What follows is a true story. Names, places, and companies have been changed to protect the innocent (or not so innocent).

I was catfished by a candidate. And not just during a phone screen. This guy made it through a recruiting agency, a phone screen, and three rounds of interviews. We were about to make the hire when everything unraveled.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the term, a catfish is someone who creates a false identity online. The motivation behind a catfish can vary from tricking someone in an online dating app, seeking revenge, simply playing a joke, or in my case, seeking a job.

I learned a lot from this experience (plus it is a pretty good story), so I thought it would be fitting to share with the SaaStr community.

Act One: Falling For The Catfish

When someone seems too good to be true they usually are. A clever Catfish Candidate won’t appear to be perfect—he will say all the right things when you need him to, but will mix in enough humility to give his story just enough edge to seem plausible.

After countless phone screens, in-person interviews, and even a failed hire or two, any hiring manager can become exhausted. So much so that when a good candidate comes around you can fall for him immediately and things can’t move quickly enough.

In the case of our Catfish, who applied for an AE role, we hit it off fantastically over the phone. Plus, he worked at a previous company that I worked for—which was a win and made me feel comfortable with his candidacy right off the bat. After the phone screen, we brought him back into the office to meet with the team. He impressed each interviewer with his knowledge and passion for the brand, his sales acumen, outbound hunter mentality, and overall presence.

Our Catfish never faltered, kept a smile on his face the entire time, and did his homework. We even talked about sales operations, discussed the pros and cons of MEDDIC, and talked about Salesforce workflows. I mean, this guy was pretty good.

Next step was the offer, and if I was lucky, maybe I could have a new rep in the office by next week.

Now, if I looked a little closer, I would have seen some telltale signs. His story didn’t totally add up, his LinkedIn profile was on the lighter side, and we only had a few common connections—which was odd considering we both had worked at the same company.

Act Two: Things Start Getting a Little (Cat)Fishy

Before I make any hire I always do my reference checks. I call the ones that the candidate provides and I do my own backdoor reference checks. I know, backdoor reference checks aren’t always considered kosher by everyone…but…I do consider them to be necessary—especially in the Bay Area. And, to those of you who are shaking their heads at me right now—if I didn’t do my backdoor checks I would have never uncovered the Catfish.

When I asked for his references from the recruiter, I requested that one of them be his manager at the company that I had previously worked for—let’s call that company Acme Corp for the sake of this post. He said that he left on good terms, so this shouldn’t have been a problem.

While waiting for his references to come through, I started doing my own reference checks. Now, it has been awhile since I worked at Acme Corp and the company has gone through extensive changes—especially on the sales team—so I knew I didn’t have many contacts left over there. I went through hundreds of AEs on LinkedIn searching for the name of someone I was friendly with. I found two people—let’s call one Jim and one Bob—and I reached out to them both asking if they knew my Catfish.

The next day I received two references from the recruiter—but neither was a manager and neither was from Acme Corp. Apparently she was still waiting for that particular reference. Odd…but OK. Why wouldn’t he have that info readily available?

When I checked my LinkedIn, I saw that my two friends had gotten back to me, but neither Jim nor Bob had heard of my candidate. However, Jim said he would ask around discreetly.

Now I was starting to get nervous. No Acme Corp reference…my friends that supposedly worked on the same team didn’t know him. Seems suspect. I mean, maybe they didn’t know each other because Acme Corp is a large company now with lots of sales reps?

Plausible, but unlikely.

Then everything quickly unraveled from there.

Act Three: Catching a Catfish

The recruiter was still having trouble getting the Acme Corp reference—which at this point was causing me some minor heart palpitations. Something wasn’t right.

A bit later in the day I got a ping on LinkedIn from Jim who said that he had asked around and no one has heard of him. Jim had even looked in Salesforce and no one by my Catfish’s name had never held a Salesforce account for Acme. And finally, in Jim’s opinion—my Catfish had never worked there.

WTF. UGH. Was it possible that someone had made it through the interview process all of the way to references and completely lied about his most recent work experience—at a company I had previously worked for? That would be crazy, right? And also very risky.

And then the clincher came—a completely coincidental, struck-by-lightning, never-happens-IRL clincher. The recruiter emailed me back with the Catfish’s reference…and what name was staring at me but the name, email address, and phone number of my friend Jim. Well, the fake email address and phone number anyway. Our Catfish was now confirmed. Out of all of the possible people to choose as your fake manager, this person chose one out of the two people that I knew from Acme Corp.

The catfish had gone so far as to create fake email addresses and phone numbers for his references.

After that, I went full-boar sleuthing on Google putting to work all of the skills that I had learned watching the MTV show Catfish. Reverse phone number lookups, social media pages, deep Google searches, and more. I was consumed. And I found some additional concerning things.

The craziest part was that if the Catfish had picked literally any other person who worked at Acme Corp I probably would never have known. I would have called the fake phone number and emailed the fake email address and would have never been the wiser. I would have spoken to Fake Jim, who would have given me a glowing reference and I would have sent the offer letter. Done deal. Signed and delivered.

Act Four: How to Spot a Catfish Candidate

After it was confirmed that our Catfish had indeed lied on his resume, on his LinkedIn profile, in interviews, and provided fake reference details, I spent a good amount of time marinating on what happened. My team and I are a pretty savvy group. How did it get by us and how do you prevent this going forward?

We for sure would have hired this guy. And who knows, maybe he would have killed it. But, in the end, something would have slipped and the situation would have caused repercussions six months down the line.

Learn from my mistakes! Here is how to spot a catfish candidate before you are dragged into his murky waters:

  1. Rule #1: Trust your gut! Most Catfish make a few mistakes along the way. Perhaps it is a story that doesn’t quite make sense, a too-new LinkedIn profile, or an unexplained hole in a resume—either way, there is usually something. Some folks on my team did pick up on the fact that this candidate’s story did sound slightly odd. If something doesn’t add up…trust your gut and dig in deeper.
  2. Rule #2: Take a long hard look at a candidate’s social profiles. Probably the most tell-tale sign that there was something amiss with this candidate was his LinkedIn profile. An AE who has been in the SaaS space for several years should have a pretty built-out profile. This profile looked pretty new, didn’t have a ton of connections, and I only shared a couple of connections with him.
  3. Rule #3: Always do reference checks and get a backdoor reference if you can. Sometimes people forget to do the reference check step. This needs to be a critical step in the process. And my advice is to go a step further—see if you have any common connections and reach out. If nothing is apparent from their profile, consider if you know anyone who may have worked at your candidate’s past company and reach out.
  4. Rule #4: Google is your friend. It’s easy to forget this step. But before you make a hire, search his name in Google because you never know what might come up. And, don’t just check the first page—make sure to go deeper into the search results to try and catch anything suspicious.

After careful deliberation (and a good bout of self control) I decided not to reach out to the candidate and reenact a Catfish confrontation a la Nev and Max. In the end, I was definitely disappointed the candidate ended up being a fake. However, I am glad that I caught it early before we hired him. If we had hired him, tough to say what could have happened. Maybe he would have been great and our best performing AE. Maybe he wouldn’t have even known how to log into Salesforce. Or, even worse, maybe he would have been dishonest about something down the line. Whatever the outcome, better to suss it out early.

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