Few things feel as good as unmasking a fraud. Someone who bluffs and bullshits their way through life. Someone who talks a great game, but doesn’t know what they’re doing. At all.
It’s kind of like watching a solar eclipse.
The downfall of a bullshitter brings vindication. But it also matters for other reasons. People who fake qualifications and expertise do more than irritate us. They can cause real damage.
Every workplace suffers one of these types. Last spring, I watched someone finally go down in flames after years of conning everyone around him into his own grand narrative.
It’s not hard to spot a con artist. You just have to realize that some of them play for low stakes. And they’re not that good at fooling people.
Every conversation was about him. How great he was. How much better than everyone else. The things he deserved.
The books he was supposedly working on.
The people who’d wronged him. Or treated him unfairly.
He actually did fool some people into undying support. The rest of us simply played along. Even me. I’ve lost count of the times I just stood back and nodded as words gushed out of his mouth.
At long last, he left after a negative performance review. Despite big promises, he’d failed to publish a single article. The book contract he bragged about all the time turned out to be a lukewarm acceptance from a shady press, of a proposal with no manuscript. His students hated him. Nobody wanted him on their thesis committees.
Most of us knew what fate held in store for this guy. But the murmurings of sexual harassment complaints did surprise a little.
My only regret is not catching on sooner. It’s actually not that hard to spot a con artist, I’ve learned. You just have to realize an uneasy truth. Not all of them go into politics.
Not all of them become bankers or stock brokers or marketers.
Not all of them want to make millions of dollars. Even if they think they do. Some of them go into mundane professions, like teaching.
You can spot a fraud because they’re always talking. Never doing. They’re so eager to prove their worth, they’ll hang themselves with their own lies.
You’d think that some fields repelled imposters. That some workplaces have no room for anyone to float through on hot air and self-promotion. But they do. At least for a little while. No corner of your life is immune.
If you observe, frauds give a lot of tells.
First, they never stop talking about their plans. They’ll even go out of their way to tell you about this or that project they’re working on. Why? Because they’re actually not doing jack.
They just want you to think they are.
Productive people don’t describe their grand plans to acquaintances. The greatest villain of all time was Ozymandias from Watchmen. Nobody knew his plot until he’d done it. Fifteen minutes ago.
Ozymandias was evil.
But he was legit.
Sure, some people make this mistake. Sometimes, we get excited about something and geek out. Or we dream aloud. That’s different. You can identify a fraud because they’re always talking. Never doing.
Pay attention to what frauds say. When they brag, they usually hang themselves with a lie. Stuff that reveals their absolute ignorance of how anything’s supposed to work.
Most of us cut frauds too much slack. We give them second and third chances. We’re so busy proving ourselves to ourselves, we don’t have time to unprove someone else. They prey on our self-doubt.
A few months ago, I ran into someone I know from another university — at the Starbucks line. Sadly, a fraud who somehow landed a visiting assistant professor spot. Never mind that it was a fixed-term appointment. She described it as a “major deal,” and then said someone at a major university had “just offered me a associate professor job.”
I said, “Someone invited you to apply?”
And she said: “Well, someone I know is leaving her tenured job. And she said she’d put in a good word for me. I think I’m a shoe in.”
I avoided eye contact by pretending to appraise the bagels. “But don’t they have to do a full search?”
“I mean, it didn’t sound like it.”
Frauds don’t just announce good news. They narrate at great length. Why? Because they’re trying to sell you on the idea.
Most competent people don’t brag after they’ve accomplished something. They’re too busy basking in their own little spotlight. If you actually publish in the top journal in your field, or win a prestigious award, you probably won’t feel the need to go around and explain that to everyone.
A fraud will tell the world about every little review they publish in someone’s newsletter.
If you suspect you’re working with a fraud, ask them something that you don’t know. Act humble. And see what happens. A fraud will never admit a weakness. They gorge themselves on other’s humility.
One time, I got stuck chairing a search committee. (This isn’t a humble brag. Nobody likes chairing search committees.) A teacher from a nearby school applied, and then came to pay me a personal visit. For an hour, she tried to walk me through an accordion-style binder that contained her entire professional life. Then she invited me out for coffee.
A fraud will never admit they don’t know something. They’d rather make up facts than appear unqualified.
Herein lies their greatest weakness. If you suspect a fraud, ask them something that you don’t know.
And see what what happens.
You’ll also find that the more humble you act, the more brash and bold a fraud becomes in your company.
Frauds gorge themselves on others’ humility.
Every fraud can get by for a couple of years. Not because we’re naive. Because we don’t usually go out of our way to derail someone.
I’m probably guilty of enabling frauds myself. Sometimes I pass someone who, when I’m totally honest, didn’t deserve it. Or I write a recommendation letter that makes someone sound better than they should. I’m working on it, though. I’m starting to withhold my recommendations more. I’m putting frauds on notice.
Still, why are we so lenient?
Turns out, most of us like cutting people a break. Normally, that’s the right move. But for every five or six people we help, we probably enable one fraud — someone who’s going to keep catching breaks.
True frauds never feel the chill of imposter syndrome. They’ve lied to themselves so well, for so long, they’ve fallen for their own con.
Frauds take advantage of everyone else’s good nature and moderate confidence. They camouflage well, because they know (on some level) that everyone feels a little bit like a fake.
Most of us know the chill of imposter syndrome. We’re busy trying to prove ourselves, not unprove someone else.
Frauds use that against us. Almost by instinct.
It takes a little while to unmask a fraud, when you do the actual right thing — giving people second chances and the benefit of a doubt.
True frauds may never know the feeling of imposter syndrome. They don’t fear much. They’ve lied to themselves for so long, they’ve fallen for their own con game. They’ve convinced themselves of their perfection.
It’s shocking how far they can go with some rich parents, or even just a few allies in the right places. We like to assure ourselves that frauds always get their due. But sometimes they don’t. Not unless we give it.