Geoffrey W. Brown
Human Centered Designer

Things unexpected
All posts | August 10, 2016

How important are your moral convictions when considering a new job opportunity? How should you react when learning about a potential colleague’s behavior that you find morally or ethically unacceptable? How should you react if you learn that a potential colleague has been through due process and has served time, but has lied about certain facts in order to work at the organization that you’re now deeply considering joining?

A somewhat long story

I told myself that by the time we returned from vacation, I’d have made up my mind about where I wanted to work. Systematically, I had narrowed down opportunities in the weeks and days before we flew to Morocco, and then later up the Italian coast and through to the capital of Germany. I had strict internal guidelines that dictated my focusing process. Client facing. Global presence. Tight-knit teams. Research driven. Leadership opportunities. Growth opportunities. The right “culture.” Surprisingly, I had found a place that mapped to many of these checkboxes. I had met the founders and some of the direct team in the weeks before I had left. The work looked great. So did the people.

Jackie and I returned home from vacation on Sunday, the 3rd of July. The 4th was the holiday, and a phone call to my recruiter was scheduled for the 5th. The call went quite well. I was to have two more interviews. As explained by the recruiter, they were simply for my benefit. I was to chat with a remote employee at the end of the week. I was told her name, and after my call ended I looked up her work online. Everything looked good. I found her website through a typical Google search. I found her Twitter feed and Linkedin page. Normal stuff. I was supposed to receive another email in the next day or two scheduling me with the local employee. Not someone specific mind you, just someone who had some free time during the week to meet.

The next day I received my scheduling email during a walk back from the local grocery store. The email was asking if I could meet someone in the SF office the following day. The email specifically mentioned the full and somewhat unique name of the person I was to meet. Normally, in a mobile situation I would have immediately replied, but I was carrying two heavy bags. I noted in my head that I needed to return the email as soon as I got home, and I carried on. Moments later, I receive a text from Jackie telling me that she was receiving suspicious emails in Mandarin from Airbnb, and that she thought her account was hacked and being held for up to $600 worth of accommodation fees. I set both of my bags down and texted her the emergency Airbnb contact number and rushed home.

After about an hour of us dealing with Airbnb and our bank, everything was thankfully rectified. I remembered only then that I needed to reply to my recruiter, confirming the meeting for tomorrow. On a whim, I decided to Google the name of the person I was to meet. I was curious what the internet would yield. I quickly realized that I was not quite ready for what internet would yield. The next few hours after typing in that name to Google were some of the most bizarre hours in my professional career.

What happened next

The first three search results were of typical stock. Website. Twitter. Linkedin. Good. I’ve been in the position of researching the work of design candidates many times in my professional career, so seeing all of these things were fantastic, albeit normal signs. It was the fourth link that got me.

For the sake of all parties involved, I won’t fully elaborate. Effectively, the fourth link presented the story of a child rape case that was excruciating in detail. It also contained a mugshot. The same mugshot that was above the fold on page one of Google search results when searching for this name. It was presented directly next to selfies from Twitter, Facebook and Linkedin. Let me restate: these links and photos were above the fold for a simple search of this person’s name. I didn’t do anything other than type in the name of the person I was supposed to interview with the following day, and hit “return.”

I called my recruiter sheepishly. I mean, what do you say? How do you approach a situation like this? There was zero precedent that I could reliably draw from. Does the company know? Is it actually a different person, despite the obvious facial similarities between pictures online? Was the person falsely accused and was this whole story bullshit? What the hell is going on?

As it turns out, my recruiter was completely unaware. Fully unaware. He was as shocked as (I believe) I was as he replicated what I had searched for and saw the same results for himself. I was promised a call back soon so that he could “get to the bottom of this.”

I was expecting that call back in less than a half-hour. I was expecting to hear that the situation was well understood and that everything could be easily explained. I was expecting to say “oh, of course, that all makes sense” and move right along.

What I received was a call back about three hours later. The delay told me that there were significant issues at play. I was quickly told that my internet sleuthing was spot-on. Indeed, the person I found easily online was in fact a current employee, and that it was the same person I was scheduled to meet tomorrow. In addition, I was told how this whole thing went down within the company. Here’s the gist.

This employee did indeed commit the felony-level crimes that the internet had illuminated. The person in question admitted so much to the recruiter. The person was involved with a minor who was met on the internet who evidently fabricated their age. The involvement lasted over 8 months, and allegedly consisted of the person in question traveling out of the state of California to meet the minor in multiple hotel rooms. The internet further elaborates that after a week long investigation, the person in question was intercepted by out of state detectives and charged with a list of child welfare related offenses. The person in question was subsequently convicted and went to jail for two years, followed by two more years of probation. Said person evidently had little risk of future offense. According to what I was told, the soon-to-be employee in question applied for a job at the company in question within thirty days of being released, and was subjected to a requisite background check that all employees evidently are required to receive. For reasons that I find grossly appalling, the background check company’s technology didn’t pick up offenses that had been flagged during the past 30 days. In my opinion, there’s a million things that are wrong here, but let me cut straight to the chase: the person in question, by applying for work within 30 days of being released from parole, came up clean in a background check conducted for a legitimate company on behalf of a legitimate company. This person got the job (which is a client facing role) and was promoted at the company over the course of nearly two years.

My recruiter then told me that because the employee had lied about being a felon on their job application, that they were subject to immediate dismissal. In fact, the recruiter had already booked airfare to the Bay Area that night and was going to personally relieve the person in question of their role the following day. In addition, the background check company had been fired, and that the company was mortified. They were embarrassed, and they were eager to make things right with me.

We cancelled my remote employee interview scheduled at the end of the week, and I told my recruiter that I needed some time to think about how to proceed. My recruiter told me that they were still incredibly interested in working with me, and he understood the need for a break – and in fact encouraged that we take one.

Resolution, in some sense

What would you do in a situation like this? How would you feel? How would you proceed? Why? And for what reasons? I ultimately decided not to take the job. A little bit more backstory is required, however, to help you understand part of my decision making process.

One of my stated goals in finding a new employer was better culture-fit. Over the past five years or so, I’ve had the pleasure of working with amazing designers, engineers, leaders and business people – but the environments that I’ve been part of have left me feeling (at times) extraordinarily isolated. I was (and still am) searching for a place that I feel points towards my creative needs through people, environment, process and quality of work. I don’t need any one thing in particular, but what I’m looking for deeply involves trust.

In short, I couldn’t take the job because I felt that I couldn’t trust the company. I couldn’t trust them not to hire negligent background check providers. I couldn’t trust them to not hire fellonious employees. I couldn’t trust employees to be curious enough to look up their colleagues on the internet over the course of nearly two years. I couldn’t trust the positioning of the company as a people-oriented group – one that optimized on personal employee relationships – when such things could happen over so long a period of time.

Feeling this way raises a lot of questions for me. Should I be so harsh to judge employees who, perhaps, never Googled their team members? Is this even common practice? Should I judge employees who did, but chose not to mention what they found online to anyone else in the company? I can imagine many reasons why they both would or wouldn’t. Should I harshly judge founders and leaders who made errors in selecting decent service providers that vouched for the identities of candidate employees? Should I judge ones that were so quick to “fix” the issues at hand? I don’t have answers for everything. What I did net out with, however, was my personal inability to proceed.

Perhaps that makes me limited in scope, understanding or forgiveness. Maybe even many more things. All I knew is that here, in the Bay Area, I probably could find a company that was exciting to work with that didn’t involve drama on this scale.

Call me lame, or call me sane, but I had to share.