On the internet, no one knows you’re a dog. But what about at work? 

Running a people business is anything but dull. 

And when you employ enough people—especially in a remote-first, distributed company—you’re guaranteed to run into interesting questions about identity. 

With new paradigms of distributed computing and cryptographic identifiers erupting around us with blockchains, NFTs, and web3, I’m left wondering: Is there a better way than how we do it today? 

This is my latest “interesting” identity moment: After extending a job offer to a candidate in Pennsylvania named Mo, it came time to ship a laptop. Ashley, our ops director, reached out to confirm a shipping address. But Mo couldn’t accept a laptop at their home. 

A touch odd, but no problem. Maybe Mo wanted to pick up the laptop somewhere instead? Or have it shipped elsewhere? The next response raised red flags. There was no way Mo could pick up a laptop in PA. And no explanation or alternative suggestion was forthcoming. 

That was enough for Ashley to put on her detective hat. And the extensive digital record of our interactions with Mo showed we had been interacting with someone in Pakistan. 

Offer rescinded. As you’ve always heard, it’s the lying that hurts. We employ people in seven countries, but honesty is a prerequisite for employment no matter where you are. 

And I have other stories like this. The guy who had someone else take an Excel test for him. Fired on day one. The woman at my old company who passed off a Harvard Extension School class as a bachelor’s degree. The first of a series of lies that got her fired. And on and on. 

Identity is a two-way street. We get calls all the time to verify past or present employment. Often it’s for a mortgage. While I’m so happy for people to buy or refinance homes, it’s really none of my business as your employer that you’re doing it. And there’s a cost to me, however small. We also regularly get employment verification for new roles. Also none of my business. And verifying current (rather than prior) employment is really hairy. Why would you tip your hand to your current employer that you’re in the market? 

Shouldn’t there be a way to check? 

LinkedIn, you might say. But LinkedIn has no controls, whatsoever, to prevent people from claiming to work at any company. And fraudulent profiles are a growing problem.  

Could distributed cryptography, like the technology that powers the cryptocurrency of NFTs, provide a solution to all of these issues? 

The short answer? It’s too early to tell, but there are some interesting early indicators that it might. 

First, why would we want an employment record to be distributed rather than centralized, like on LinkedIn? A quick look at my own employment history is a great answer: a large number of my past employers have either dissolved or been absorbed into other entities. 

How could it actually work? Blockchains are for the most part completely public and immutable, nerd-speak for unchanging. You might not want your employment history open to the whole world. 

It’s beyond the scope of this article, but there’s interesting research underway addressing these exact problems, introducing the ideas of revocability and multi-key cryptography into the blockchain. In theory, we could have a distributed database where two record owners can issue revocable keys for access to a record. Already, there are some interesting projects that show your “on chain resume,” including NFTs. Backdrop is one example..But not quite yet. 

And who pays? Distributed computing doesn’t come without cost. 

In cryptocurrency applications, the costs of maintaining and updating a blockchain are paid through concepts like Ethereum’s “gas.” To be effective for employment verification, these transaction costs would have to be lower than the current, manual verification. 

Commercial verification services give us a good benchmark. Employers are generally willing to pay between $20 – $100 for basic third party verification by phone. More in some cases. But employees currently pay nothing, and it’s not clear whether a distributed computing system can be free to one set of parties and not another. 

All told, it’s easy to see a future where our resume is a bit more like a collection of NFTs. But sometimes we want a level of control, a touch of fungibility in what we reveal about our career history, and a reasonable degree of privacy, even while we all agree that those credentials should be verifiable. 

What about Mo? If he had communicated with us via a VPN, possessed reasonable documents for eligibility to work in the U.S., and had someone to quickly get a laptop halfway around the world, we might never have known he wasn’t where he said he was. And if he got the work done, we might never have cared.  

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Brian Dolan is the CEO of WorkReduce, a data-driven platform for marketing staff augmentation and services. More

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