Robust recruitment: avoiding ‘intermittent grandiose hyper-mania’

Dodgy recruiters cutting corners will put your agency’s reputation at risk, especially if candidate references aren’t thoroughly checked. The Mandarin associate publisher James Judge’s tips for finding the answers you need.

When recruitment goes wrong

Last week the chief information officer at SA’s Department of Premier and Cabinet, Veronica Theriault, was arrested and charged after having already been dismissed from her position for alleged dishonesty. She was accused of falsifying her CV and using multiple identities to pose as one of her own references under an alias. By Monday the department revealed that two other executives, appointed some years earlier, were later found to have made false claims around their work history and academic qualifications.

Part of the response of the department’s chief executive Dr Don Russell was to order detailed police and security checks for senior appointments and increase verification of work history and qualifications — as well as checking candidates’ social media profiles. But situations like this are sometimes unavoidable when dealing with committed fraudsters or those afflicted with ‘intermittent grandiose hyper-mania’ — supposedly the case of Myer executive Andrew Flanagan, who was found guilty in a similar incident a few years ago.

Concocted CVs & dodgy degrees

For most public servants there are a number of preconditions that have to be met prior to permanent appointment. Australian citizenship or permanent residency is generally required (except for Kiwis with the right visa). In some parts of the public sector, baseline security is an additional condition, but this can be gained on the job. Certain positions also attract other checks, like working with children or in the aviation and maritime industries.

While police checks aren’t always mandatory, they’re probably a good idea, especially for executives or certain finance roles — however widening the scope of police and security checks is not going to unveil cooked up claims in resumes or dubious degrees.

In the world of finance, any solicitations to the public often bear the warning ‘past performance is no indication of future performance’. This stems from rules laid out in securities acts in many Western countries. In the world of recruiting, the opposite holds true. Past performance is often the best indicator of future performance. This is why choosing an experienced recruiter and conducting sound reference checks are crucial in minimising flawed and potentially damaging recruitment outcomes.

Choose your recruiter wisely

Choosing the right recruiter, and interogating and understanding the processes they employ, is critical. Most mid-sized recruiters with years of experience, such as Slade in Melbourne or HorizonOne in Canberra, usually specialise in specific sectors and job families. In relation to senior vacancies in the public sector, they may already know most of the candidates who apply for a position. This is especially true of specialist outfits like Gillian Beaumont who predominantly handle legal roles.

They may not know what’s called a passive candidate — someone who isn’t active in the market at the moment but who perhaps could respond to a job ad and comes from a different sector, or maybe is considering shifting between levels of government. It’s here that interviewing and reference checks become crucial tools in establishing the veracity of a candidate’s claims and background.

The bigger players, like HaysHudson and Randstad, will also have robust systems in place to ensure candidates are interviewed, thoroughly vetted and reference checked. Those recruiters using face to face, behavioural-based interviews and assessment tools are more likely to pick up on false positions or claims in a candidate’s CV or history at an early stage.

An area that should be of concern for any government agency is for hard sought after candidates in big ticket spending areas like IT. Just last month it was reported that the Department of Human Services was conducting an internal fraud probe into up to 50 sub-contractors accused of submitting false invoices and providing fake CVs. While bad recruitment practices may not be the sole cause of such events, a race to the bottom in terms of the payment of recruitment fees, while politically expedient, can have unintended consequences. In relation to contingent recruitment (using sub-contractors) the stories I have heard tell of experienced IT recruiters pointing their best candidates away from government to other sectors where the recruiters can make much better margin. I am told some less reputable recruiters will conduct all interviews by telephone, with some never meeting the people they are placing into government IT roles.

Reference checking

Reference checks should be treated as a verification, not simply a compliance process. One recruiter I spoke to used the analogy of a ‘real-estate renters’ reference for the way some contingent IT recruiters operate. Good recruiters will also google applicants they don’t know early on which can bring up interesting details — like whether they were expelled from a professional body. Some other best practice points to consider:

  • Always try to interview someone who had direct supervision of the candidate and can speak meaningfully to their past role and accomplishments.
  • If you can’t get the answers you need, think about expanding out to additional referees (after checking back for agreement from the candidate).
  • Confirm who you are talking to and try not to ring mobile numbers if you can use a landline. Going through a switch is even better (this can reveal facts like a person having long-ago left an organisation they now claim to be working for).

On the falsification of academic credentials, it may be difficult to ask a senior executive to provide certified copies of their degrees but someone with a PhD may have given speeches or published papers in the past. A good search may highlight the fact they haven’t.

As for relying on LinkedIn, if this is the same Veronica Theriault referred to earlier, her employment history looks impressive — but doesn’t seem to mention the SA Department of Premier and Cabinet?

In the interest of disclosure, the author worked at Hudson in Sydney some 10 years ago and owns some Hudson shares he did not directly purchase.

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