Posted on Thursday 23 September 2010 by Ulster Business

With more competition than ever for jobs, employers are becoming increasingly vigilant about screening applicants to keep out the bad apples. Ulster Business looked at the minefield facing both recruiters and jobseekers

Competition for jobs is at its most intense level for many years. News stories have appeared throughout 2010 citing instances where there are 25, 50 or even 100 applicants for every available position. In that situation it has probably occurred to more than a few people to bolster their CVs or be selective with the truth. After all what harm could it really do to make my A-level Maths grade an A instead of a B? But anyone who has even considered doing this should beware. In the current climate employers are being ever more vigilant about who they hire, and that usually means an extensive and comprehensive screening process. Several high profile firms are employing professional services firms such as PricewaterhouseCoopers to make sure they have all the facts. Ian McConnell, a partner in PwC’s forensic unit in Belfast, says employers have realised that operating on trust alone can end up costing them a lot of money. “People tend, particularly in Northern Ireland, to take other people at face value. But I can honestly say that we have enough evidence to say that is a risky thing to do,” he says. “There was always an element of misrepresentation on CVs and recruitment documentation. But the propensity for people to do it has increased given reduced opportunity in the jobs market. People have more reason now to make themselves appear different or better,” he adds. Dishonest or unqualified candidates can end up costing businesses millions, damage corporate reputations and even put lives at risk, depending on how much responsibility the person has. In that light the statistics on how many people have misrepresented something about themselves – from a school exam grade to criminal convictions – make for alarming reading. “Typically we find that one in four are what we would describe as a high level exception, where there are issues with non-qualification or something that raises concerns with sanctions lists or credit checks, or issues identified over reputation – something that is enough to prompt a re-assessment of a potential job offer,” says Mr McConnell. “If a person has a propensity to make their A-levels three As rather than three Bs it tells you something about their character,” he adds. Although most employers believe they have vetted prospective employees, in many cases this goes no further than phoning the number of the person listed as a reference and taking what they say at face value, or inspecting a certificate for a qualification rather than phoning the academic institution. The most common lies are over the type of qualification or grade achieved, failure to declare a criminal record, failure to declare being sacked from a prior job and the mis-stating of length of employment with a previous company to give a false impression of more experience. PwC screens in two categories. The first is verifying what is written on an application form or said in an interview is correct. The second, is a deeper check for potential “red flags” on a person. This can include credit checks, criminal checks, reviewing media coverage of the person and how they are viewed within their sector for reputational risks, finding out if the person is globally sanctioned or on terrorist lists, or has been disqualified as a director. These red flag checks are quickly becoming the norm. In financial services – an area where the credibility and integrity of people handling money should be absolutely assured – the process has been driven by Financial Services Authority regulation. If something goes wrong in a regulated organisation and it does not have a robust screening policy, fines are far greater than in another company that can show it tried to mitigate the risk of hiring an unsuitable person. In Government too the checks are stringent. Since October 2009 anyone working in or for government must be screened through a process that ensures they meet a Baseline Personnel Security Standard. This applies to anyone with potential access to government premises and sensitive data – from security and cleaners to accountants and consultants. “The more sophisticated the business the more aware they are of the benefits or the risks of not doing it,” says Mr McConnell. “The very large companies will have their own in-house teams that will screen their own recruits. Where we are pitching in the market is actually for the smaller business that recognises the value but it is not worth their while to set up a team of people to do it in-house. “For example, if you are hiring a financial director into a company with 50-100 employees, that is a very important role that it is important to get right.” Often it takes one company within a sector to be burned before word spreads about the need for screening. But PwC believes that in the current climate when companies are getting double or triple the amount of applicants as normal, they are more vulnerable to getting a person who is looking to mislead them. With so many applications even minor factors such as views expressed online can count against a candidate. Mr McConnell says recent graduates in particular are unaware of the ease with which employers can get information on the internet. Google’s chief executive Eric Schmidt recently went as far as saying that a whole generation of young people may have to change their names to escape the consequences of their previous online activity. While other commentators believe that social attitudes to personal content on the web will become more forgiving over time, a lot of employers are likely to adopt a hard line stance in the near term because competition for jobs is so fierce. “The best way to mitigate your risk of fraud is to know who you are doing business with and who you are employing,” says McConnell. “A lot of graduates coming out of university looking for jobs will have, during the last three years, and without much thought, posted all sorts of stuff on Facebook and bebo. They have to expect it is open season on that and that someone will go have a look at it and draw a conclusion from it. “People need to be very careful about what they do and where they do it.” Managing your online reputation Google boss, Eric Schmidt warned last month that a generation of people may have to change their names in order to escape their previous online activity. I think he was perhaps overstating the issue, but in light of a recent survey that found that most employers now use social networking sites to screen candidates it is an issue nonetheless. Employers suggest that they are able to find out the following from the internet: • Candidate lied about qualifications • Candidate displayed poor communication skills • Candidate used discriminatory comments • Candidate posted content about their use of drink or drugs • Candidate uploaded provocative or inappropriate photographs or information • Candidate bad-mouthed their previous employer, colleagues or clients • Candidate shared confidential information from workplace So Facebook, LinkedIn, Tweeters and so on beware! If you are not a regular blogger or social networker it will be still possible to find something about you on the web. If you are looking for a new job or to do business with someone, what is found could make the difference between an offer and a rejection. Google yourself and see what comes up. With an estimated 60% of employers doing just that, you will get a feel for what they may learn about you. When you join an organisation your new colleagues may already know much more about you than you might be comfortable with. Professional networks like LinkedIn should pose little problem – assuming your details are supported by your CV. Your Facebook and YouTube activity may give an employer a different picture. However, unlike tattoos, comments you have made online in the heat of the moment or that picture of you dancing on the bar on holiday can be cleaned up. Some professional sites such as LinkedIn will let you edit your profile accordingly. Facebook will let you remove comments you have made. Forums or blogs where you might have complained about customer service, for example, may not. It is often harder to remove pictures and video in which you have been tagged. Contact the person who posted it and ask them to un-tag you or, remove it. For those comments you are not able to do anything about, try not to worry, time is a great healer. The longer a web page has little or no activity, the lower down the search results it will go so older comments about less topical items will have less of an impact. Post worthwhile questions or add sensible and considered comment to discussions on your own or other people’s blogs and professional discussion groups. You will not only position yourself better professionally when you do come up in a search, but also push more of the outdated poorer content further down the search results. The internet and social networking should not be feared. For someone who truly nurtures their relationships with contacts, social media can be the biggest referral network available. It is important you manage any online recommendations effectively. However, by following a few simple rules you can limit the damage done: • Employ the strictest privacy settings and set the highest levels of security. This is no guarantee but there is no point in making it easy. • Remove any personal information, pictures or references you would rather employers did not see. It is obvious but the best way to start. • Ask your friends and colleagues to remove any damaging or disparaging statements, pictures or comments that feature you. This limits the damage done by your extended network. Keep up to date with what is being said about you and act accordingly. Remember it is not about ego, but knowing where to go.

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