Pre-employment screening

“A month or so ago we vetted a candidate who claimed to have a degree from Bristol University. They’d never heard of him and said the degree certificate he sent to us was forged. It turned out he’d attended the University of the West of England, and gained enough credits for a degree there, but hadn’t applied for one.”

Strange, but just another CV lie uncovered by pre-employment screening agency Zephon, part of the Risk Advisory Group (RAG). Another vetting specialist, Kroll, recently uncovered a candidate who had a criminal record as a letter bomber targeting the very industry he applied to work in.

Such lies, omissions and inaccuracies are rising, which may worry employers but is good news for the UK’s pre-employment screening and vetting agencies.

“Volumes in the first six months of 2004 were two-and-a-half times higher than the average of the previous three years, and we’ve more than doubled the number of our researchers,” says RAG marketing manager Alan Beazley. “2004 has been our busiest year since we started in 1999.”

This is borne out by other vetting services companies. Paul Freeman, senior partner with NDF Associates, says its business – in terms of cases handled – has “grown by 460 per cent in the first six months of this year compared to the last six months of last year”.

And Keith Brown, managing director of Suffolk-based Employright, says vetting is becoming more and more prevalent. Hedley Clark, managing director of Kroll Background Screening, says the firm is enjoying “consistent growth”.

It’s hardly surprising. Not only have well-publicised security breaches, and cases such as the Soham murders, raised the pre-employment vetting issue, but lying on CVs appears to be endemic. An IAG study of CV inaccuracies, published earlier this year,  found 65 per cent of the 3,057 CVs examined contained lies or inaccuracies – a 16 per cent rise on 2002’s 56 per cent.

Some 66 per cent of male CVs examined contained discrepancies, compared to 64 per cent of females. CVs of women aged 31 to 35 were most likely to contain discrepancies (77 per cent of them).

Vetting agencies say the commonest inaccuracies are: exaggerations of dates of employment; job titles; gaps between employment or study; qualifications and undeclared directorships. Less common omissions are county court judgments and convictions.

“As soon as I see a date of employment given as, say, 1993-94, I suspect something’s up,” says Brown. “That could mean started at the end of one year and finished at the start of the next. Others to watch out for are people who say they’re managers when they were assistant managers, or claim they’re members of an institute when they’re associate members. But in itself, it doesn’t say someone’s a liar.”

Brown’s company, Employright, charges according to the amount of work involved in the vetting process. “Prices start at £70 plus VAT. For that we do a 10-year background search, check CCJs, directorships held, failed directorships etc. For in-depth references I talk to previous employers, but don’t usually go to HR departments as they only give bare details.” More in-depth checks cost up to £140 plus VAT while it could cost £1,000 plus VAT to vet an applicant for a very senior post.

Paul Freeman says NDF’s charges depend on what’s required: “We try to keep it under £200.” Zephon charges £100 to £400 depending on the service required.

All these services require candidates’ permission, which must be in writing. “Sometimes when they’re told, they say ‘you can stuff your job’,” says Freeman. Employright requires candidates to complete a form as well as submit their CVs. “I’d say there’s a 50 per cent discrepancy rate there,” says Brown.

Some vetting specialists can run criminal record checks, but they have to be registered as an umbrella company with the Criminal Records Bureau – NFD, Kroll and Zephon enjoy this status.

Vetting specialists insist the fees are reasonable compared to the cost of hiring an unscreened candidate who turns out to be crooked or a liar. Nick Leeson’s actions brought down Barings Bank, yet his CV was littered with discrepancies. Manchester United suffered a PR disaster when £125,000-a-year communications director Alison Ryan was hired in 2000. Various CV discrepancies, including exaggerating her Cambridge degree, meant she was fired shortly afterwards.

“Business is growing across the board,” says Brown. “I’ve had an inquiry from a high street company which wants to outsource all reference-checking from its HR function. This is something that will continue to grow.”

NFD hopes to win a “big contract” to check people applying for freight-handling jobs at UK airports. They must have an unbroken five-year employment record.

Kroll says one driver is globalisation. “The global nature of screening in multiple jurisdictions and languages is an increasing trend due to the globalisation of business,” says Hedley Clark.

And where is this business coming from?

Alan Beazley says the biggest users are financial services firms “but there is increasing interest from technology and communications firms”, a view shared by Kroll’s Clark who adds that pharmaceutical companies are regular clients.

Certainly security scares, and the growing propensity of candidates to lie, omit and exaggerate, is an ill wind that blows good for the vetters and screeners.

The nuclear option

If HR directors are tempted to introduce lie-detection tests, they had better think twice. US federal agencies’ use of polygraphs is widespread – the US Energy Department adopted polygraph screening of lab workers in 2000 after a suspected case of espionage, and random testing is also routine in the FBI, CIA and the Secret Service – but there is increasing doubt over their reliability.

A 2002 report by the US National Research Council said the scientific basis for polygraph testing is “weak” and that research supporting its use “lacks scientific rigour”.

But technology never sleeps and US company Nemesys-co has developed spectacles which contain a microchip to screen responses to set questions and judge if the respondent is lying. The chip analyses, says the company, incoming voice waveforms from which it detects various levels of emotional states. Apparently, from this, the wearer can detect whether the subject needs further questioning.

By John Charlton


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