We all know that we can't believe everything we hear and read, don't we? Yet many of us are naturally trusting, leaving us open to fraud in the most unlikely of places. Let’s look at two real-life work scenarios in which a bit of skepticism would serve us well.
Scenario 1: The Research Study
Imagine that your boss has asked you to do some Internet research to find arguments supporting a new project or change of strategy. Naturally, you are thrilled when you come across a recent study on a respected business outlet that showcases exactly what you were looking for. You send the article to your boss right away, and before long, your entire initiative hinges on the claims in this single piece.
Trouble is, what if the article isn’t entirely accurate? I’m not saying that the author set out to mislead you, but let’s face it, most websites do minimal fact checking and editing. Unfortunately, it’s likely that the results were at least somewhat editorialized so the author could make his or her point. It’s also possible that the study on which the article was based was not scientifically sound or relevant in the first place. For instance, perhaps the sample was only a handful of people, or the respondents were only located in the U.S. If you are looking for support for a significant global trend, results like this aren’t going to cut it.
So, if you find a piece of research on the Internet and want to use it for something important, don’t risk relying on false conclusions and having to start over either before or after a scandal occurs. Do your homework upfront. Locate the original source of the research (journal article, etc.) and read the whole paper. If there are parts you don’t understand, tap a colleague or academic friend who can help you decipher them. Make sure the study’s overall conclusions enhance your argument, not just one piece taken out of context. Keep the original document on hand so that you can formally cite it later.
If, despite your best efforts, you can’t locate the original source, that’s a red flag. It could still be legitimate, but you simply don’t have enough information to risk it. Take a little extra time and move onto a stronger selection.
Scenario 2: The New Client or Vendor
This one is a true story. About a month ago, I received an email from a new client who had researched my work extensively and wanted me to duplicate a speech I’d delivered in Austin. After signing a contract to travel overseas to this gentleman’s leadership conference, we brainstormed on topic customization and logistical arrangements.
Nothing seemed out of the ordinary until the client connected me with someone in the country’s Department of Home Affairs, who said I would have to pay nearly $1K for an expedited work permit. When I told the client he would have to cover this expense until I received my deposit, he declined. An alarm bell went off, and I started digging. That’s when I learned that I’d nearly been the victim of an international work permit scam.
This was hardly your typical Nigerian prince email scam, and it was really fortunate that I’d provided no damaging personal data to this very sophisticated con artist. Nevertheless, I wasted upwards of 20 hours of valuable time on an engagement that paid nothing.
The lesson? If you engage with new clients or vendors, please do a thorough background check before taking them at their word. Looking up their website isn’t enough - my scammer was impersonating a real person and a real event. Check the source code of all electronic correspondence to ensure that the messages are being sent from a legitimate organization, and ask to speak to references before proceeding.
Of course, you should also execute a legal contract that protects you from doing work you don’t get paid for, and, if you are the one providing a product or service, never shell out any of your own money before you receive upfront compensation from the client/vendor.
The bottom line is: it pays to be a little bit cynical. The Internet makes it possible for smart people to present themselves and their work in compelling ways. But things aren’t always what they seem. Protect your integrity, reputation, and of course, productivity through due diligence and a little bit of skepticism.