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Avoid Nightmare Employers and Scams By Job-Searching Like a Journalist

Some positions – and bosses – can seem perfect from the outside, only to have the facade turned inside out once you've committed to the work. Avoid making the wrong job decision by vetting your job options like a reporter.

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Lexey Watson, an art director based in New York, thought she found her dream job after graduating. Experienced in advertising but just out of college, Watson felt like this company offered the quintessential "good opportunity" she needed to boost her resume. Aside from promises to work with big-name brands and a client she'd long been interested in, the office itself was hard to pass up: free snacks, comfy couches, natural lighting — who doesn't love the lax atmosphere of a startup?

After applying for a full-time art director position — and being offered it — Watson ecstatically agreed.

Then, things got weird.

"When I opened my offer letter, it said I was being hired for an internship position, which was never communicated to me before," Watson says. "I was told it was full-time."

Thinking it was a mistake, Watson brought it up to her soon-to-be bosses, who said it was "normal" and that "they were working on it." They said she'd have a full-time position within six to eight weeks.

"I wanted to give them the benefit of the doubt, and they worked with so many brands that I loved, so I felt like it was legit," she says.

That client she was promised to work with? Not even signed with the company — and wait — it gets weirder. All of the big-name brands it worked with were only in niche overseas markets.

"I was like, 'Oh, these are great brands, and I'd love to work on those accounts,' and then it wasn't even for the U.S. market at all," Watson says.

Related: 13 Startup Red Flags to Avoid

Aside from being paid minimum wage in her "temporary" intern position — which lasted far longer than the communicated eight weeks, despite Watson's nudging — she also had to run errands for one of her higher-ups, told it was "something all the interns do" and "not to feel bad."

The task? Bring an envelope of cash to a psychiatrist on the Upper East Side to fill an Adderall prescription under the table.

"I literally had to sit there like I was a patient. I'd go in, exchange the money and then leave," Watson recalls. "It was the sketchiest thing ever."

After a few months, Watson knew she needed out and started actively applying elsewhere — something she didn't exactly keep a secret from others in the office. Watson recalls a day her bosses asked her to stay late, and she was honest about needing to leave for an interview.

"I made them feel extremely awkward, but I really didn't have a choice," she says. "I didn't want to be sitting in that meeting when I could be out getting a real job."

The next day, Watson's boss told her that if she got the job she should "make sure to tell them that you had the role we hired you for" in an attempt to cover his tracks.

It's been about four years since Watson left that company, and she has found far better opportunities since. Still, the experience holds weight through its sheer layers of misconception — and unfortunately, Watson isn't alone.

Aaron Aceves, a writer and teacher based in Texas, was recruited on LinkedIn in 2020 by an independently run college prep company under the assumption that he'd be editing and consulting clients on their applications. Once he was on board, though, his boss insisted he essentially write the application essays for the clients, which made him feel both uncomfortable and blindsided. When he finally quit, his boss charged him a "quitting fee," which led to months of fighting for the money he was owed.

Related: A Financial Checklist for Quitting Your Job

Then there's David Jacobowitz, who joined a startup whose product he was a fan of in 2016. He was told the company was thriving, only to receive news of mass layoffs just three months later. Higher-ups informed the entire staff, floor by floor, they might not have a job in two weeks. The company had been sinking for far longer than Jacobowitz was led on.

The list goes on.

In an age when it doesn't take much for someone's digital footprint to seem legitimate, we're all vulnerable to falling for jobs that trap us in a bait-and-switch situation.

The people recruiting you are charming and witty, and they have the data (or so it seems) to steer you in their direction. Perhaps you hate your current job, don't have one or are generally mesmerized by what a new opportunity brings. But when things seem too good to be true, they usually are.

Still, there's a way to avoid these nightmares and prevent yourself from getting trapped in something you didn't sign up for. Using Watson, Aceves, Jacobowitz's — and my own — real-life job catfish experiences, I applied my journalistic skills to vetting employers — going through the motions of a job search as if it were an ongoing investigation to see if these warning signs could be identified and avoided before joining the company.

Related: The New Job-Hunting Checklist

We all know Glassdoor, and although it can be helpful, it can also serve as a vehicle for catfish employers to mask their motives with fake reviews — let alone smaller companies that might not even have a profile or enough data to provide an accurate assessment. If you want to job search like a reporter, you're going to have to dig a little deeper. Here's what I found:

Take note of red flags

Take notes during your job hunt, both before the interview and throughout the hiring process. By consciously writing down any findings that seem questionable, you'll have something to reference if you get the offer but still have concerns.

