Foreign Assignments

Candidates claims of overseas degrees or work experience must be checked thoroughly.

By Pamela Babcock Oct 1, 2005
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HR Magazine, October 2005

An applicant was in the running for a major job—head of auditing for a large financial company in the United States. The candidate said he had graduated from an Australian university and had worked for nine years in the Australian office of a Japanese bank.

But a firm that does international background checking discovered his degree was bogus and he had never worked for the Japanese bank. It turned out that he had hired a telephone service to answer calls with the bank’s name and transfer the callers to a fake voice mail message. The applicant would later return the calls and provide excellent references for himself.

Although that applicant’s methods of inflating his foreign credentials were extreme, job candidates overstating or lying about their overseas experience is becoming a problem for employers, according to some experts.

“Many applicants believe that employers are less likely to perform a verification of their employment, academic or professional credentials if they report that they have spent time overseas,” says Terrance Corley, president of Global Screening Solutions. “As a result, the chances of exaggeration or flat-out fabrication increase significantly.” His firm, based in Kennesaw, Ga., does international background reporting—and unmasked the applicant with phony Australian accomplishments.

At the same time, employers are likely to see more candidate resumes with overseas education and work experience, as foreign-born workers increasingly seek jobs in the United States and as more and more U.S. citizens spend periods working or studying in other countries, Corley says. So it is becoming more important, he maintains, for U.S. companies to know how to have those types of backgrounds screened accurately and legally.

Although checking overseas backgrounds can be more expensive and time-consuming than verifying the same types of information from sources within the United States, experts say, it’s part of the due diligence that employers must exercise in the hiring process.

Employers simply cannot afford to be casual about checking the overseas segments of an applicant’s resume, says attorney Lester S. Rosen, president and CEO of Employment Screening Resources in Novato, Calif. “If you...just take your chances, you’re a sitting duck for hiring mistakes and litigation. There’s really little defense if you go to a jury. And you’re playing Russian roulette with your firm’s future.” (For more information, see "The High Cost of Careless Hiring," a sidebar to the article “Spotting Lies” in the October 2003 issue of HR Magazine.)

Built-In Hurdles

International background screenings pose a number of challenges for HR, ranging from logistical to cultural to legal, notes Rosen, author of The Safe Hiring Manual: The Complete Guide to Keeping Criminals, Imposters and Terrorists out of the Workplace (Facts on Demand Press, 2004; available at www.shrm.org/shrmstore).

Time differences between the United States and other countries, for example, can increase turnaround time when communicating with information researchers, employers or schools overseas. Expect five to 10 days to verify employment and education information and 10 days or more for international criminal checks, Rosen says.

Language barriers often become an issue when communicating with schools and employers in other countries and when reviewing court documents during criminal record searches. Countries’ cultures play a large role in whether information is or is not easily available and also in the quality of what’s obtained. Each country has its own laws, customs and procedures for background screenings. In many countries, it’s extremely hard to get criminal records.

The United Kingdom doesn’t allow third parties such as background checking firms to have direct access to criminal records held by local police. Instead, the job applicant and the recruiting organization must sign and submit a formal request to a specific agency responsible for handling criminal records. After the request is received by the agency in original form, it can take up to 40 business days to get information back, Corley says. Many other countries have similar practices in releasing criminal record information.

And in some parts of the world, criminal records are not available without hiring a local private investigator. Differences in courts and criminal systems can also present difficulties. Doing a criminal check in a particular country requires an understanding of the country’s legal codes, crime definitions and court system. It’s important to know how records are created and maintained in the country, where searches should be done, and the types of records available and what they mean.

In checking an applicant’s overseas background, it’s important to understand “the local context,” says Traci Canning, director of international operations for HireRight, a pre-employment screening company in Irvine, Calif. “In general, that means understanding how HR operations, law enforcement agencies, schools/universities and businesses operate outside the United States.” (See "Overseas Fact-Finding".)

HireRight cites the example of a man who had been in the United States legally for two years and had applied for a U.S. position with a multinational company. His employment record had no gaps that might indicate periods of personal travel or illness or even incarceration. But HireRight researchers uncovered some unsettling information: The applicant had been convicted of murder in his native country and, in accord with a practice that was legal at the time, had paid a proxy to serve his prison term while he remained free and in the workforce.

Keep an Eye on the Law

It’s critical for HR professionals and recruiters to abide by the laws and regulations of both the United States and the foreign country, particularly with regard to privacy rights, negligent hiring and compliance with corporate governance responsibilities.

Member nations of the European Union (EU)—25 countries, to date, that have formed ties for economic cooperation—have strict data-protection rules to prevent, among other things, improperly accessing police records and improperly transferring personal information overseas. Violators, whether companies or individuals, are subject to civil penalties, injunctions to stop the transfer of data, fines and even criminal sanctions, Corley adds.

