To Tell the Truth

To Tell the Truth

It's an institution's duty to ensure that new hires are who they say they are.

Think about all of the job candidates you've interviewed over the past several years. There's a very good chance that one-third of them lied on their resume.

Studies have shown that at least that percentage of job candidates exaggerate, embellish, or flat-out lie about their responsibilities, college degrees, and employment dates.

In 2004, 345 human resource profes-sionals representing business, industry, and higher education responded to a reference and background check survey conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management. Of the 307 HR managers who verify dates of employment, 55 percent reported that applicants sometimes lied about how long they held their jobs.

The remainder of the report is just as startling: Of the 275 respondents who conduct criminal record checks, 48 percent stated they sometimes detect a criminal history; 41 percent out of 279 who check former job responsibilities have found that candidates sometimes stretch the truth about their duties. Of the 291 who verify former job titles, 47 percent have learned of fabrications, and 31 percent out of 245 who confirm college or university degrees have found that candidates sometimes lie about graduating.

Consider the man who recently applied for a student services specialist job at Pima Community College in Tucson, Ariz. He was working in a temporary position at the college and performing so well that he was offered the job, says Jack Redavid, assistant vice chancellor for HR.

But when asked for verification of his college degree, which he claimed on his application, he kept stalling. As it turned out, the man did attend college but never graduated. The offer was rescinded, Redavid says, and the college is now checking credentials on all of its temp employees.

Applicants have been
known to lie about their
job duties, titles, and
degrees, as well as
employment dates.

Stories like this one--or even worse--are common, which makes one wonder why some HR managers prefer to stay in the dark rather than conduct thorough background checks on job candidates they plan to hire. Some fingers point to shrinking budgets, but that argument doesn't stand up to scrutiny. The cost of recruiting, hiring, training, then firing one person can easily run into the thousands of dollars.

Other times, the HR manager becomes excited about a job candidate and doesn't feel the need to conduct due diligence or background checks. But the manager's feelings are bound to change once it's discovered that the new hire has stolen thousands of dollars worth of office supplies and equipment or can't perform job tasks because that person lacks the necessary skills.

Institutions of higher ed can apply a wide variety of techniques to ensure that hires are truthful about their experiences. Consider implementing these best-practice tactics:

HR staffers at PCC spend a great deal of time verifying an applicant's chronological employment history. "We've found times when applicants forgot to tell us they were residing in a state facility--they were in prison," says Redavid.

PCC requires all candidates applying for administrative or staff positions to list their previous supervisors' names and contact information; HR then follows through. It's a critical step some colleges skip. By talking with supervisors, Redavid has discovered that some applicants were "less than truthful" regarding past experience.

Christopher D. Lee, director of HR at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, remembers one particular applicant for a job requiring a college degree. An alumnus of the college, the man had held a very prestigious, high-profile job in the community. People who sat on the college's hiring committee automatically assumed he graduated from the college. But his resume offered one small clue that something was amiss. Instead of a graduation date, the resume stated a bachelor's degree program and dates of attendance.

"I asked the question, 'What year did you graduate?'" recalls Lee, also author of Search Committees (CUPA-HR, 2000), which provides an overview of the hiring process at IHEs. He didn't, it turns out. "Other people on the committee were quite surprised. They never saw it coming," Lee says. "You need an HR eye to ask the obvious questions."

In other words, conduct multiple interviews and ask questions from different angles, says John Putzier, partner at Applied Behavioral Insights, a Wexford, Penn.-based HR consulting firm. For example: "What was the scope of the project, how long did it take, how many people did you manage, and what was your budget?"

"Most people aren't that good at lying," he says. "Drill down to a level where only the person who really did it would be able to answer those questions quickly and effectively."

If someone claims to hold a degree from a defunct college, don't automatically accept their word, says Putzier. Ask for a copy of their transcripts or a diploma. The first line of attack should be, "Show me."

Ignore fancy titles, especially if they don't match the responsibilities listed on the candidate's resume, says Bob Lavigna, senior manager of the client services group at CPS Human Resource Services, a public agency in Madison, Wis., that specializes in HR.

"If they can't provide specific examples of what they achieved, that's a yellow flag," he says.

Find out exactly what candidates mean by terms like "reorganize" or "improve." If one says he raised a lot of money, for instance, ask how much, Lavigna says, and if it was more than his predecessor.

"We've found times where
applicants forgot to tell us
they were residing in a state
facility-they were in prison."
-Jack Redavid, Pima Community College (Ariz.)

Once, when Lavigna was helping a technical college find a new president, one smooth candidate finessed the reason he left his former job. But a background check proved he was either bought out or asked to resign. "It wasn't an out and out misrepresentation, but he [falsely] gave us the impression that he left voluntarily or that it was a mutual decision," he says.

The University of Michigan Health System in Ann Arbor created a pre-employment program whose staff is dedicated to conducting extensive interviews, verifying references, and researching employment gaps, says Jan Mulcrone, director of HR for the health system.

In May, an outside firm will begin conducting criminal background checks on applicants. "The firm is saying one in 10 will have some sort of criminal background," says Mulcrone. "That's pretty outrageous."

Whenever job candidates pause to answer interview questions, consider why, says Kristin Vuocolo, project man-ager for the pre-employment program at University of Michigan. She suggests reading the tone of a candidate's voice. Some candidates have even called her post-interview, admitting they lied.

"When they lie, they know we know that they're lying," she says.

Use a combo approach by requiring HR staff to work with subject matter experts (SMEs) from the hiring department. SMEs can review resumes and ask specific questions on topics that HR may not be familiar with, says Jack Heuer, vice president of HR at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. It helps the university "determine if someone has met the minimal qualifications for the job and if this is really what they have done," he says.

Just like a security sign on a front lawn, the job posting or application should emphasize that thorough background checks will be conducted. It will discourage some people with a criminal history or those with fabricated experiences from applying, says Heuer, whose department has been conducting background checks for approximately six years.

Whether through a template or specific questions, online assessment tools help catch inconsistencies early on about a candidate's education or employment background. "If they're going to fabricate, then they need to be fairly consistent in the way they're fabricating," says Gary Truhlar, executive director of HR at UPenn. "You would see [lies] in their job experience, you would see them in their resume and in the online questions they're answering."

No matter which of these techniques you apply, the key is to do something. To err is human, but to lie is simply deceptive. So trust no one--you never know what kind of skeletons may be hiding in someone's closet.

Carol Patton is a Las Vegas-based freelance writer who specializes in covering human resources issues.


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