Use Your Own Voice

This essay first appeared on my page on LinkedIn on December 24, 2014.

A colleague asked me to help conduct interviews to fill an open position. Specifically, the hiring manager asked me to read and evaluate three finalists’ writing assignments. Each of the final candidates turned in a one-page analysis of a hypothetical but realistic risk management situation. The scenario resembled one that our team might encounter, and we wanted to know which candidate could produce the best written assessment. I enjoy writing and I like reading other people’s work, so I was happy to help. I set aside time one morning to read and critique the assessments.

The first two assessments were good. They took different approaches, focused on different aspects of the scenario, and each one contained minor errors. Nevertheless, both impressed me favorably. I picked up the third candidate’s essay in the hope that it continued the trend and gave us a difficult choice between three strong applicants.

The third essay started off right. Its first paragraph was smooth and polished. The second paragraph was just as well written, but included a statement that I thought would be challenging for the writer to deliver on in the remaining half page. I read through a bulleted list and began the third paragraph. After the first sentence, I knew something was amiss.

A writer has a voice that comes across on the page as clearly as a spoken voice comes to a listener through the air. The paragraph halfway through this candidate’s paper had a voice so different from the preceding paragraphs, it was like hearing a new speaker. As it turns out, I was.

Suspicious of the change in tone, I found a plagiarism checker online and ran each paragraph through it. Within seconds, it told me the first one contained only 20 percent original content. The checker provided links to the source of the unoriginal phrases. They all came word-for-word from a white paper written, coincidentally, by someone I know. The second paragraph fared even worse. Every word of it came from a scholarly article that the plagiarism checker pointed to on arXiv.org. The third paragraph turned out to be 100 percent original. It was the author’s own words.

Even though the author’s words were not perfect, they were adequate. They would have given this candidate a chance alongside the other two. Each clearly had unique strengths. Unfortunately, one of them had a standout weakness.

I wrote an email to my colleague, summarized how well the first two candidates satisfied the criteria of the assignment, provided a critique of their writing styles, and ranked them for consideration in the context of their respective interviews. Beside the third candidate’s name I wrote: “Do Not Hire.” The person was an external candidate, or I would have added: “Call our company’s ethics line.”

One lesson I took from this experience is the knowledge of how to use a plagiarism checker. I immediately put it to use again, ran the other two candidates’ essays through it, and found completely original work in both cases. I am encouraged to know we will end up with a new team member who is a good analytical writer and an ethical person. I am disappointed to know a competitor will retain an employee who is not.

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