Resume Fakery Is Rampant and Global, Can Cause Myriad Problems for Employers

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By Martin Berman-Gorvine

Oct. 21 — The problem of resume fraud is a perennial headache for HR, and as fresh as the latest headlines.

Last month, it was the turn of Wal-Mart Stores Inc. to suffer a high-profile embarrassment when Vice President of Communications David Tovar resigned, reportedly because when he was in line for a promotion, the company discovered he had not actually obtained a bachelor's degree as he had claimed on his resume. The company did not respond to a request for comment from Bloomberg BNA.

“There are a lot of high-profile stories” like that, Rachel Trindade, vice president of marketing at Irvine, Calif.-based background screening company HireRight, said in an Oct. 17 interview with Bloomberg BNA. “If someone comes up through the ranks in an organization, there may not have been background checks when they started, and checks were not done when they were promoted or transferred.”

“Things may have occurred when the individual was first hired and there wasn't an in-depth background screen, or they may have come in from an acquired company,” Theresa Preg, senior director at Atlanta-based background screening company First Advantage, said in an Oct. 17 interview with Bloomberg BNA. “Or someone may have been in a position for a long time, and [certain aspects of their background] weren't important before.”

It may also have been just “assumed” that an employee had a certain background, but once the employee comes up for a promotion, “it is important that they have a degree or a certain type of experience,” Preg said.

If the reports are correct, Wal-Mart certainly has plenty of company. Of the 619,000 educational verifications HireRight did for employers over the past 12 months, 32 percent had discrepancies. As to previous work experience candidates claim to have had, HireRight's employment reports have a 27 percent discrepancy rate based on 292,500 employment verifications in the last six months. The highest discrepancy rates overall on the company's reports are found in defense/aerospace, government, retail and transportation.

The prevalence of resume falsification is “holding steady in general,” Trinidade said. “It spiked during the economic downturn but has been fairly level since then.”

International Deception

And the problem is global. According to a report recently published by First Advantage Europe Ltd., which is based in Colchester, UK, and was surveying trends among its clients in Europe, the Middle East and Africa from January 2011 through June 2014, 27.2 percent of verifications uncover “discrepancies” in job candidates' education, employment and professional histories. And almost one-third of those “discrepancies,” or 8.7 percent of all verifications, are judged “major” by the potential employer.

Education is the biggest problem area, the report found, with 32.4 percent of checks on this area in the first half of 2014 uncovering a discrepancy, and almost 40 percent of those (12.9 percent of all education checks) revealing a “major” discrepancy, according to the report.

This broadly jibes with the experience of Jason Morris, president and founder of Cleveland-based EmployeeScreenIQ. “Fifteen to 20 percent of resumes have something [exaggerated] with education,” he told Bloomberg BNA Sept. 23.

In employment history, 18.6 percent of checks turned up a discrepancy according to the First Advantage Europe report, nearly one-third of which (6.1 percent overall) were “major,” while in professional qualifications, licenses and memberships, the discrepancy rate was 20.5 percent, with more than one-third (7.7 percent overall) being “major.”

By sector, financial services has the lowest rate of discrepancies (23 percent), “reflecting greater regulation and a workforce that's increasingly familiar with the screening process,” the First Advantage Europe report said. The field most rife with exaggeration is professional services (37.9 percent), followed by technology (37.1 percent), legal services (37 percent) and staffing and recruitment (35.6 percent).

Altered Majors, Experience

When all kinds of inaccuracies are considered the figures may be much higher. “Forty-two to 55 percent of resumes have some type of embellishment or inaccuracy,” Preg said.

Morris's estimate was even higher: “Fifty to 55 percent of resumes have something on them that's misleading. That has stayed consistent for the past 15 years, with a slight uptick during the recession because people were desperate,” he said. “If 100 people are applying for jobs and you don't check, you'll have 55 people working for you who lied on their resumes.”

Some problems that turn up on resumes are minor, such as a candidate saying she worked for a company for five years when it was really four-and-a-half years, Preg said. But depending on the position the candidate is applying for, overstated education or experience may be “significant,” she said. For example, someone might claim to have been an “accounting manager” when she was really only an accounting assistant, or claim a degree in marketing when applying for a marketing job when he really only has a general business degree.

“Individuals normally try to make their resume as attractive as possible and want to at least be considered,” Preg added.

Morris also cited the phantom marketing degree as a common trick, and Preg said many educational exaggerations have to do with the candidate having been “on the cusp” of graduating but never quite finishing, and later claiming he or she did get the degree.

Still worse is the venerable “diploma mill,” a fraudulent institution that grants a phony degree in exchange for cash. While diploma mills have been around forever, the Internet has made it much easier for would-be buyers of sham degrees to find them. Morris said that one particularly energetic source before it “was busted” was the fraudulent “Almeda University,” whose bogus diplomas were discovered in the hands of employees of General Electric and Bank of America.

Best Practices May Involve Rescreening

Many employers have background check requirements based on the position being filled, if for example it requires the handling of sensitive and/or proprietary information; or if it is subject to government regulation, such as financial or pharmacists' jobs, Preg said. She added that employers should “look at where their risk is high, regulatory obligations, access to assets or clients, or sensitive information, and make a determination as to whether there are any changes an employee might have that would affect their position.” For some positions, rescreening every two to three years may be necessary, she said.

Changes can occur between a candidate's provisional hiring and the time the screening is done, Preg said. At the higher levels, the risks to the organization become greater. “The employer brand is very important; at the executive level, the company needs to make sure they are aware of all aspects when they move the employee into a senior role,” she said.

When it comes to executive appointments, a background screen should examine candidates' claimed level of education, references, whether they are on any other company's boards, and include “a media search to see if anything comes up,” Trinidade said. For any new employee, the background check should be “tailored to the position,” she said, such as checking whether a candidate for an engineering job really does have an engineering degree.

Promotions and other changes of position involving higher levels of physical or intellectual property access require rescreening, Trinidade said. If, for example, someone working as a landscaper at a hotel is moved into maintenance, she said, the latter position will involve giving them keys allowing them access to almost anyplace in the hotel.

Consistency is vital, Trinidade said. “Everyone at the organization should go through a consistent, mandatory process, across all locations and all positions,” she said. “That avoids high-profile, brand-impacting situations.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Martin Berman-Gorvine in Washington at mbermangorvine@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Simon Nadel at snadel@bna.com

The First Advantage Europe report can be obtained at http://learn.fadv.com/emea-report-q2-2014?src=fadvblog.