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Verify Degrees and Protect the Company from Resume Fraud

A group of graduates wearing graduation hats.

​Jay Meschke has seen resume fraud—even at the highest levels—many times in his 25-year career in executive searches.

For example, while searching for a chief financial officer for a Midwest hospital system, Meschke's team found a terrific candidate with impressive credentials. 

"Everyone fell in love with her," said Meschke, president of CBIZ Talent and Compensation Solutions, an executive recruiting and consulting firm based in Kansas City, Mo. "We're doing the background checks, and we can't confirm her education. We can't prove she got her MBA. Then we can't find that she's a certified public accountant. We can't even prove she's got her BA. We call her and she says she'll send over a copy of her degree. We sent that document to the school and find out it's phony. She wasn't who she said she was. And she had been in her position for 20 years."

That incident is not isolated. The CEO of Bausch & Lomb from 2001-08 faked an MBA from a business school he didn't graduate from. The dean of admissions at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology admitted in 2007 that she had claimed degrees she hadn't earned and in fact had never graduated from college. The CEO of Yahoo was forced to step down in 2012 after it was revealed that his academic credentials did not add up.

"Resume fraud is rampant," Meschke said.

Candidates, even at the most senior levels, are regularly embellishing their resumes, according to a new report from background screening firm HireRight, based in Irvine, Calif. Yet only half of employers verify candidates' education credentials, the report noted, despite the many recent headlines involving falsified degrees.

Eighty-five percent of the 4,000 survey respondents said they uncovered a lie or misrepresentation on a candidate's resume or job application during the screening process—up from 66 percent five years ago.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Conducting Background Investigations]

"The verification of educational credentials is an important part of an employer's decision-making process in hiring," said Les Rosen, an attorney and the CEO of Employment Screening Resources, a background screening firm based in the San Francisco Bay area. "Educational achievement tells an employer a great deal about an applicant's ability, qualifications and motivation. Many employers feel that educational qualifications are a critical factor in predicting success on the job."

And the risks to an organization that doesn't verify education are potentially many, from a loss of internal and external credibility to fraudulent behavior manifesting in job performance.

"Education fraud tends to be the highest percentage of discrepancies we see," said Daniel Yanisse, CEO of Checkr, a San Francisco-based background screening firm. "From a liability perspective, employers face exposure if they don't screen executives and that person causes harm of any kind to customers or employees. Worse is when said executive has a previous track record of that behavior."

Rosen said that educational falsifications generally fall under one of three categories:

  • Outright fabrications such as making up degrees from schools the applicant never attended.
  • Reporting that a degree was earned from a school the applicant attended, though the applicant never completed the course work for the degree.
  • Reporting meaningless degrees of no value from nonaccredited schools, often referred to as "diploma mills." "Diploma mills are generally defined as substandard or fraudulent colleges that offer potential students degrees with little or no serious work," Rosen said. "Some are simple frauds, a mailbox to which people send money in exchange for paper that purports to be a college degree. Others require some nominal work from the student or a validation of life experience but do not require college-level course work that is normally required for a degree. The common denominator is that degree mills lack accreditation and therefore are not recognized as a legitimate provider of post-secondary education."

The potential risk of hiring an executive who misrepresents himself or herself is much greater than for rank-and-file employees because executives have the most access to sensitive company information and the greatest ability to commit fraud, said John Challenger, CEO of Chicago-based outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas. "Executives may not be as thoroughly vetted in the hiring process as other employees, potentially leading to bad hires at the top of the company, lawsuits and scandal," he said.

"It may be that once a person has accrued a lengthy work history, that recruiters or hiring managers may think that an individual has already been 'screened' by other organizations," said Ray Bixler, president and CEO of SkillSurvey, an automated reference check company based in the Philadelphia area. "But that would be a mistake," he added.

Meschke said that in his experience, executives are typically screened just as thoroughly as other employees, if not more so, but a big difference revolves around the timing. "With executives, there is a certain degree of inherent trust in terms of believing that the person is being truthful when providing credentials via a resume or a LinkedIn profile early in the recruitment process," he explained.

"In fact, many executives do not technically complete a formal application until the back end of the selection cycle. Accordingly, discrepancies regarding degrees, length of employment tenures and gaps in employment tenures may not be fully vetted until the hiring enterprise performs references, background checks and social media reviews," Meschke said.

Most candidates start the recruitment process by completing an application first, leading to earlier screening and detection of resume or credential fraud, he added.

"Somewhere along the line, someone in HR needs to compare the information a person puts down in the application with the person's resume and their LinkedIn profile," Meschke said. "Connect those dots. People do omit things and embellish roles and responsibilities. That's when inconsistencies and potential fraud arise."

Meschke also warned about getting caught up in the halo effect, when "everyone likes the candidate, the train is moving down the track and the placement can't be stopped. All of a sudden the HR person says 'wait a minute, there's something that just doesn't add up,' and now they are the holdup. But that's the responsibility of HR—to be the voice of reason."

Steps for Verifying Candidates' Education

Rosen outlined four primary pieces of information needed to verify education history and qualifications:

  • The school exists.
  • The school is accredited by an approved accrediting body.
  • The candidate attended the school during the time period claimed.
  • A degree was actually granted to the candidate as claimed.

Educational verification can be one of the more difficult and time-intensive aspects of pre-employment checks, however, with many schools restricting anyone but the graduate from accessing records and long turnaround times for obtaining diplomas or transcripts.

Many schools do not respond directly to requests for information, but information can be found at the National Student Clearinghouse, which provides electronic student records and postsecondary transcripts in the U.S. For a fee, the clearinghouse verifies enrollment and graduation information for students of most public and private U.S. institutions.

Another good resource is the Federal Trade Commission site listing resources about diploma mills and phony degrees.

Additional tips for ferreting out educational or other types of resume fraud include:

  • Involving multiple people in the interview process and then confirming what the candidate said.
  • Checking with past employers to ensure that work history and credentials are correct.

"One thing we know about a traditional job interview is that most of what we hear and learn about the candidates comes directly from them," Bixler said. "Candidates actively promote themselves. But often the most useful and interesting information about a candidate is the information that comes from someone else—prior managers, colleagues, former co-workers, or customers they've served."

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