The word ‘whistleblower’ is enough to send a shiver down the spine of any senior management executive. Indeed, several blue-chip companies have recently been the subject of high-profile exposés, where instances of malpractice or wrongdoings have been brought to the surface by whistleblowers.
No industry sector would appear to be immune from whistleblowers, who have been responsible for bringing to the fore cases ranging from security breaches by airport baggage handlers, to convicted sex offenders working with children, to the mis-selling of financial services products by major retail banks.
Few people would argue against the need for whistleblowing where it has played a pivotal role in helping to root out malpractice or wrongdoing. However, not all instances of whistleblowing are being carried out by long-standing employees. Increasingly, many of the highest-profile revelations have been a result of undercover journalists infiltrating large global organisations, having gained employment through the use of bogus CVs and false references. In addition to disclosing malpractice, such whistleblowing cases highlight a worrying incidence of illegal or unethical screening processes of new recruits.
Most companies would acknowledge the need to have some kind of screening process in place for the recruitment of new employees. Most institutions claim to have robust procedures in place, but the level of due diligence can vary considerably.
Careful background screening is important in determining the honesty or integrity of an individual. It is essential to carry it out correctly because it can help weed out the malicious or bogus candidate who looks good on paper, but who is potentially highly damaging to an organisation.
Checking information is not always straightforward, because the standard employment references that many people provide simply do not have the same depth of information that they did in the past.
Most references today come from the HR department, not the line manager, and as a result they only confirm simple details, such as dates of employment and the role the employee held in the company. However, changes in employment law mean references do not give information on how the candidate performed, or provide any indication as to whether the person was deemed to be a troublemaker.
Getting the balance right
The degree of screening carried out should be proportional to the role the candidate is applying for. Checking through the education records of candidates for a manual role would probably be deemed unnecessary by most companies. However, there are other positions within the company that might, at first glance, not appear to warrant careful scrutiny, but in fact require absolute honesty and integrity. Postroom staff, for example, are exposed to some of the most sensitive information that enters and leaves a company, and therefore potential candidates need to be screened accordingly.
It should be remembered that screening extends beyond your company’s own employees. Any third parties who have access to your premises, IT systems or paper files should also be screened, whether they are the contract cleaners or the customer service agent based in an offshore call centre. The increasing use of employment agencies to supply temporary workers means organisations have to be confident that such parties have their own rigorous screening processes in place.
Screening is usually a process that is adopted for new applicants – companies do not usually undertake retrospective screening of existing employees. People expect to be screened when they join a company but do not expect to be vetted once they are already in the role. Retrospective vetting is not necessarily a good idea from the company’s perspective, either. After all, what do you do if one of your established high-fliers got a lower second-class honours degree, rather than the upper second stated on their CV – and does it matter? Blanket screening of current staff should probably be avoided, unless dictated by regulatory matters.
The expansion of the EU means companies are employing more people from Eastern Europe and beyond. An increasing migrant population puts more pressure on the in-house HR screening process, which is unlikely to have the necessary language skills to screen effectively for these candidates.
High-profile whistleblowers have, up until now, typically come from the British tabloid or broadcasting media, but who knows if other foreign journalists might try their luck with the same approach.
There is growing evidence that some candidates are taking drastic measures in their efforts to secure a job. Several companies have been set up with the sole purpose of providing false IDs and references for employees. The same is true of educational institutions, with bogus universities springing up to provide candidates with ‘lifestyle’ degrees that require no formal education.
These fake entities make the job of the screener much more difficult, because they have to know that the reference they are speaking to is genuine. This requires considerable experience and knowledge built up over time. The screening process is only as good as the person doing the screening, and unfortunately is often viewed as a transient role by the in-house team, in many cases held by an individual for just a short time before they are moved on to another position within the department.
Importance of robust screening
There are numerous advantages to getting background screening right. First, there is the huge cost involved in the recruitment and training process – this investment will never be realised if the applicant employed is not right for the job.
Second, there is the due diligence element – a screening programme should ensure against employing an individual with a criminal record or fake qualifications who could put the company at risk from fraud or theft.
Third, there’s greater risk today than ever before from terrorists and organised crime. Companies hold huge amounts of commercially sensitive and customer data on IT systems and they need to guard against bogus employees infiltrating these systems.
Lost data and money are not the only risks, however. The potential damage to a company’s reputation must not be discounted. Bad publicity as a result of a whistleblower uncovering malpractice can affect the whole morale of a business – the exposure of one ‘bad egg’ can seriously affect the rest of the team, who may feel tainted by the experience.
When screening broke down…
In 2003, a Daily Mirror journalist landed a job as a footman at Buckingham Palace after providing a bogus CV and giving his local pub landlord as a character reference. He remained undetected for two months before breaking his scoop in November.
In 2003, a BBC Panorama reporter got a job as a carer for an agency called Care Connect, delivering homecare services to the elderly and infirm. She was offered the job on the basis of false references and a CV that was largely fabricated.
In 2005, cleaners attempted to steal an estimated £220m from the Sumitomo Mitsui Bank in the City of London by using bugging devices on the IT systems.
A BBC undercover reporter spent four months earlier this year at Barclays uncovering incidents of mis-selling. She used her real name but created a fake job history and used bogus referees.
A BBC reporter spent four months undercover at electronic tagging company G4S (Group 4 Securicor) before breaking the story on news magazine show Inside Out in April this year.
screening: top tips
- Make sure references are valid and educational qualifications are genuine.
- Ensure you have the necessary linguistic skills to screen foreign candidates.
- Incorrect facts should not be ignored, no matter how innocuous they seem.
- Test against information that the candidate has provided and then check if third parties can corroborate.
- Consider implementing a criminal record check if the role demands discretion and involves handling sensitive information.
- Check a minimum of five years of a candidate’s employment history.
- Conduct a consumer credit check if the position involves authorisation to move the company’s or customers’ money.
- Vet anyone and everyone – you need to know who’s behind your business.
- Don’t rely on gut feelings, no matter how credible the individual may appear.
- If you don’t have the necessary skills in-house, don’t cut corners – consider outsourcing to a reputable provider.
Michael Whittington is managing director of Kroll Background Screening, part of international risk consulting company Kroll. For more than 30 years, Kroll has helped companies, government agencies and individuals reduce their exposure to risk and capitalise on business opportunities.
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