It happens a few times a year: Seemingly successful (often high-profile) executives find themselves trying to to explain an overstatement, exaggeration, or outright fabrication about the educational credentials that helped them land their current job, or at least put them on the path to their current leadership role.
Besides the obvious questions—about how and why the people went to such lengths to convince others that they had earned that fictitious degree—come some bigger questions: How did the employer miss a chance to expose the falsehood?
Indeed, when such a story breaks, shareholders, employees, and the media demand answers, forcing public relations professionals do their best to spin the message and minimize reputational damage. Organizational crisis often looms in such cases, with the crisis threat rising in proportion to the position of the executive in question.
Embarrassment in High Places
Consider, for example, recent cases involving the CEO of RadioShack, the dean of admissions at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and a few years ago, the head football coach at the University of Notre Dame.
Who's to blame when such an incident comes to light? Well, clearly, the executives who misrepresented their qualifications deserves the greatest blame. Then come the Human Resources functionary and/or the hiring manager who took the person on. Didn't either or both parties bother to validate the claims on the person's résumé?
And if an external recruiter was involved, did the internal stakeholders check that recruiter's process for candidate screening and background due diligence? Perhaps the recruiters bears some responsibility, especially if they didn't do enough homework on the candidate they presented who was ultimately hired.
Ultimately, it is the hiring organization and its recruiting practices that must be put under the microscope, even though it's the shareholder who pays the biggest price for such lapses in the corporate talent management process.
40% Shade the Truth
Despite these painful lessons from both an organizational and individual career perspective, executive search consultants readily acknowledge that a surprising number of management-level résumés that find their way to them contain material omissions, embellishments, and/or outright falsehoods. Some of them put the number of résumés that contain such faulty information as high as 40%. (Yes, you read that right.)
The high cost of a bad executive hire—when one factors in the potential huge indirect costs that will mount in the wake of an executive leadership fraud—is reason enough to invest in the proper vetting of executive management hires.
So how can today's employers buy themselves some insurance against executive résumé fraud? Some of the best ways to turn up red flags early in the executive recruitment process include:
• Get an early read about the candidate's visible profile. Employers might learn something about an executive candidate's public profile by reviewing corporate announcements and other material that often can be found easily online. Employers need to gauge how much stock they'll put into whatever they find—good or bad—because you can't always believe what you read. But likewise, sometimes a candidate's extracurricular involvements or various forms of their widely available biography may present cause for concern. If someone has been "faking it" as a means of "making it" for a while, however, such a cursory review of publicly available documents might not provide the material to expose the candidate as a phony.
• Confirm academic credentials early. Your leadership team doesn't have the time to waste with management candidates who appear, on the surface, to have all the right stuff and who may even be great interviewers but who eventually prove less than forthright on further review of their résumés.
It really makes sense for parties to the recruitment process to verify candidates' academic credentials early on, to avoid spending time with the wrong people.
• Gain consensus on the reference checking process. Especially if an external recruiter has been engaged, it's important for the employer to understand how this process will unfold and who is accountable for reaching out for references. Effective reference checking should lead the employer or its recruiter to connect with people who have worked with the person in other environments, as peers, superiors, and perhaps even subordinates. Although candid references have become harder to secure in today's litigious society—where proof that a poor reference cost someone a job that can lead to a lawsuit—a good faith effort should be made to discern perspectives about the executive candidate's leadership experience, management style, and overall performance.
• Seize opportunity in the interview. The executive interview with internal stakeholders is a good opportunity to ask candidates about their experience and education and how, exactly, they've delivered the results they've claimed on paper. It pays to have an interview plan to make sure your management team isn't asking all the same or purely introductory questions about the candidate's credentials. Stakeholders to the executive candidate interview should agree before the process begins about which areas of the person's background and experience to focus on. From there, interviewers should compare notes to identify the candidate's strengths and anything that might be cause for concern.
• Advance to the background check. It's critical to get to the bottom of people's employment history before you hire them, so it makes sense to engage the services of a background screening professional (often with a law enforcement or public records experience) who can expertly check public records and confirm the people you plan to hire are indeed who and what they say they are.
Taking the time to invest in due diligence of executive-level candidates is indeed time well spent. It almost always helps your organization avoid the discomfort of having to explain to shareholders and others why it failed to do its homework and hired a phony into a key management role.