Watch Out for Phony Interviews

Some companies use those and other ruses to get free consulting

By Dirk Willard, Contributing Editor

They really must like me, she thought. Even the recruiter who sent her to the company was impressed: the interview lasted over two hours. She had answered all the questions the firm had about her expertise in a particular area of pharmaceuticals. Yet, a week went by and nobody got back to her or the recruiter. Finally, the company called to say it wasn’t hiring.

Sadly, this isn’t the only story I know of using an interview for a nonexistent job to pick the brain of a “candidate.” It’s a common experience in information technology (IT) and research. I’ve heard of PhDs giving dissertations they thought were interviews only to be left on a string.

Unfortunately, unethical companies feel they can exploit the job market to get insights for free instead of paying for consulting.

To avoid being a victim, you might start by identifying the company’s business pain, i.e., why a recruiter contacted you. Perhaps, the firm can’t figure out what’s wrong with its fluid bed reactors or the performance of a key distillation column isn’t consistent. Maybe it doesn’t have a specialist in freeze-drying. Once upon a time, companies hired knowledgeable contractors to solve their problems. Now, in desperation or because they’re cheap, some unscrupulous firms opt to bring in one expert after another in fake interviews to glean insights so they can train their engineers.

A better approach than waiting for the company to get to its business pain is to identify other areas in your background that address items it should value. If the firm isn’t the least bit interested, that’s a red flag. Talk this through with the recruiter. If the recruiter sends more people back to that company, don’t deal with that recruiter again.

Try this as a tactic: ask why the company is interested in you. Inquire about which of your personal traits drew the firm to you. A real interview should delve into who you are and how you fit in an organization, not just your unique expertise. Be wary if you only get unconvincing or canned responses.

Multiple interviews provide another warning sign that you’re being had. IT companies like this trick. I read of one candidate finally refusing a fourth face-to-face interview after he remembered being in a room with several people who scribbled vigorously while never asking him any questions. Think of how much time this consumes — three interviews and probably two to three months.

Sometimes, a company does have an opening but deliberately draws out the hiring process. This often benefits human resources (HR) managers and even company executives. HR managers gain because they can rewrite the job description: the more candidates they meet, the better they understand the job and the better candidate they ultimately can recruit. Company executives win because they can eliminate a position if left open for an extended period, say, more than four months, because somebody is filling in. Recruiters and engineers both suffer from this practice. However, the recruiter at least can continue to send other candidates; the job hunter is completely out of luck.

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A more familiar form of exploitation doesn’t target you directly. Instead, it involves posting a question in a LinkedIn group or other sites that have engineers as members. You’re probably familiar with such queries. Someone asks how to properly purge a line with nitrogen for a hot tap or something like that. Engineers love a challenging question where they can show off their expertise. Bingo! Free advice.

Now, I’m certainly not against helping others by sharing technical expertise this way. That’s why I regularly contribute to CP’s Process Puzzler,  and why the many experts in CP’s online “Ask the Experts Forum,” offer advice.

If answering a query doesn’t require a lot work and time, do it. On the other hand, some people posting questions request detailed calculations or follow up repeatedly with additional questions. Don’t waste your time and become their unpaid consultant. Either ignore these requests or simply tell the people that you get paid for your experience and knowledge.

dirk.jpgDIRK WILLARD is a Chemical Processing contributing editor. He recently won recognition for his Field Notes column from the ASBPE. Chemical Processing is proud to have him on board. You can e-mail him at

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