  • Turnover trends: Do some research on previous employees on LinkedIn. See if there are any patterns — how long do people normally stay at the company? When they leave, is there a trend regarding where they go?
  • Diversity: Check if there's a pattern regarding the age, race or ethnicity of people who work there. Aceves recalls various instances where his former employer made off-handed and problematic remarks about Asian employees and clients. Sure enough, all the employees listed on the company's LinkedIn page appeared to be the same race as his former boss. Diversity is crucial, especially if you're already on the fence.
  • Professionalism: During the interview, pay attention to how the employer talks about current employees and, if applicable, whoever you are replacing. A surefire red flag is if they talk poorly about a former employee. Sure, things happen, and relationships turn sour. But professionalism is still absolutely crucial during the hiring process, so take note of any time it begins to waver.
  • Inconsistencies: Take note of any inconsistencies between the job description and what's discussed in the interview. If either one is vague or seems contradictory to the other, it likely means that the employer or company isn't clear about what the position entails, which means you might end up doing something you didn't sign up for.
  • Urgency: If an employer is being overly aggressive or pushing you to make a quick decision after sending an offer letter, it's wise to run in the other direction. Stable companies that value you will give you a reasonable amount of time to make your decision after you've been offered the job.

Related: When My Company Had High Turnover of New Employees, I Realized the Problem Was Me

Vetting the hirers

First, do an extensive search on any information readily available online — their job history, social media and presentation on company websites. If it seems like there are gaps, take note of any questions you have for them, or ones that could be answered by doing more in-depth research.

  • TruthFinder: Use online resources to do a more extensive background check. Websites like TruthFinder let you do a public record search, where you can see court history, criminal records and other information scoured from the web. Fair warning: It does take upwards of 15 minutes, so be patient, and it costs about $30 a month — but it does deliver what it promises (in painstaking detail). Pro tip: If you're really in the throes of your job hunt, it has a slightly cheaper version that's only one month, but you get unlimited searches.
  • PACER: As far as free resources, there's PACER, which lets you search court records by state. This one is a bit trickier to navigate, but if you have a hunch and know the employer's business address, you can search by the city of jurisdiction and see if they've ever filed for bankruptcy or been sued.

Vetting the company

If you're in the early stages of applying, an easy way to spot "ghost jobs" is to take note of how long the job has been posted and when it was last updated. If it's been more than a month, it's wise to run in the other direction, because companies attempt to feign growth by keeping up postings for positions that have either been filled or don't exist at all.

Related: Employers Are Posting 'Ghost Jobs' But Not Really Hiring -- And Annoying Job Seekers Along the Way

Next, spend a good amount of time on the company site. How legitimate are the testimonials, if there are any? Does the company have a clear mission and values? Here's an easy test: If it seems like the company's mission statement or "about" page could apply to a multitude of services or work, it's likely not very cohesive in its values. You don't want to work somewhere with a flimsy mission that lacks clarity. When it comes to researching a company, focus on specificity and nuance, not a groovy-looking landing page.

It's easy to create fake addresses and phone numbers, so if you want to check the legitimacy of a business, contact the local chamber of commerce associated with the company to ensure it exists.

When it comes to financials, if the company is publicly traded, quarterly reports are available through an easy Google search — this will give you a window into how well the company is performing. If this is new to you, Investopedia has a killer guide to decoding an earnings report.

Related: Red Flags You Should Look for in Quarterly Earnings Reports

If the company is privately owned, financial health is a bit more difficult to suss out, given the company is not required to share financial reports like publicly traded companies. However, there are a few alternatives to gauge a private company's stability.

  • Investors: Many privately owned companies are backed by investors, especially startups. Do some deep research on the company to see if there's been any press releases or news regarding any investors backing the company, and see what other businesses they've supported in the past.
  • CB Insights: This is a great resource to check financials for both private and public companies. The database itself is huge, so chances are likely that the company you're applying to will be listed. CB Insights gives you detailed transaction history of funding, investors, board members and even a window into the company's web traffic. You can sign up for a seven-day free trial with unlimited searches.
  • Don't be afraid to ask: If you move far enough along in the interview process and haven't successfully gauged the company's financial state, don't be shy about asking how their last quarter was, and if there are any reports or projections for growth they can share.

Interview those from inside

Although the internet has myriad resources to vet possible employers and companies, the best — and cheapest — source is a direct one.

Reach out to former employees if their information is available on LinkedIn or the company site. Although you can ask questions during the interview process, catfish employers are unlikely to show their true colors, and you're going to want to ensure you speak to someone who will be honest about the culture and work environment. Don't be shy about making an introduction and asking for more information. Here's an easy message template:

Hey, X,

I saw you have experience working with Y. I'm on the job hunt right now and weighing my options, I was wondering if you'd be open to answering a few questions I have about Y and the work culture before I make my decision.

Best,

Z

It can seem daunting, but the truth is most people are kind and willing to help. Of all the individuals I interviewed, the number one thing they wish they could have done before taking their positions was to talk to former employees, and they stated they'd be more than willing to warn others in the future. Anyone who has ever been in a nightmare employment situation will not be shy about steering you in the right direction.

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