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People: Your greatest asset or biggest threat?

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People: Background checkingPeople who lie about their background can cost your business wasted time, money and untold damage. So how do you know your staff are who they say they are? Nick Ryan and Chris Macmillan discuss.


The number of cases of people caught lying on their CV has risen dramatically over the past couple of years.

Hardly a week goes by without a story appearing about someone exaggerating or lying about their background. The individual finds themselves looking at the wrong end of a P45 and the business has to go through the laborious process of starting the selection process all over again, not to mention the trauma of firing the original candidate.

“Why do businesses still fall into this trap? Because most organisations simply do not carry out the appropriate pre-employment checks.”

Why do businesses still fall into this trap? Because most organisations simply do not carry out the appropriate pre-employment checks. People feel they won’t be found out; and many are not. It perpetuates a culture in which some folks believe it is acceptable to falsify or distort their CVs.

Only last month, it was revealed on the BBC show ‘The Apprentice’ that the winner had lied on his CV about his time at university. While this may be laughed off as just a case of ‘everyone does it’, Sir Alan Sugar’s decision to overlook the discrepancy only served to reinforce this belief.

From an HR perspective, it prompts a far more important question to employers – one of integrity. If a person will lie to get a job, what else will they do to keep it? And what else will they lie about within a corporate environment?

Corporate governance

The corporate landscape is changing. The responsibility which companies, and their directors, must bear regarding the actions of their staff is growing – and will continue to do so. The Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 (which sets in place corporate governance requirements) and the Financial Services and Market Act 2000 further reinforce the need for companies to ‘put their house in order’.

Given that the average cost of recruiting a middle manager can be £15,000 in recruitment fees alone, it is amazing how many companies are reluctant to spend a few hundred pounds to check that the new employee is properly qualified and who they say they are.

The rise of social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace has undoubtedly encouraged some employers to think that this is an acceptable method of carrying out ‘background checks’ – far from it. When it comes to pre-employment screening, the provenance of information is imperative; a passing comment about an individual on a website does not class as a character reference.

“All organisations should have in place robust procedures to confirm the integrity, honesty and suitability of their candidates.”

All organisations should have in place robust procedures to confirm the integrity, honesty and suitability of their candidates. This should be second nature to the recruitment process.

Take Nick Leeson, who brought down Barings Bank. He had several county court judgements (CCJs) against him. A simple credit search taking a matter of minutes would have revealed these and may have prompted Barings Bank to think twice about hiring him – and thereby preventing his catastrophic actions.

Robert Macmillan, a founding director of recruitment firm MZI Executive Search gave an example of someone he once interviewed and was subsequently offered a board-level position with one of his clients:

“At interview, the candidate was clearly highly-intelligent, articulate and polished in his communication. In fact he was tested in four different European languages and spoke them fluently. The client met with him on several occasions and was equally impressed.

“He was offered a high-profile role managing the auditing and compliance of this large international business, managing a significant budget and large team. However, on our further investigation it turned out that many of the candidate’s financial, legal and academic qualifications were false. He also had a rather more chequered employment history than that represented on his CV.”

What makes this case even more poignant is that the types of role undertaken by this person throughout his career involved safeguarding the integrity, honesty and financial compliance of his employers.

Employee checks

So what types of checks should recruiters be carrying out? Antonia Taylor, director of pre-employment screening company, Checkmate Validation says:

“With HR budgets being continually squeezed, the need to reduce the risk of a bad and potentially costly hire has never been more necessary.”

“We can check an individual’s identity, financial status, employment history, academic background, criminal record information, driving licence details, directorship status and professional body membership very easily and usually within two weeks. This puts employers in a much stronger position to make an informed decision about that person’s suitability.

“It is becoming easier to confirm employment details from many companies today. Several HR managers have told us that now, more than ever, they need to protect their brand from being diluted by unscrupulous individuals.”

She adds: “Only recently one of our clients had two employees resign within a few days of being asked to undertake a background check. Both cited reasons that made us question their reasons for leaving. One subsequently turned out to have been convicted of fraud – to the tune of many thousands of pounds – and had done so using an assumed name.”

With HR budgets being continually squeezed, the need to reduce the risk of a bad and potentially costly (and damaging) hire has never been more necessary. Pre-employment checks are only one component of the recruitment process, yet they act to reinforce the impression of the company as one that cares, has integrity, and takes pride in the quality of its staff.

Only by demonstrating such a commitment will a business truly be able to say that its people really are its greatest asset.

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