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Learn from Me: Recognizing an employer scam

Updated: Apr 21, 2021

Guest student blogger, Alexander Spivey, shares his story.

It's rare, but I got involved with an internship that turned out to be a scam. I am sharing my story about how I got tangled up with an unprofessional employer with the hope that I can teach others the warning signs and how to avoid jobs or internships that don’t provide what they promise.

Finding the internship

Like any other student, I was browsing through LinkedIn, trying to find an internship that fell perfectly between my interests and qualifications. Eventually after applying for a couple, I saw one that had an Linkedin Easy Apply, no additional essays or steps needed to apply. It also listed that it was only a 6 month contract with a stipend at the end of the contract period. So with a click of my button I applied to a marketing internship that seemed like a good fit for my skills and career interests.

First warning signs

In my case the warning signs were present the moment I started my first phone call from the hiring manager, who was also the CEO. Five minutes into the interview, he lost his business professionalism when he saw that I was once a Youth Pastor on my resume and asked an inappropriate question. I was thrown off, but thought I could push through the interview by responding professionally. I thought to myself “This is a good opportunity, and I can deal with this hiring manager by not stooping to his level”. I was willing to look past this obvious warning sign, but I suggest students take time to consider the interviewer’s demeanor and level of professionalism. It won’t always be easy to see the signs, but if they were just as present as mine, it is best to end the conversation as soon as possible. All interviews should be handled professionally and include legal and appropriate questions. If you experience something outside of those guidelines, take caution because it can be a good indicator of the culture of the company and/or typical behavior of its employees.

Tips on how to leave an interview:

  • Thank you for your time today. I don’t have much more time to speak today but I appreciate the call.

  • I hate to cut this short, but it looks like I need to participate in a class activity in the next few minutes.

  • From what I learned today, it seems this role might not be a good fit for me. Thank you for your time, but I have decided to move my internship search in a different direction.

My interview continued to deteriorate, and I now look back to recognize what was thinly veiled as jokes and “bro talk” was really language that attacked my race, my personal relationships, and described sexism in the workplace. After the phone interview I spent the rest of the night reaching out to currently listed employees on the company LinkedIn page to ask for their opinion of the organization’s leadership and information about their experience working for the company. The importance of employer research is the second lesson I learned through this experience and something I wished I did before the interview. It didn’t take long for me to learn that the CEO only hires interns (no full-time employees) and has a track record of firing them before their contract is up to avoid paying the promised stipend. On top of that, an NDA (Non Disclosure Act) was required but I did not receive an offer in writing that clarified pay, timelines or job responsibilities. It's important to know that during an interview the company may not share details on pay, vacation or benefits, but you should always be provided those details in writing when you receive a job or internship offer.

Evaluating values

Even after my interview, I was still determined to find a way to make the internship work. This had been the only offer I received after many applications and it was critical that I secured financial stability through the promised stipend. I knew that the internship had red flags, so I reached out to the Lehigh Career Center for advice. Based on some of their suggestions I believed that if I was able to draw up an Employee Contract and got CEO to sign it, it would have made the whole internship more formal. I had to request the job details in writing several times, to the point that I almost felt like I was bothering the CEO for this document. This was not OK, it is absolutely professional to only begin working in any position after both employee and employer have a signed agreement and that agreement should be written and provided by the employer.

It’s such a common saying, but hindsight is 20/20. Looking back at my experience and my employer’s actions, I now realize I stand for everything they don’t. I didn’t support or want to engage in sexual harassment, racial discrimination, or share the misogynistic opinions or his extreme political standing, all which were revealed during the next two weeks of interactions (phone, email and zoom). And least of all, I didn’t want to mirror any of the unprofessionalism demonstrated over and over again. While interviewing and working for this company, I didn’t consider the significant impact of how the mismatched values would affect my work and interactions with the CEO. The tough lesson I learned is that working for a manager and company that share your values is critical, not only affecting your work but also your ability to learn, earn a positive reference, and grow in the role. Internships cannot be solely for profit, so much more must fall into place for the experience to be of real value.

Tips on how to consider a company's values:

  • First, identify your own values. Make a list or ask a Career Coach for help brainstorming on this topic.

  • Complete company research by reviewing their website, mission statement, social media, etc.

  • Look at employee profiles on LinkedIn and reach out to ask for insight into their positions and experience.

  • Bring thoughtful questions to the interview to ask about the management style, company culture, and how the company evaluates success.

Cutting ties

Looking back on it now, no amount of money or time was worth the experience. Sometimes it is better to take a step away from the situation and analyze your own behavior and decision making. I already decided this internship was sketchy, but I was just too involved to step out and really process the situation so that I could consider a way out. Perhaps luckily, the employer fired me as the situation and communication between us deteriorated in the first couple weeks of work. I knew this internship was a bad fit and terrible work environment, but at the time I was motivated by financially supporting myself and I let that overshadow the other issues clearly in play. It can be very hard to remove yourself from a situation once you are entangled, which is why I stress taking note of early warning signs and making sure it is an opportunity that truly aligns with your values BEFORE you agree to accept the position.

Where I got help

My first outreach to the Career Center connected me to one of the Career Coaches. Her advice, first in email and later through 1:1 coaching appointments, helped me process the situation, identify the warning signs, and most importantly start new internship search steps that could connect me to legitimate employers. I also found I was not giving Handshake enough credit, the job board there is extensive and I learned every employer is screened and verified so the positions represented are professional. And one of the tucked away links, the resource page, helped me go back to basics by providing resume help, cover letter guides, and information about how to research employers and prep for interviews. I had written off Handshake after applying to a few internships without any responses, but my Career Coach also helped me realize the number of applications I had submitted was low and its common not to hear back from many applications (hint: You can learn more about this via this post on the Hire Lehigh blog). I also built networking into my internship search, something I could do more easily with the Lehigh Connects community.

What I learned

  • Use handshake - FREQUENTLY! There is so much there to help you.

  • Ask for help, Career Coaches kick butt, take advantage of working with them via an appointment.

  • If it doesn’t seem right (or too good to be true) get a second opinion from someone you trust or has experience with the situation.

  • Listen to your gut, don’t ignore warning signs!

  • Request any job or internship offer in writing - which should include details about start dates, pay, and job expectations.

  • You should never be pressured to accept a position immediately, ask for a deadline to respond so you can review the details and talk it over with your family or career coach.

  • Consider if you can/should negotiate the offer or ask for more information if needed.

  • Whether hourly or stipend based, intern pay is normally bi-weekly or monthly. Anything other than that should be carefully considered.

  • If you are weary of an opportunity, take time to do more research on the company and its employees.

  • Companies should have a well developed website, contact information and at least some full-time employees (and possible interns but not exclusively made of interns).

  • If you are in an uncomfortable situation, its ok to leave or withdraw from the application process.

  • If you find yourself in a financial situation ask for emergency funds.

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