Recruitment musings

The thin line between lies and spin from sales candidates

I always liked this saying (and I paraphrase): “Never lie because then you never have to remember what you said to anyone”. Remembering what lies you told to who can be tricky and is likely to trip you up eventually so, as a candidate in the recruitment process (and in life !) you should follow that advice to the letter. A certain amount of spin/salesmanship on your background is almost expected in recruiting sales professionals (Selling is their job, after all – more on spin later), but outright lying is plain wrong and, although still rare enough, it still happens, and often by people that should know far better. Before you even think of going down that dangerous path, here is a friendly reminder of the two areas where we see people get tempted to lie…. and how they get tripped up.

  1. Saying you are still working somewhere when you are not.

There is no doubt you are in a far stronger negotiating position being gainfully employed than not, but, even though there is a generally accepted principle of not calling on your current employer for references/verification of employment as you are still there, there are two ways you get tripped up by lying about your current employment status.

a) Back-hand references.

This is increasingly a common occurrence. I previously covered off that topic here. There is rarely an audit trail for such unofficial references, but a contradiction to your declared employment status from a secret 3rd party will kill your job chances stone dead and you will likely never know what happened!

b) Recruiters’ multi-dimensional perspective.

If you were the victim of a RIF, chances are that specialist recruiters in your area will have smelled blood in the water and will be all over your previous employers’ people. 3rd party ex-colleagues can and do inadvertently let slip the names of people let go, re-org’d or removed including yours! As an outside recruiter representing an employer who pays for our services (and therefore officially works for them, not you) we can’t un-hear contradictions to what you told us so please don’t put us in that awkward position

2. Lying about your base salary, OTE and W2 earnings.

This is pretty common in Sales recruiting but tends to happen more with junior candidates who haven’t fully thought through a thorough Sales VP breaking down their numbers. It also often happens in a stealthy fashion with questions that start with base salary in isolation of overall package. People throw out a high base number and get caught out when asked for the rest of their package. Again there are two common ways that liars get caught with their pants down here.

a) w2 requests.

Not everyone goes for “Top Grading” for sales approaches of asking candidates for their W2 stubs but some do and, if they don’t match up to what you told them, you are going to have some explaining to do. W2s don’t lie. Best to avoid that scenario. ; – )

b) Not being on top of your performance numbers.

There is a pretty standard pattern to sales compensation and ratios of base salaries to OTE. We covered that off in an article a few years back in an article about the perils of being overpaid. When people lie about their base salary to boost their baseline for negotiation, they often forget about the logical ties of their base to OTE and w2 ratios (and the ties between your OTE and w2 ratio and your performance versus quota). For example, it is logical that someone with a 100k base / 200k OTE and 240k W2 probably hit somewhere between 110-130% above quota. If someone on a 100k base lies that they are on a $125k base salary and hit 120% of quota, a good client-side interviewer will try and break down their quota performance and w2 claims to see if it stacks up to logic and reverse engineering. For example, a 200k w2 performance claim in this case, is going to put up major red flags because the normal 1:2 ratio of base to OTE at that base level are totally off, and it implies the w2 was less than the OTE despite quota overachievement. The second lesson here is to ALWAYS be on top of your sales performance and comp numbers.

Hopefully, that might put off those who are thinking that “honesty is the best policy” doesn’t apply to them.

The Spin Zone

Sales spin from candidates, on the other hand, is almost to be expected in dealing with sellers. So what are the acceptable areas for “spin” in the sales recruiting process (and what do recruiters need to look out for here)?

For me, this is all about candidates articulating themselves better for the job at hand. This is where the candidate describes themselves verbally, in interviews, or in writing (on Linkedin and on resumes) in a manner that more closely matches the job at hand. They put their best foot and story forward on why they are a fit in these 5 areas:

a) Function

Here they might tweak titles to give themselves a title that is more functionally apt (real titles can be clarified later or in parenthesis). This definitely applies to reactively being found by recruiters on Linkedin. For example, if your firm uses “Brand Strategist” as a euphemism for sales, it is better to put Sales Director or equivalent somewhere on your title field in LinkedIn and on your resume.

b) Industry-orientation.

In the Marketing technology arena, this is becoming increasingly important in the era of large Marketing Cloud companies. Niche companies want to know that you know their area from the broad fog of the “Marketing cloud” so it is important that you break it out your knowledge of various industry spaces in your resume and Linkedin profile and focus on those to the detriment of others you have experience with, in interviews with niche firms.

c) Vertical orientation.

If a job is focused on a particular vertical, it is ok to draw out your experience, closed deals and client relationships that tie in better to that vertical to the detriment of other verticals you may have worked on in the past.

d. Location.

This has more to do with the limitations of recruiters using tools like LinkedIn for searching and candidates that are outside of a certain radius of a major city. To level the playing field, and to make themselves findable to recruiters looking for regional sales roles, I think it is ok for these candidates to “bait and switch” recruiters by claiming to be in cities more likely to be targeted for regional roles – especially when the hiring firms are actually open to remote candidates in-region. To save time for everyone involved, the right time to ‘fess up to your true abode, however, is when you respond to the initial outreach from a recruiter. They will quickly let you know if your location will work or not for that particular job.

e. Total Years of experience.

This applies to more senior candidates. I am a firm believer that anything beyond 20 years’ experience should either be grouped in “Other experience” without dates or dropped off a resume altogether. In technology sales, most of this experience applies to outdated technologies and often hurts the candidates more than it helps them. Senior candidates can also remove their graduation year if preferred.

f. SaaS sales orientation.

When you are interviewing with a Saas firm that sells cloud-based software on a monthly recurring basis, they want to know that you have previously sold software in that way. Different firms in my particular area of focus (marketing and ecommerce technology), have different external perceptions on their “saas-iness”. It is expected that Candidates with lighter SaaS experience draw out the parallels to that way of selling in their background.

Those are what I would deem the acceptable areas for spin in sales recruiting, but the key here is not to be misleading. The real experience must back up the spin. That separates true spin from true lies.

I am interested to hear other scenarios  I have missed or recruiters have witnessed in the comments section.

Here’s to hoping this article puts off anyone tempted to bend the truth past breaking- point in the hiring process and encourages them to stay within the limits of the spin zone!