Theft at Interviews: Seven Prudent Precautions

“An ounce of mother is worth a pound of clergy.”

– Spanish Proverb

 ACTUAL CASE HISTORIES*: Amanda, 36, was a successful graphic artist with a solid resume in the magazine publishing world. As “old media” opportunities were diminishing, she felt a strong need to gain some “new media” experience in order to stay employable. A great opportunity seemed to come her way when, through her networking efforts, she was asked to interview for a full-time position as Art Director with a leading fashion-oriented website.

Her first interview went extremely well. Over coffee and croissants, Amanda and the website’s three senior managers discussed Amanda’s ideas and suggestions for future development of the website, including her ideas of how the “home page” might be redesigned. Amanda also raised the notion of creating a fashion-oriented mobile “App,” and something she had heard of called a “Digital Try-On Room” that would allow website visitors to, in effect, try on various fashion items, as if they were in a store. The discussions were informal, lively and a lot of fun. “If this is what the job would be like,” Amanda told her husband later that evening, “Just sign me up.”

At the end of her three-hour initial interview, Amanda was asked to come back the next week for a “final interview” with the website’s principal investor, who would make the final decision about the terms of a job offer. For that meeting, she was asked to make a “detailed digital work-up” of the ideas they had discussed for review by the website’s principal investor prior to the “final interview” meeting. To use her words, Amanda was “ready to start this new chapter of her life.”

As requested, Amanda did a detailed digital work-up of the “home page” redesign, the mobile “App,” and “Digital Try-On Room.” In order to really impress the principal investor, Amanda purchased and used the best available web-design software, and produced truly polished drawings. By working the entire weekend, she managed to transmit her drawings three days before her scheduled meeting.    

Because the principal investor was called away on business, Amanda’s “final interview” had to be postponed one week. The next week the “final interview” was again postponed, without reason. Three days later Amanda received by way of email the unfortunate news that the website investor had decided to hire someone else for the job.

Worse – and more unfortunate – was that three weeks later Amanda saw her detailed drawings of the homepage redesign, her mobile “App,” and the “Digital Try-On Room” beautifully displayed on the website, without payment to her, without credit due her, and without so much as a “Thank you.”  

LESSON TO LEARN: Interviews are supposed to be just that: “inter – views” by employees and employers to determine the feasibility of their working together. They are not intended to be opportunities for theft of (a) creative efforts, (b) names of clients or customers, (c) business strategies of the applicant’s present employer, or (d) other things of significant business value.   

Yet clients report being asked for confidential information, and for substantial efforts, as well, during the interview process. These requests often come without warning, or an opportunity to consider carefully. And these requests seem difficult for an eager interviewee to turn down without fear of loss of the job opportunity.   

One client was even asked by an interviewer to bring to the next interview a computer printout of clients she commonly sold to. In many states, such as New York, to provide such a client list would be a crime punishable by imprisonment.

During your own interviewing, be prepared to deal with such requests, because falling prey to them could cost you valuable time, valuable ideas, and even your present job.

WHAT YOU CAN DO: Here are Seven Prudent Precautions you can take to prevent “Theft at Interviews”:

1. Consider how you will respond to such requests long before the interview: In all your job-search efforts, including preparation of resumes, assembly of portfolios, discussions with recruiters, and during interviews, you should consider, and plan for, your need to protect creativity and confidentiality. While resumes and portfolios show your potential value, don’t offer more than you feel is appropriate. And be prepared with your anticipated responses to potential requests that may be inappropriate, “over the line,” or downright improper.

2. Discussions of your present employer’s thoughts, plans or strategies should be “Steered to the Vague”: There are two challenges in this regard: first, recognizing if this is happening; second, dealing with it. Casual conversational inquiries such as “What kind of work have you been doing these past 12 months?” or “Were you involved in the Universal deal?” can, if you are not careful, lead pretty quickly into confidential details of your present employment, and  confidential information about ongoing matters. If that happens, and it somehow comes to light, you could lose your present job as a result.

If you’re an investment banker, don’t even refer to transactions under even earliest discussion, or even speculation. If you’re a music producer, don’t discuss talent you think may be “the next big thing,” especially if you or your employer is considering a pitch to sign the act. If you’re a sales director, don’t discuss new software platforms your employer is presently considering for identifying new potential customers. Any of these could get you fired from your present job. Instead, do your best to speak only about your view of industry directions, popular trends, and software structures, and of general matters not specifically in “play” where you work. 

Two “guideposts” here: Try to stick to (1) what is publicly known or available, and (2) past, old, or stale information, as contrasted with future, present or ongoing activities.

3. Requests for Confidential Information should be politely denied: Every now and then a recruiter or an interviewer may come right out and ask you to divulge information that you know is “not their business.” The best thing to do is to tell yourself that they are merely testing you, to see if you are someone who can be easily fooled; show them you are not, and, too, that you are adept at handling sensitive situations.

“While I can’t share my employer’s Retail Jewelry Customer List with you, for reasons of confidentiality, I can, of course, share with you what is publicly known about that subject. In fact, there was a fascinating article on the changing nature of the retail jewelry business in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal.”

4. Creative Efforts should be “Stamped as Owned”: If submitting samples of work, drawings, or other creative efforts, make sure that your work contains prominently displayed “stamps of ownership,” such as:

“For Interview Purposes – Not to be Reproduced or Used for any Purpose without Prior Written Consent of John Watson.”

