Alex Steer

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29% more boring stories about your gap year

571 words

Powerchex, a pre-employment screening company, has informed the world (via the Guardian) that under-21s 'told 29% more lies on job applications this year than last'.

Leaving aside potential conflicts of interests arising from companies who sell services conducting research into the extent of need for those services, this headline sounds a bit odd. That's because it is.

Let's do the linguistics first. '29% more lies' is a phrase made up of an adverbial phrase ('29%'), and adjectival/determining phrase ('more') and a noun phrase ('lies'). The whole phrase is the object of the transitive verb 'told'. (We'll ignore 'on job applications this year than last' for now.)

The subject of 'told' is plural: 'under-21s'. The plural subject implies multiple instances of individual action (as in 'three poets died this year') or collective action by multiple actors (as in 'three teenagers stole my car today'). Taken as a whole, 'under-21s told 29% more lies' means that, through simultaneous or collective action, under-21s increased the number of lies told on CVs by 29%. If there were 100 lies on CVs last year, there were 129 this year.

Which is not what the report says. It says that 29% more under-21s than last year told lies on their CVs. In other words, if there were 100 liars last year, this year there were 129. The number of lies told is not specified.

Which means what?

Of 4,735 job applications from all age groups sent to finance firms between June last year and this May, 899 contained false information.Powerchex... found that of the 307 belonging to under-21s, 18% contained lies, an increase of 29% from last year, when only 14% of forms contained false information.

So in fact while the relative risk increase is 29%, the absolute increase is (18 - 14 = ) 4%. Given that we're talking about individuals here, let's put that in human terms. Of 307 under-21s applying to finance firms, 55 told lies on their CVs, compared to 43 the previous year.

Is this a significant change? Is it related (as opposed to just correlated) to the recession? It's hard to know. According to the Guardian piece:

Alexandra Kelly, managing director of Powerchex, said: "The pressure of the recession on job markets seems to have led more applicants to believe that they should lie or make embellished claims to get jobs."

Well, maybe. On the other hand, 12 people out of 307 could be insignificant variation, a natural progression away from or towards the mean. Longer-term data is needed. So might a larger or more representative sample - this is a market (graduate finance intake) in which one large firm alone can still hire 1,000 graduates, despite 32% of organisations operating a graduate recruitment freeze this year. It's hard to tell from the article whether or not this trend can be taken seriously.

Yes, this is pedantry, but it's also marketing. Lots of organisations are throwing round 'recession mania' stories at the moment. If you think you have an insight, check your numbers, check your wording, and proceed with caution.

# Alex Steer (07/08/2009)