October 28, 2010

Scam Hiring Practices

There were disturbing and amazing revelations this week about the hiring policies of companies in the Silicon Valley, the ones that hire techies. I received a call from “Aaron,” a recent computer engineering graduate. He wanted to let me know that he had received a great job in algorithm analysis with Walmart Corporation in Arkansas. He is quite pleased with the opportunity. He will be moving to a State with a significantly lower cost of living.

But before he got the job with Walmart, he had a very disturbing experience with another company. He wanted me to warn others. Aaron learned something really important about how to distinguish a good company from a bad company by the way they treat you during the hiring process. Aaron was the victim of a hiring scam.

Aaron was interviewed by a company in Palo Alto named Milo. The interview process was rigorous. He did 2 phone interviews: one with HR and one with the technical staff. After he passed the interview phase, he was required to submit a coding challenge (like a programming contest problem). This is typical for companies and is usually followed by a final, on-site interview. He passed the code challenge easily. However, this particular company wanted him to work for a week as a “trial period,” at a greatly reduced salary (1/3 to 1/2 compared to regular employees). They told him they were going to put him up in a hotel for five nights while he worked on-site at the company.

When Aaron checked in to the hotel, he learned that the company had paid for only a three night reservation. He figured that the hotel reservation thing would be worked out later. Remember: this was supposed to be a week-long trial period, and he was supposed to be given a job at the end.

Aaron worked slavishly for three days and completed extensive Python programming. He learned a lot during the week, working 55 hours to deliver not just the code, but also the unit tests for the work he did. He got along with everyone, and as far as he could tell, they were very pleased with his work.

At the end of each day, someone looked over his work. At the end of three days, they had a group code review. They sat him down in a conference room with four people and put his code on a projector. They said they had a few things they wanted him to fix, which he did. Then they asked him if he could stay a couple more days to develop the unit test code. They wanted him to stay in a hotel at his own expense (like at $200 per night).

Aaron could not afford to stay, so he came home to Sacramento and finished the work here. He was supposed to be meeting the CEO the next week to seal up the employment deal. Everything was looking really good.

Aaron sent an email with the final work product ... and then he waited. They never called him back. He called them on the phone numbers they had given him, but the phone numbers didn’t work. It ended up taking him another 3 weeks to get any money out of the company for the work he did. Except for the three nights in a hotel, they didn’t pay any of his expenses.

Aaron had to fight with them to get paid for the work he did, and they never offered him a job. Looking back, Aaron believes that the company never had any intention of hiring him. They didn’t want him. They wanted the code and they got it.

While he worked for them, he stopped looking for any other jobs. He was too busy "working". When he finally realized that he had been used, he had to do a complete restart on his job search. The work was a challenge and Aaron learned some things while doing it, but still, they took advantage of him.

Yesterday, another computer science graduate student stopped by to ask me about a “great opportunity” she had found on Craig’s list. The company, psd2css Online, described itself as a “dynamic and growing” outfit in Menlo Park, “a tight outfit of successful start-up professionals.” On Craig’s List, the company indicated that the pay was competitive. So they offered her a job and told her it would be an “unpaid internship.”

It was the same thing Aaron encountered: they wanted someone to come and work for nothing. The only difference was that after they teased her with “full compensation and equity options based on negotiations and experience,” they told the truth and said they weren’t actually offering any money at all.

With the job market the way it’s been, there are a lot of people who are anxious or desperate to land that big opportunity, a great job with a great company. That’s exactly what WalMart gave Aaron. But along the way, he learned that there are many companies out there that don’t deserve to be in business and probably won’t be in a few more months or a few more years.

Any company that tries to take advantage of you at the outset is never going to be a good company to work for. That’s not how successful corporations operate. Successful companies that are serious about hiring you will pay for all of the expenses you incur while interviewing, and they won’t try to squeeze any work out of you before they give you the job. Any company that tries to take advantage of you right from the start is just going to continue to abuse you after you are hired. And they’re probably going to treat their customers the same way, guaranteeing failure and bankruptcy.

The market is definitely picking up ... high tech companies are hiring. You have talent and that talent is worth something. If a company cannot see the value you bring based on interviews, resume and work samples, they are never going to see it at all. If they are serious about hiring, they won’t be trying to get you to start work before you’re hired.

You have talent. You need to know what you are worth. You are a serious job seeker. Make sure you are interviewing with a serious organization. Don’t get caught in a scam. Make sure your are paying attention!