Knock, Knock… Who’s There? Understanding the Merits of Candidate Background Checks with Databases Expert Edward Robusto

This era of big data, global connectedness, and instant access to a wealth of social media information makes it tempting for organizations sourcing or vetting executive talent to assume that it is easy to “see what you are getting” with potential candidates. After all, the logic goes, most everything about people’s professional and even social backgrounds would seem to be codified and quantified online or otherwise documented and accessible somewhere. But the issue is more perilous than it appears, as revealed by an Aethos™ survey presented at the 2014 Cornell Hospitality Research Summit. For example, this industry study found that 67% of respondents use LinkedIn to establish contact with potential candidates and gather background information on these candidates. Moreover, and quite telling, 61% of respondents invite candidates to interviews for key leadership roles based primarily on favourable impressions of candidates’ LinkedIn profiles. Obviously, what hiring managers and HR pros read and assume about candidates online holds substantial sway during their sourcing and screening process. But, how complete or trustworthy is the information that people provide about themselves? The Aethos™ survey found wide variability in the level of accuracy in candidate data from online profiles, but that research simply scratched the surface. Read more about the study here. Ed Robusto headshotThe topic of candidate screening is inherent to Aethos’s executive search services, so we welcomed the opportunity to get further perspective about the effectiveness and best practices related to background checks at the 10th Annual HR in Hospitality Conference & Expo. There we talked at length with Edward Robusto, President of Predictive Leadership Solutions – a sponsor at the conference and expert on public databases and personnel records. Edward first elaborated on what research indicates about the degree of deception in people's online profiles like Facebook or LinkedIn. Considering that we live in a digital age of apparent easy access and transparency of information, it would seem too risky for people to lie or mislead about their professional and educational backgrounds... ER: You would think that the speed and availability of information would lead to everyone making sure that their resumes were consistent with LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook and beyond. But that just is not the case. We continue to see the inconsistencies, slight exaggerations and outright fabrications at a better than 50% rate. The person who says they graduated from a program, when they spent two weeks on the campus and received a certification. The applicant who suggested they were a manager or director when in fact they were a shift supervisor. It happens with regularity. Falsification of previous experience is still very prevalent with nearly 50% of the background checks we process having some sort of discrepancy in this respect. Whether it is expanding the dates worked or elaborating on position held, candidates often feel compelled to present a better but fraudulent profile of themselves. We coach candidates all the time to be truthful on their resumes. Employers will often disregard a gap in employment but they won’t dismiss a falsification of the application. What types of background checks are there… e.g., credit checks, employment records, drug screening, etc.? ER: As the only background screening company that focuses solely on the hospitality industry we have a mastery of what our clients require when it comes to their background screening process. We build all of our processes and packages to meet the needs of our clients. We never pre-package and force feed something on a client because it is easier for us. What this means is through building an intimate relationship between our operations/implementation team and their own team they build it, they own it, and they get exactly what they require from their background screening process. We can do a simple/basic criminal search or we can do a deep dive extensive background check that includes social media, OFAC, terror watch lists, civil filings and more. We can create a drug testing program for our clients, as well as, do credit checks, and employment verifications. There is no true correlation between the use of credit checks and the hiring of a good employee. Further, their use in the hiring of applicants is becoming highly regulated. Unfortunately, we still see many employers, even in the hospitality industry not doing a background check on new hires. Additionally, there are many sub-par background checks which consist of mostly online databases searches that can give an employer a false sense of security. These databases are incomplete, often outdated and as a standalone background check are not compliant with Federal regulations on use of data when making a hiring decision. The only compliant and comprehensive background check is a search of the court records directly which is what we do for our clients. What percentage of people have distortions of some sort in their resumes, profiles, or professional bios? ER: Falsification of previous experience is still very prevalent with nearly 50% of the background checks we process having some sort of discrepancy on it. Whether it is expanding the dates worked or elaborating on position held, candidates often feel compelled to present a better but fraudulent profile of themselves. We coach candidates all the time to be truthful on their resumes. Employers will often disregard a gap in employment but they won’t dismiss a falsification of the application. When it comes to professional profiles, what areas are candidates most likely to fudge or take liberties in presenting themselves? ER: It’s a competitive job market right