For any of you who have taken a gander at my LinkedIn profile, you might notice a brief gap between my first job out of university, and my second job where I joined a recruitment agency. It looks like I didn’t do anything during that time, but the truth is, I did – however, I have been too embarrassed to tell the truth: I fell for a graduate recruitment scam.

Given that here in the UK this year’s cohort of graduates is in the process of entering the workforce, I thought it would be timely to share my story and provide some insights on how graduates can avoid job scams.

What is a job scam?

When I left university, I went to join a new business that the father of a friend of mine was starting up. It involved selling nail guns, nails, and other fixing supplies to the building industry – obviously a natural career choice for someone with a BA in English Literature! But, I really enjoyed it – the work was massively varied (I built both the racking in the warehouse, and much of the company website using a CMS), and I thought that getting in early would stand me in good stead for promotions. Unfortunately, this was during the time when the recession was in full swing, and the construction industry took some massive hits. The resulting downturn in sales meant there wasn’t enough money for the owner to keep me on, and so, with regret on both sides, he had to let me go. So, I found myself without a job, competing not only against the 2010 graduate cohort, but also the 2009 graduates who had struggled to find work due to the economic downturn.

I followed all the advice; I rewrote my CV for each job I applied to, to tailor it to the requirements, I spent hours a day on job sites, and dedicated all my time to finding a new job. I had a couple of interviews, but didn’t get that far. Then, I found an advert for a graduate job, promising rapid promotions, good earnings, and the chance to run an office within a couple of years. As I mentioned in my last post, university students are told that our degrees are the key to high paying jobs, responsibility, promotions etc., so it sounded right – it sounded like what I had been promised. I applied, and to my surprise got a call back within 15 minutes offering me an interview the following day. I tried researching the company but couldn’t find much. There was a website, but all it contained was an explanation that they were looking for graduates with the drive to succeed, and advice for graduates on interview tips. That should have been my first alarm bell; why didn’t they have a website establishing who they were, and what they do?

When I went to the interview, I was told it would be a two stage interview, and if I passed the first stage, I would be invited back for the second stage. However, the first interview was (as I now know) very unusual – I was asked very few questions, and most of it was the interviewer telling me about my prospects, my potential to earn, how soon I could be opening up my own office etc. You, savvy reader, are probably aware that this is a common feature of pyramid schemes – “recruitment” events which are essentially pitching a too-good-to-be-true opportunity. But, I didn’t know that. When I confirmed that I was interested, I was told to come back the next day for an all-day interview.

The all-day interview involved going out with a senior member of the team, into the field – it was at this point that I learned what the work was; door-to-door sales. This should have been a massive warning flag; how could it be that I only found out what I would be doing at the second interview?! The interview was also used as a sales pitch; the senior member kept boasting about how rapidly she had been promoted, how soon she would have her own office, running her own sales teams, how much she earned, and how much I could earn. At the end of the day, at 9pm, I was taken back to the office and given a final interview with the head of the office, where I was told I would only get the job if I agreed to start tomorrow – more high pressure “sales” tactics to beware of.

What was the scam?

The scam was that it was a way of getting people into door-to-door sales; in my case, selling energy deals (or “consulting”, as they put it, to make it seem more graduate appropriate) on behalf of one of the big 6 energy firms. Door-to-door sales is a pretty horrible job, with a massive employee turnover. I assumed I was being taken on as an employee of the company I had interviewed with, but when I asked where my contract was, a week or so in, I was informed that I was in fact self-employed (again, something I was not told), and therefore not eligible for any benefits, holiday, or really any legal protection whatsoever – I was assuming all of the liability for the work. Furthermore, despite the many, many lectures I had received on how much I would be earning per week, they never mentioned that the earnings were completely commission-based, with no basic salary; a lie by omission. Legitimate commission-only jobs are typically VERY upfront about this from the outset.

The company kept myself and the other employees motivated by having lectures every morning, telling us how much they wanted to get us out of the field, get us promoted, get us running our own offices. It was essentially a pyramid scheme; all they wanted was a free source of labour for the door-to-door sales, and for every deal I made, I got a pittance (around £15), whilst the company pocketed the majority of the commission from the energy firm. It took me over a month, but once I sat down and worked out how little I was earning, and how much all the commuting was costing me (not to mention the long working hours – I worked from 9am to 9pm every day), I realised that I had been diddled. I called up the head of the office, told him that I wouldn’t be coming in the next day, and never heard back from him. This, if it was needed, would have been the final warning flag: in a proper job, you can’t just walk away like that without notice.

I was then very lucky to find a great recruitment firm hiring, and was able to at least use the sales experience I had gained to help me in my interview. However, I have since taken the experience off my CV, and have never put it on my LinkedIn, because I still feel ashamed at falling for a scheme – admittedly, a very clever one. Of course, self-employed, or commission-only, sales-based jobs do exist, but the difference is that when it is a legitimate job, the company would be upfront about it from the outset, not seeking to deceive and mislead. This scheme was so successful because it knew that graduates were struggling to find work, and knew precisely how to sell itself to a new graduate.

So, for all you graduates who are currently looking for work, here are some hints on what to look out for, to avoid falling for a scam of your own:

  • Does the company have a proper website, with descriptions of what they do?
  • Does the job advert actually tell you what you are doing, what your responsibilities will be, and what the salary will be?
  • Look at the job advert: is it a very long sales description that seems too good to be true (“You can earn £££ every week!!”)?
  • When they interview you, who spends most of the time talking: you, or them?
  • Will they give you a formal contract?
  • Are you being asked to pay any money up front? (This didn’t happen to me, but often does. This should NEVER happen.)

Unfortunately, job scams do exist, and there are scammers who have realised that graduates are an easy target, because of the promises we were made about what our degrees will get us; rapid success, and a high powered, high paying job. Ultimately, the best advice I can give is the same advice given about any scam: does it seem far too good to be true? If so, it’s probably a scam.

RELATED: Job Scams and How to Avoid Them

Andrew Fairley has recently completed an MA in Management with The York Management School, focusing on strategy, innovation, HR, and organisational behaviour, and has just begun a PhD investigating the UK internet startup industry. Prior to this, he spent 2 years as a Recruitment Consultant, working with clients from SMEs to blue-chips, sourcing IT staff.  You can find him on Twitter or LinkedIn.