Dear CertMag: I suspect a colleague of intending to cheat on a cert exam. What's next?
Posted on
December 5, 2014

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Dear CertMag: I’m in a bit of an ethical dilemma here. I work quite closely with a small team of developers. Over the past few months, a few of us have been pushing to get a mid-level cert. I happened to be in a situation where I observed one of the guys with what I’m pretty sure are unauthorized testing materials. I don’t know where he got his hands on it, but he had what looked to be a pretty robust cheat sheet. I think he's probably intending to cheat. Is it my place to call him on it? Do I contact the testing center, or the cert organization? Or should I just keep my head down and stick to my own exam prep?

— H.M., Florida (Name anonymized to protect the identity of the writer)

CertMag responds:

Cheating on a certification exam can be hard to counteract.

Sadly, there are organizations whose primary focus is to monetize intelligence about what is in testing programs. The more popular the program (to both employers and by candidate count), the larger and more potentially lucrative the market for materials that give candidates an inappropriate advantage becomes. In recent years, this has become all the more important as job applicants are seeing pressure on the market from both outsourcing of jobs at the low end, as well as large applicant pools for mid- and senior-level positions. Every advantage seems to “count” in getting that “leg up” to be noticed or to conform to a job description for a job application or promotion.

Your situation with “one of the guys” getting a pretty robust cheat sheet reveals the end product of an unfortunately substantial industry. While not exclusive, the model that many of these organizations use is to take advantage of the international nature of certification programs. IT professionals in India, China and other countries can be paid to take the exact same test (or nearly so) that is being given in target markets, like Europe and the United States, to gain privileged access to test materials.

Testing fees are often lower in these markets to adjust for local economic conditions, as are local wages, which means that employing these test takers can be very cheap. The test takers report back with as many answers and questions as they can remember from the test. If they don’t remember all the questions, that’s OK. For a small fraction of what a U.S. or European test taker will spend, the cheat sheet broker can send another guy.

The aim of these shenanigans, to produce commercial materials that can be resold elsewhere, is not only unethical, it’s illegal. It is one thing to take the test because you are appropriately engaged in the field and then contribute to “parallel” knowledge study material that helps candidates prepare. It is quite another to provide actual images, answers and questions from the exam itself. Among other intellectual property crimes, this is often copyright theft.

Here is the rub: The risk of what might happen if someone is “caught” using these commercial materials is often perceived as being “less expensive” than the result of not passing an exam. As long as that is true, there are (and will be) candidates willing to pay the money and take the risk. Some people are simply too drawn by the perceived benefit of completing and passing exams they don't feel comfortable attempting unaided, or cannot take the time to adequately prepare for. Others may just feel compelled to “guarantee” a pass.

Which gets us back to your predicament. While most candidates “agree” to an electronic assertion that they will not engage in this kind of intellectual property violation (either through contribution or consumption), you as a third party observer are under no obligation to report to test organizations their use.

While engaged as the certification lead for a global Microsoft consultancy, I had the wherewithal to play a strong part in helping ensure that inappropriate materials were not communicated, shared, or encouraged. Even in that situation, however, it was no simple matter to take “active measures” in response to those I suspected of using inappropriate materials.

The challenge is this: You are not in a position to “know” — in a legal sense and with sufficient certainty — that what you are observing was done in violation of a legal obligation. You may even create risk for yourself and your organization by getting involved in something you do not legally “know.”

What happens if you raise your hand and share this information with your organization, and it turns out that what you saw was an answer key for a study book? What happens if you raise your hand and the test organization sanctions your organization because they decide that what you've reported is part of a larger, more widespread pattern?

What happens if you are completely in the right, everything unfolds as anticipated, and “justice is done” according to what you hope ... and then someone gets upset because of that process and sues you (justifiably or not) because you have hurt their career or employment prospects?

Sadly, while we are all offended and affected by the unethical use of these materials, the possible ramifications of being active in countering them are serious in our industrialized society. Employment and legal considerations have to be weighed carefully before you take any action. In the end, you may want to have a private conversation (in the cafeteria over coffee perhaps?) with someone you trust in your HR organization to explore your company’s position on the subject. Think carefully about intended and unintended consequences before you take formal action, internally or externally.

About the Author

Wayne Anderson (@NoCo_Architect) is a Service Management Architect with Avanade, a company that helps customers realize results in a digital world through business technology solutions and managed services that combine insight, innovation and expertise focused on Microsoft® technologies. He holds the Certified IT Architect – Professional credential from IASA and has completed more than 30 Microsoft certifications in his career alongside credentials from CompTIA and other industry vendors.

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