For written materials, you should prominently display “© 2011 Your Name – All Rights Reserved” on each page. Also, when sharing your ideas with others, do so in writing – whether it is hand-delivered, mailed or emailed doesn’t matter – and in that writing also put “Protected and Proprietary Original Material of Wanda Jones.” 

While not 100% guaranteed to prevent unauthorized use, these “stamps as owned” will send the message you need to convey.   

Attending an Interview? Asked for a Presentation? Received a Job Offer? Protect Your Pre-Existing Creations with these Two Model Letters (One for Requested Presentations at Interviews, One for All Other Pre-Existing Creations.) If interested, just [click here.] They show you “What to Say, and How to Say It.”™ Delivered by Email – Instantly!

5. Substantial Creative Efforts should be “Paid For and Credited”: Every now and then interviewers may ask you to devote substantial efforts – tens of hours – to a piece of work that shows your abilities. Especially if you are a freelancer, don’t fear requesting that, if it is to be used for any purpose other than evaluation of your work, that it first requires your consent and a price to be paid. You might even suggest a price now, or that your efforts should be both (a) paid for, and (b) given appropriate credit.

“While I do want to be considered for this position, this is the kind of work I do for a living for my clients, and the degree of effort will curtail my ability to attend to their needs. Perhaps we should consider this a contracted piece of work.”

As always you would be wise to make sure that any understandings be memorialized in an email. 

Job Hunting? Equip yourself with positive reference letters. Use our Model Letter to Former Managers and Colleagues Requesting Positive Reference Letters, with Three Sample Reference Letters. It shows you “What to Say, and How to Say It.™ To obtain your copy, just [click here.] Delivered by Email – Instantly!

6. If your interview is to permit you to “pitch” an idea, use appropriate N.D.A.: For some people, an interview is more in the nature of selling what is commonly called a “Value Proposition,” meaning “If you hire me, these are the ways my job will pay for itself.” (To read an article on our blog about “Value Propositions” [click here].) For example, “I think your company is perfectly positioned to fill an unfilled market niche, and I am the person who can do that for you.”

To most easily protect original and valuable ideas, before disclosing them to others, consider sending those people an email in which you request their agreement that any ideas you may share will not be used or divulged to others. You can describe the nature of the idea, the industry it may be used in, and perhaps why it’s unique – just don’t disclose the idea. An email like that, accompanied by a return email that says, in effect, “I agree,” serves as pretty good protection.

Whenever clients plan to “pitch” a business idea or opportunity at interviews or other business meetings, to protect that idea or opportunity from being used, divulged or otherwise “misappropriated” by interviewers or other recipients, we suggest use of a formal “Non-Disclosure Agreement” or an informal “Non-Disclosure Email.”

If you would like to obtain either a “model” formal Non-Disclosure Agreement [click here] or a “model” informal Idea-Protecting Email [click here].

7. Don’t fear acknowledging the sensitivity of the matter: There’s no question that, when interviewing, most people want to make their interviewers “happy,” and are reluctant to say or do anything that might minimize their chances of getting hired. The natural inclination is to tell prospective employers what you think they want to hear, and to do what you think they want you to do. The choice is always yours. But the reality is that your developing careful, prudent habits, along with the courage to stand up for yourself – as a discipline – is what will, in the long run, result in your greatest success.

Want to have or share ownership or authorship rights in creative works you create either at Work, or At Home? We offer Two Model Memos for Employees to Request Ownership/Authorship Rights in what you create at work. If you do, just [click here.] They show you “What to Say, and How to Say It.”™ Delivered by Email – Instantly!

One big part of that valuable discipline is the confidence that enables you to (a) know what you are doing, (b) why you are doing it, and (c) that it is the right thing to do. “Confidence sells, and sells well” is an adage known and admired by all successful people.   

A second big part of developing that valuable discipline is that your prospective employer really does not want to hire someone who can be fooled, bribed or pushed around, because if he or she can do it, others can, as well.

For these reasons, and others, don’t fear acknowledging your uncertainty or unease about the question posed, and your desire to give it some additional thought before answering. Consider the following as a response:

“That’s a great question, but one I’m not entirely certain I can answer at this time without sharing confidential information. I’d like to give that issue some further thought. Do you mind if I don’t answer that question at this moment?”  

Always be proactive.  Always be creative.  Always be persistent.  Always be vigilant. And always do what you can to achieve for yourself, your family, and your career. Take all available steps to increase and secure employment “rewards” and eliminate or reduce employment “risks.” That’s what our SkloverWorkingWisdom™ is all about.

Want to get comfortable with interviewing? Consider viewing our Sklover On Demand Video entitled “Interviewing- Your Three Objectives.” Just sit back, relax, watch and listen. To do so, just [click here.] [jobsearch]  

*A Note About Our Actual Case Histories: In order to preserve client confidences, and protect client identities, we alter certain facts, including the name, age, gender, position, date, geographical location, and industry of our clients. The essential facts, the point illustrated and the lesson to be learned, remain actual.    

Please Note: This Newsletter is not legal advice, but only an effort to provide generalized information about important topics related to employment and the law. Legal advice can only be rendered after formal retention of counsel, and must take into account the facts and circumstances of a particular case. Those in need of legal advice, counsel or representation should retain competent legal counsel licensed to practice law in their locale. 

© 2011, Alan L. Sklover All Rights Reserved. Commercial Use Prohibited.  [Attorney Advertisement]