now. Candidates are often “fudging” on their title, their level of education, the time frame for employment (to close gaps) and their salary or hourly rate. When and how should hiring managers or HR pros best use background checks and what are the liabilities involved? ER: First I would suggest, at least in the hospitality industry that HR Directors and Hiring Managers should do a comprehensive background check on every level of employee in an effort to get the best and the brightest to serve their customer base, but also to protect their business. That said, I know that there are cost limiting factors that prohibit companies from taking this approach. Background checks are a powerful tool in mitigating risk for the property by not putting undesirable individuals in a situation to do harm to an employer. I’m a firm believer that there is a job for every person but not every person is right for every job. Unfortunately, we do see dishonest candidates gravitate towards positions and employers where they can take advantage of a situation. Whether it is a thief applying to be a cash handler or worse, background checks help weed out those individuals most likely to cause harm. The reputational injury a hotel could experience as a result of a bad hire could be catastrophic to a hotel, restaurant or casino. Background screening should not be taken lightly as there are numerous Federal and state specific regulations associated with screening. For example, there are requirements around the proper disclosure and authorization forms to collect prior to screening, what types of crimes and the age of the crime that can be used in a hiring decision and a legally mandated process to follow should an employer decide not to hire a person as a result of the background check. Understanding the legal obligations of an employer can be challenging. We spend a great deal of time with our clients to develop a compliant and comprehensive program as well as ongoing education as the legal continues to evolve. Generalizing the statistics from Predictive Leadership Solutions means that half of the people reading this article should go back and carefully review their resumes, CVs, professional bios and especially any online professional profiles for any inadvertent errors or omissions. Of course, social scientists would neither be surprised by these statistics nor puzzled by people’s motivations for posturing or grandstanding in these ways. A classic tenet in psychology is that the perceptions we hold about ourselves - especially how we come across to others - are powerful influencers of our public attitudes and behaviours. In fact, social scientists strive to control for self-image biases in questionnaires and surveys. It’s called “social desirability” bias, referring to the fact that people tend to overestimate their strengths and underreport their weaknesses when making public statements, as well as give responses that they think are the most politically or socially appropriate at the time. You might assume that distortions like this affect only a certain employment level or classification of worker. Well, think again. posted an eye-opening 2012 article by Jon Mitchell about ten executives who lied on their resumes – and two who got away with it. These case studies did not occur at small, irrelevant organizations, but rather at established, prestigious institutions like the University of Notre Dame, Veritas software, InterContinental Hotels Group, and there was even an instance of extremely bold resume fabrication involving a former Dean of Admissions at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology – allow the irony of that to sink in. Listed below are a set of best practices that can be leveraged in the case of any senior level hire to ensure a stronger referencing process has been be conducted. It’s important for the potential hire to fit with the values and company culture the candidate would be representing at the new employer. Like most things in life there is no silver bullet, but there are specific measures that can be taken to further solidify your organization is doing the right thing when finalizing executive hires:
  • Conduct an extensive criminal and financial check; this is a no brainer;
  • Do a 360-degree professional reference check. Ask for two former individuals to whom the candidate directly reported, two former peers and two former individuals whom reported to the candidate. The goal is to get a sense of how the candidate interacts, communications and collaborates with individuals throughout the org chart;
  • If a lack of references are provided from recent former employers, consider an “off the record” reference check. The goal is to identify individuals with whom the candidate has worked in the past and reach out to them simply for “candidate recommendations” to see if your candidates name comes up in a positive or negative light. Through the initial reference checking process the names of colleagues may have surfaced that the candidate worked closely with in the past that s/he may not have listed, these would also be good “off the record” sources.
The bottom line is that good due diligence involves a system of checks and balances that leverage Standardized Assessment, Behavioural Interviewing, and proper Reference-Background Checking – which should include both formal and informal referencing rather than merely accepting the references provided by candidates. Services like Predictive Leadership Solutions exist to support organizations with the latter aspect of due diligence. Each part is important, but these three tactics should be consistently used together to ensure organizations gain the most accurate and comprehensive understanding of candidates. Indeed Edward Robusto reminds us that organizations often do not know what they are getting until professionals are used to start peeling back the proverbial layers of the onion.