The risks are reduced, however, for firms that have agreed to abide by the terms of the Safe Harbor arrangement set up by the United States (through the Department of Commerce) and the EU. Companies that sign on are bound by certain privacy and notification principles, and violators can be subject to sanctions, including, in some instances, federal penalties.

The Safe Harbor system is a way to facilitate commercial transactions, including overseas background checking, among organizations subject to two different approaches to privacy—the EU approach and the U.S. approach as embodied in the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA). Although international criminal checking isn’t perfect, Rosen adds, it still allows an employer to demonstrate due diligence in hiring and discourages applicants with something to hide. All checks are done pursuant to a signed release under the FCRA. An employer’s due diligence in dealing with a candidate with an international resume can also be demonstrated by checking the person’s U.S. credentials and experience, he adds, even if the applicant is relatively new to the United States.

Using Watch Lists

As worthwhile as it may seem to check an applicant’s name against available terrorist and sanction lists, it’s not advisable to use them as your sole guide. Some lists are published by overseas authorities. Interpol, for example, puts out the International Wants and Warrants database. The U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control has its list of Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons. Some of these tools, used by firms that provide international searches, are available on the Internet. As with any database, however, the presence of a name doesn’t mean the person has a criminal background, Rosen notes, and the absence of a name doesn’t necessarily mean the person is “safe.”

Moreover, some experts caution, employers cannot assume that because a person who has entered the United States after having gone to school or acquired work experience overseas has been cleared through a background screening by U.S. authorities. “That’s a huge fallacy,” Rosen says. “Certainly the government has stepped up its watch list of terrorists, but there are still huge holes in the system. There are some mechanisms in place when it comes to visas, but employers should not, and cannot, depend on those.”

Making A Selection

Not many U.S.-based background checking companies specialize in the relatively new field of international screening. Few screening companies have departments focused on international screening, Corley says, and few have mapped legal issues in such screening, compiled contact information on overseas academic institutions, or assembled international investigative networks to research criminal records. While some screening firms try to do international background checking on their own, he says, “most outsource the most sensitive and complex requirements, such as the international criminal record checks, to firms that actually specialize in this area.”

HR professionals responsible for selecting firms for such tasks should evaluate the companies’ knowledge and experience and their compliance with data-privacy and information-access laws. Look for “a firm that has proven technology and process expertise” and knows the compliance rules in particular countries, says Canning.

Rosen recommends that if HR is selecting a firm to do background checking in an EU country, it choose one that has signed on with the Safe Harbor arrangement.

Incomplete Returns

A key question for HR is whether an applicant should be ruled out if any part of his or her overseas background can’t be verified. Don’t set a hard and fast rule, Rosen advises. Denying an applicant a job because information can’t be verified can raise fairness issues, he says, especially if the denial amounts to penalizing an applicant for circumstances beyond his or her control. For example, it may be discriminatory to rule out an applicant for unverifiable information when the information is being sought from a war-torn country whose records may have been destroyed.

When customary checking isn’t possible, Rosen says, let the applicant provide alternative types of verification, such as a copy of a degree or the names of others who could back up the applicant’s claims. Further, if an applicant’s academic degree can’t be verified, you could try other ways to determine the person’s knowledge, skills and experience, perhaps by calling the applicant’s former co-workers. However, Rosen adds, an applicant’s failure to help the employer go to extra lengths to check information can be grounds for denying employment in conjunction with the inability to get the verification.

A More Open Future?

Despite the difficulties of extracting information from overseas sources, Corley and others express confidence that over time the relatively new process of international background checking will get better.

“The prospect of major improvements in the near term is progressing as the need for information continues to increase,” Corley says. “Information availability over the past five years alone has grown significantly as American employers have continued to pursue applicants with roots far removed from the United States. As with any decision, understanding the realities of the situation and acting accordingly is the best course of action to follow.”

Canning says the goal should be consistency in screening worldwide. “It is critical that companies apply the same criteria to non-U.S. portions of the check that they do to the U.S. portions. We would never think of saying it is especially important to check the education credentials of applicants from Virginia” as opposed to any other state, she says. “So inasmuch as it is possible, we need to apply a similar mind-set to global screening.”

Noting that international background checking “is relatively new” for U.S. employers, Canning says, “I do not believe we will be talking about these kinds of challenges 18 months or two years from now. I have seen a wider acceptance and understanding about the goals of background screening outside the United States, and I would expect that trend to continue as the global workforce becomes more of a global village.”

Pamela Babcock is a freelance writer based in the New York City area. She has worked as a reporter for The Washington Post and The News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C., as well as in corporate communications.

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