to leave their organization because it is not meeting the values it championed.

"We've seen some companies that have faced this issue, which adversely impacts the bottom line to the point of going out of business," Knight added. "Company catfishing can risk a company's very own existence."

Donna Hay, vice president of market impact for recruiting analytics firm Veris Insights in Washington, D.C., suggested that company catfishing can turn high-performing candidates from marginalized backgrounds against an organization as well.

"When one person from the group encounters inauthentic jargon or has a bad experience with a company, you're not just poisoning the relationship with that person," Hay said. "You're likely poisoning your prospective relationship with the other high-quality diverse candidates with whom they went to school and worked in top companies, who they will tell in confidence about what they encountered."

What Job Candidates Want

The survey also revealed what job candidates want from their employer. Among participants:

  • 92 percent believe DE&I is an integral part of a company's culture.
  • 72 percent desire hybrid working opportunities and schedule flexibility.
  • 68 percent believe a diverse interview panel reflects the true DE&I commitment of a company.
  • 63 percent prefer transparency, belonging and fairness from leadership.
  • 53 percent expect the company to give back to the community and exhibit strong ethics and values.
  • 52 percent say businesses need to have a clear organizational mission and future goals.
  • 50 percent prefer transparency in how companies approach DE&I.

Many companies understand that workers today hold them accountable for their DE&I efforts. Organizations that do not back up their words with actions can face backlash from prospective job candidates and current employees.

"Recent generations are more vocal when they feel adversely impacted by employer decisions that are counter to that contract or their branding," Knight said. "If your branding promotes creating an equitable experience for all, find areas where you can improve and uphold the contract."


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