Plagiarism in Recruiting

Earlier this month, user /u/appyzza posted to /r/recruitinghell that an application they had filed was rejected due to allegations they had plagiarized an “answer to one of our questions from a post on the internet.”

This ended up being a mistake. After the user denied copying (nothing that it would be easier to have ChatGPT to generate text rather than copy it), the company wrote back to clarify that the previous email was in error and that the wrong rejection reason had been given.

But while that one was a mistake, checking for plagiarism has become an increasing concern for companies and recruiters. The reasons for this are many, but they all come back to wanting to make sure that applicants are who they say they are and that the assessment of their skills and abilities is both accurate and fair.

Simply put, the recruiting process has become increasingly digitized over the past few decades, which is something of a double-edged sword when it comes to plagiarism. On one hand, it makes committing plagiarism much easier, especially when the candidate is not physically in the office. 

On the other hand, it also makes plagiarism detection much easier, enabling the use of software and other tools to detect suspicious work.

So what kinds of plagiarism are recruiters looking for and what should they be looking for moving forward? 

To that end, there are a few key areas that seem to be drawing the most attention and criticism.

The Problem of Plagiarism in Recruiting

When it comes to plagiarism concerns in recruiting, there are three areas that receive the most attention.

  1. CVs/Cover Letters/Correspondence: For most candidates, the first contact they have with a recruiter is them submitting a CV/Resume, often with a cover letter. There is often written correspondence with the recruiter after that. Some candidates do plagiarize this material, especially if they are unfamiliar with what is expected of them.
  2. Tests and Challenges: Many companies require a candidate to undergo certain tests for their position. These are especially common in computer programming or similarly technical positions, where programming challenges are very common. However, other candidates may have to take knowledge tests, answer long form questions or create sample works to prove competency. These present an opportunity to plagiarize, especially if the test is being taken remotely.
  3. Portfolio and Previous Work: In many positions, especially creative ones, candidates can be required to show a portfolio or otherwise present previous work. However, it’s often easy for candidates to just copy the work of others and pass it off as their own.

Of the three areas, the first receives, by far, the least attention. Though plagiarism of cover letters may be possible and even common, there’s an understanding that such letters are fairly stock and would likely have significant overlap even if they are original.

More importantly, at this phase of the recruitment process, a candidate isn’t very far along and the time to perform such a check simply isn’t worthwhile at that stage.

Instead, the lion’s share of the focus has been on the second part, ensuring that candidates are being authentic when completing tests and challenges. 

This has been especially noteworthy with coding jobs, with a slew of companies offering coding challenges for businesses to use when considering candidates. Those challenges often come with built-in cheat reduction tools and software to detect copied code. 

However, as /u/appyzza’s case illustrated, companies are also looking at whether candidates plagiarized answers to questionnaires and/or sample content supposedly written for the application are original.

The reasons for checking at this stage are obvious. At this point, the candidate pool has likely been reduced drastically and the time/expense required to check for plagiarism is relatively small when compared to the time/expense of the test in the first place.

However, it’s the final area that may need more attention. Though not every job requires presenting a portfolio of past work, for those that do, it’s a crucial part of the hiring process.

It’s easy for candidates to fake an attractive portfolio. It’s as simple as copying and pasting other work found online and presenting it as their own. They can do this with relative confidence because very few businesses check for plagiarism in the portfolio and, those that do, often can’t check every piece of work in it.

This is a shame because, often times, this is actually the easiest plagiarism to catch, especially for visual and textual works. Using a reverse image search, such as Google Image Search, or putting a few lines into a search engine can give a quick warning that a work may be plagiarized.

These are imperfect systems, but they are approaches that can be done by anyone, regardless of technical expertise, and they are free tools that are available to the public. All that is required is the time.

That, however, is the problem. No matter when in the hiring process that the candidate’s portfolio became relevant, checking it takes time, and that is something recruiters rarely have large amounts of. So they would either find themselves spending lots of time checking portfolios for candidates without a real shot, or spending less time but risking having to eliminate an otherwise promising candidate that has been through most of the process.

It’s a difficult choice, but it’s a balance that businesses do need to reach.

The AI Problem

In their original post, /u/appyzza pointed out a fairly significant problem when it comes to plagiarism in recruiting: The rise of generative AI.

If there’s little stopping candidates from copying and pasting previous works of humans, there’s even less stopping them from simply generating what they need.

Whether it’s cover letters, resumes, answers to questions, sample writings, answers to coding questions, images for a portfolio or almost anything else in the hiring process, there’s likely an AI system that can generate it for the candidate.

To make matters worse, tools to detect AI-generated works are far from reliable. Though they can certainly help and may raise alarms, they are far from being reliable enough to rely on exclusively. They need, at the very least, to be paired with secondary approaches that ensure false positives don’t unfairly end a candidate’s consideration.

That said, this is a space that is in heavy flux right now. The capabilities of both AI systems and AI detectors are changing, and new research is coming out all the time. 

The important thing is to realize that checking for plagiarism is no longer just about checking to see if a work was copied, but to see if it was generated by an AI system. Either way, the candidate is presenting a work as their own when they did not make it. This is both lying to you and creating a false understanding of the candidate’s competency in the field.

Whether they use AI or traditional copy and paste, it’s important to know if a candidate is a plagiarist before they become an employee. A plagiarist as a candidate is annoying, but a plagiarist as an employee is an active liability, in multiple meanings of that word. 

Bottom Line

When talking about plagiarism in recruiting, one question comes up a lot: Why should businesses care? If a candidate gets the correct answer, does it really matter where they got it from? 

For some jobs, that may not be an unreasonable view. The skills to apply, answer questions and go through the process may not overlap well with the skills required for the job itself, making plagiarism less of an issue. 

But, if that’s the case, then why are companies using hiring processes where the process doesn’t reflect the actual job? If a candidate cheats or otherwise takes unethical shortcuts during the hiring process, shouldn’t it be a warning not only that the candidate isn’t fully honest, but also that they are likely not qualified?

If companies are going to set up these extensive hiring processes, it makes sense to ensure that candidates go through them authentically. This means reducing cheating on tests and detecting when candidates have plagiarized.

To make matters worse, a candidate that plagiarizes during the recruitment process not only raises serious questions about their ethics, but becomes a potential liability (legally and ethically) when they become a plagiarizing employee.

In short, it’s important to know that candidates are who they say they are and that they did the things they said they did. Anything short of that short circuits the recruiting process and sets up serious issues down the road. 

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