Your Best Candidates Will Cheat on Pre-Hire Assessments

Do candidates cheat on pre-hire assessments?

That depends on what you classify as cheating. For the purposes of this article, I’m not referring to personality tests for which employers tell candidates that there are no wrong answers, even though we all know there most certainly are. I’m not talking about individuals checking boxes that they think employers want them to check. Every candidate does that — and no, I don’t have proof of this, because I shouldn’t have to prove that we are all liars.

Oh, but if I must, research reveals that:

  • 78% of job applicants lie during the hiring process, according to Checkster
  • 22% of job applicants lie about lying during the hiring process or don’t get caught, according to me

(I will also add this: Please, please don’t feed me nonsense about assessments allegedly designed to prevent gaming the system. Candidates will always find ways to present their best rather than their real selves. Those who do it well are probably your best candidates.)

Right now, I’m talking about pre-employment tests meant to gauge skills and knowledge, where questions have definitive, non-subjective answers. With the hiring process going virtual due to the pandemic, companies aren’t able to administer proctored exams. Indeed, 83% of organizations are implementing assessments in an unproctored setting. But as candidates take such tests online, there’s greater risk that they will cheat. 

I recently posted in ERE’s Facebook Group about this issue, writing that: 

I have a friend — for real, a friend; this is not an after-school special! — who’s taking an online assessment that includes a really difficult logic question. He sent it to me to get my take. (Is that unethical of him? Keep reading this.) I sat there trying for 25 min to figure it out. It’s HARD. And then I decided to Google the problem. Turns out, it’s all over the internet because it’s an LSAT question used in study prep. I told him the answer. (Is that unethical of me, now? I can live with that judgment.) But here’s where I’m really going with this: Which would you value more:

(A) A candidate who spent 20 min but still got the question wrong, yet described his thought process.

(B) A candidate who spent 20 min and got the question right.

(C) A candidate who spent 2 min and got the question right because he Googled or asked a friend.

A whole bunch of group members chimed in with their views, generating a healthy amount of disagreement and debate. While numerous respondents found (C) distasteful or unethical, I think it’s the best option. Here’s how I explained my decision: 

How many times have all of us sat at work and spent so much time trying to figure out something — from a setting in PowerPoint to you-name-it — when we could’ve just asked a colleague or Googled the answer? I’d want a candidate who recognized that when you don’t know something, go get help. If a candidate told me that he or she Googled the answer, I’d be impressed with that person.

Think about it. In the real world, wouldn’t you want an employee capable of producing results efficiently? Wouldn’t you want someone who felt comfortable asking for help from colleagues? Wouldn’t you want someone who understood which tools to use — in this case, Google — to solve problems? That’s why (C) is not just an acceptable choice. It’s the best one.

But wait, didn’t candidate (C) cheat? If instructions said that you can’t use a phone-a-friend or internet-search lifeline, then didn’t the person act dishonestly? (Even when directions don’t explicitly preclude such actions, such rules are still safe to assume.)  After all, you don’t want to hire rule-breakers.

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Except, you do. You should. If following rules means working inefficiently or ineffectively, then the problem is not a candidate who breaks the rules. The problem is the rules. And so what makes candidate (C) even more attractive is a presumed willingness to create workarounds. 

Indeed, in the Facebook Group, Toby Culshaw, Philips’ global head of talent intelligence and executive recruitment research, makes this point: “How do we know that (C) wasn’t the answer [the employer was] going for anyway? In my interview processes, I often put elements in where I am seeing the proactivity of the candidate, will they do their own research, will they reach out to people etc.”

Finally, it’s worth pointing out that when I applied for a talent management role at Prudential years ago, I was told months after I was hired that I scored low when it came to following rules, so low that I was supposedly almost rejected for the job. (To be clear, neither Prudential nor I needed an assessment to “uncover” that finding. I would’ve flat-out told them that, as my LinkedIn profile suggests, I’m a workplace renegade.) 

I was informed that I was hired anyway because my boss pointed out that she too scored low for following rules when she was brought on — and she turned out to be a top performer. As did I. (Modesty will get you nowhere in corporate America.)

So, is it OK for a candidate to cheat on your pre-hire assessment? No, it’s not OK. It’s sometimes preferable. Unfortunately, the irony is that you’ll probably never know how candidates reached answers on unproctored assessments. Most are unlikely to admit to seeking help — because when it comes to cheating, most people lie.


Editor’s Note: Want to read what other talent acquisition professionals said about this topic? Join ERE’s Facebook Group to view this and other discussions, as well as share your own opinions. 

Vadim Liberman is editor of ERE.net and TLNT (the devil wears TJ Maxx) — a workplace renegade advancing how we think, work, and live. He has previously worked as a strategy consultant to HR and recruiting tech companies at The Starr Conspiracy, as a talent management professional at Prudential, and as senior editor of The Conference Board Review, a magazine for business leaders. Vadim loves to talk about all things HR, talent acquisition, and Bravo TV shows. Bring it!

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