The Freelance Creative

Is It Ethical to Write Resumes and Cover Letters for Other People?

Cover Letters

A few weeks ago, I finished editing a client’s resume. The person was gunning for an executive position but had gotten tired of the application process, so I came on to help with copy. After approving my work, the client asked if I’d write their cover letter as well. Not just edit, but write the whole thing.

I felt weird about the project. It seemed different than writing copy for websites or social media accounts. I wasn’t even sure if it was legal, so I decided to turn down the job.

However, the project piqued my curiosity. I queried HR representatives, professors, and lawyers about the ethics and legalities of the practice. Most agree that it’s kosher for candidates to have a trusted editor proofread their job search materials. But ghostwriting applications—particularly cover letters—is murky territory.

“It’s very polarizing,” said Yvette Lee, an HR knowledge advisor at the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). “On one side of the spectrum, I have HR friends who are adamantly opposed. They say it’s completely unethical, and that if you can’t write your own cover letter and other job materials, don’t apply for the position.”

The other side argues that it’s okay—to a point. “If there’s a writing sample in the job application, the applicant needs to write it themselves,” she said. “But [not everyone] is concerned about cover letters or resumes.”

Outsourcing cover letters is becoming more common

Hiring someone else to write materials for job applications has become a big trend in the past decade, ever since the employment process migrated online. In HR, it’s common knowledge that executives usually hire cover letter and resume writers. Presumably, they don’t have the time for mundane tasks. Other clients hire ghostwriters because they’re not confident in their own writing abilities.

Rates for these projects vary significantly. Freelance copywriter Craig Rowe said some clients pay up to $500 for a cover letter. Others are unwilling to pay more than $50, said Margaret Phares, executive director of the Professional Association of Resume Writers and Career Coaches. As with most content projects, clients get what they pay for.

Ghostwriting applications—particularly cover letters—is murky territory.

Entire businesses are now dedicated to the practice. One of Rowe’s first jobs was writing resumes and cover letters for a recruitment agency. The company had been hired by an organization that was laying off a large number of employees. Rowe found himself writing applications as a kind of consolation benefit.

“It’s like ghostwriting. Obviously the client will read through it and sign off,” he said. “But the cover letter is just a marketing tool to get the manager to look at the resume. The resume is what gets them a call or interview.”

For the record, writing someone’s job application is legal

As long as the information within a job application is truthful, an applicant is not committing fraud by hiring a writer, said J.H. (Rip) Verkerke, director of the Program for Employment and Labor Law Studies at the University of Virginia Law School. Employers don’t typically ask applicants to confirm they’ve written their own materials.

Yet there is a fine line when it comes to ghostwriting other types of applications, such as college entrance essays. According to Verkeke, the law is up in the air in this case.

“I suspect that reputable college consultants follow an implicit ethical code that helps them draw a line somewhere short of writing the essays themselves,” Verkeke said. “Because the assistance with job applications seems a bit more of an underground pursuit, I’d expect the norms are less well developed.”

It’s possible that the practice might haunt candidates in the long run. If an employer wants to terminate an employee, they could theoretically go back to the job application to search for evidence of deception or misrepresentation, said Jeffrey Hirsch, professor at the University of North Carolina Law School. But this would depend on company policy—not law. The deception would also have to be glaring.

But is it ethical?

Without concrete legal framework, the debate boils down to ethics.

Among the people I interviewed, ghostwritten resumes didn’t set off alarm bells, since these documents are essentially lists of facts. All subjects agreed that explicitly defined writing samples should be original. But cover letters are trickier. They tend to be formulaic, like resumes, but they’re supposed to portray the applicant’s voice.

“Sometimes a cover letter is your 8-10 seconds to get someone intrigued enough to look at your resume. But I’ve also had people tell me that they don’t even look at cover letters,” Lee said.

Hirsch, on the other hand, does read cover letters from potential hires at his university. “I’m not in love with [the idea of a ghostwritten cover letter]. If someone gets feedback and editing, that seems more appropriate,” he said.

Hirsch’s opinion is understandable, given the fact that his role as a professor requires strong writing skills. An engineer may be able to get away with outsourcing a cover letter, but a candidate applying for a director of marketing position—or a copywriter role—should plan to pen their own application.

There’s also the issue of systemic inequities that could arise from hiring job application writers. “I suspect that the practice has effects similar to SAT prep classes and college application consultants,” Verkeke said. “It’s likely to benefit the already privileged and give them a further leg up in the hiring process.”

On the other hand, he granted, it may give applicants a shot at a job if a disability precludes them from writing easily. “I can see how there is some justification for the practice in limited circumstances,” Verkeke said.

For others, there is no moral quandary. “The only time this would be unethical is if you are applying for a job, and the job is writing cover letters,” said Phares, whose organization represents 2,000 writers and career coaches globally. “A cover letter is a marketing tool. You can and should invest in marketing yourself as a professional.”

“You can and should invest in marketing yourself as a professional.”

Breaking in to the field

Writing job application materials is a booming business, along with writing other career content such as website or LinkedIn copy. “If you enjoy working with people, and if you really like the science behind writing as a craft, then I think this is a great career,” Phares said.

Job application processes are also increasingly automated, which changes the future of the game. Paul Maplesden, a freelance writer for business, finance, and tech publications, noted that more and more employers are using software that screens applications for keywords and metrics. In the face of this trend, writing cover letters and other job application materials is less about client voice and more about beating the algorithm. That, too, takes skilled writers.

“I’m a terrible carpenter. I would hire a carpenter if I were redoing my kitchen,” Rowe said. For candidates who won’t have to do much—if any—writing as a core part of their job, this same logic might apply. “You’re just hiring someone who is better than you at something. That’s 100%, without a doubt, ethical.”

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