The morality of following up after a poor job application

So a good friend of mine works at a place in an industry, if you catch my drift. And some folks want to work at that place, so they apply for jobs. There are various layers that their applications filter through, and one of those filters is a test.

Now, of course, some folks do better than others at the test, and the distribution vaguely resembles a bell curve, with few folks scoring very high or very low. But recently there was an applicant that scored poorly. Abysmally, even. Really ugly not good very bad – this could also be an apt description.

But the thing is, according to this applicant’s resume, they have three degrees in relevant domains of this industry. While the bachelor’s degree is from a foreign university, the two masters’ are from accredited universities in this country. Plus, the resume also says the applicant is currently a teaching assistant at one of them, in the department that granted the degree.

Now, my friend is feeling a bit torn. One perspective is that it’s not their business meddling in the life of some other person that they don’t even know. It’s possible that the test didn’t really reflect the knowledge of the applicant; perhaps because of nervousness or somesuch. Or, even if it does reflect the applicant’s knowledge, perhaps some of the resume was … let me say, “embellished”.

But if neither of those are true, then it means that there are two accredited universities that are giving some nonzero percentage of their master’s degrees to fully unqualified individuals. And it would appear that one of those universities is also letting some nonzero percentage of their courses be led, in all or in part, by such. What with the recent college scandals about inflated grades or even degrees granted to individuals who performed well in basketball or football – well, this doesn’t sit well with my friend.

What are other folks perspectives on the situation? Dig deeper? Or let it resolve itself on its own?

Call the university that the applicant graduated from and confirm that the applicant graduated.

Are you certain that the applicant’s native language was the same as the language of the test? You mentioned that the bachelor’s degree was from a foreign university. It could be that the grad schools made accommodation for the person to take exams in his or her native language, whereas your organization did not.

Or that the way exams were conducted made his language isses not a problem. My Orgo teacher in grad school was from China and completely lost his English grammar when he was excited (he’d lived in the US for 11 years at the time I met him); sadly, Organic Chemistry excited him a lot… but even if his explanations of charge differentials used Chinese grammar with English words, they were understandable. Bonus: those of us who were not from China learned some Chinese grammar!

I’d still call the two US schools and ask about the degrees. Also, is it a field where people often get a Master’s on purpose, or one where it usually means “PhD dropout”? If it’s the second, one is a corrected mistake; two would seriously worry me.

Full disclosure: I hold a PhD dropout in Chemistry from a US university.

The test my friend saw had very little language-dependent or culture-dependent content. There was one question where that might have been the case, but there the applicant formulated the initial conditions correctly. However, logic errors resulted in an incorrect result.

That is an excellent point! While people often get master’s in this field (I’d say the PhD:MS is 1:1), the PDD effect could very well explain some of this situation. A student with just enough skill at faking competence and/or getting instructor mercy…and the TA position is probably part of the grad student package.

Some people - like me - are just terrible at taking tests. I’ve got an MA but I struggle with those psychometric tests that involve lots of sudoku patterns, working out which random arrangement of dots should be the next in an incomprhensible sequence of dot arrangemants and trick maths questions.

You can’t tell much about anything when n = 1. I know universities that give Masters for course work only, and PhD students who flunk their quals take that route. The guy could have had the flu that day. The guy could have squeaked through. The guy could be lying.
All interesting if the guy was maybe going to be hired. The university situation would be worth looking into if they saw lots of graduates fail the same way. As it stands, why not just reject the guy and forget it?

These tests are garbage in that there is no correlation between scores and successful employees.

It is certainly true that some well qualified people will fail dramatically on a single measurement of their ability. Everyone has off days, and some people have a very difficult time performing under certain stressful arbitrary conditions like a test. It is also certainly true that some number of people get degrees from universities despite being incapable. Some of them do it by cheating. Some of them do it because the university essentially has very low standards. Finally, it is certainly true that some people claim to have credentials they don’t have in the hopes of getting a job.

So, investigating this candidate won’t provide any new information in a general sense. It will only (maybe) reveal which of these categories this candidate falls into. I would ask what your friend hopes to gain from such an investigation. Would he hire this guy if it turned out he was actually a capable person who is bad at tests? Does he want to assuage his self-righteous anger at the idea of someone taking advantage of the system? If so, will finding out a cheat actually make him feel better?


People go under the assumption that a candidate passing (better ACEING) a test will mean that they have found the Holy Grail of Employees and that none of the other soft skills (Can this person get along w/ their peers?, Do I constantly need to check to see if he/she is working? Will they not say or do the wrong thing at the wrong time and lose our business a major client?,etc) no longer matter.

There are VERY few high quality employees. Most of them already have gigs. The few who are on the market will only be so if companies actively discriminate against minorities, women or the elderly or because they want to live in a specific area. The remainder of the employment “pool” is composed of trainables, moderately trainables and nearly completely useless. Unless this guy doesn’t fit in the top two of those categories, your firm may wish to give him a chance and see how well he can perform.

If you don’t have any interest in him, then I would advise you to leave this matter alone. You aren’t going to hire him and your job isn’t to either evaluate the graduation policies of major universities or to expose people who may be committting resume fraud. Playing Junior G-Men will only cause more problems and it may highlight issues within your HR Dept. which may be better left under-observed.

Can you be a little more specific? Was it a psychometric test? An IQ test? Math skills, programming skills, logic, what?

That is so true!

I’d say, if they’re interesting in bringing this person in for an interview, to at least contact the school and make sure he really did go there.

p.s. I’m curious as to what this field is.

This is why I cringe whenever anyone proposes teacher competency tests. Just because a person knows the material doesn’t mean they can teach it.


By all means, dig deeper. I’d love to hear the reaction from a university when you bitch to them that a person graduated from their university and yet failed your precious employment test. I’m sure they’ll close down for a couple years and completely revamp their curriculum to ensure that it never, ever happens again.

Is it possible that the applicant for some reason purposefully failed the test?

So, in talking with my friend, it appears there were some miscommunications. The person did not have three degrees. Instead, there was a transfer from the first masters’ program into the second. Second, the person is not currently a TA. The second distinction makes a folllowup less of an issue.

Since you have not seen the test I don’t think it’s fair of you to say that it’s worthless. For example, if the position was for Chief Rocket Scientist, I would say that if test results showed one candidate unable to solve a simple quadratic equation it would be reasonable to eliminate that candidate from contention.

The hypothetical investigation would have been to resolve two questions. First, should future candidates from those schools get a little more scrutiny than normal? Second, are students at the second school being given grades based upon lessons from this person?

It was not a psychometric test. It was testing specific skills necessary to do the job in question. Sorry, I don’t feel comfortable in being less vague than that.


Exactly this.

Sure, there are some things a written test is useless for. There are some things a written test is fine for. A written test can’t show soft skills.

I’m a programmer by trade, and as it happens we’re hiring. If I gave a candidate a test consisting of questions like “A poor person steals a loaf of bread to feed their family; do they deserve to go to jail?” then that test would be useless. If I gave them a test of things like “write a program that prints “Hello World””, and they can’t do it, then that test was quite useful.

I’m wondering how you know this. It’s not like the candidate is going to tell you the failed on purpose. Of course, I understand if I’m prying too much, it just piqued my curiosity.

I’m wondering this too, especially since he’s getting this info secondhand from a friend.

I’ll say that a friend of my friend knows this person. There are other reasons, too, but I don’t feel comfortable sharing them.