The following excerpt from The HR Manager’s Guide to Background Checks and Pre-Employment Testing, by Adrian Miedema and Christina Hall, is reprinted by permission of the publisher, Carswell. © 2012. All rights reserved.
In this excerpt from Chapter 3, the authors discuss the importance of verifying a job applicant’s stated educational qualifications:
Chapter 3: Education and professional or trade certification checks
3.1 Executive summary
1. Employers should verify an applicant’s professional and educational qualifications, particularly if they are necessary for the applicant to do the job.
2. Statistics show that education is the most frequently falsified qualification on a résumé.
3. Courts have usually held that it is just cause for dismissal if an employee misrepresents his or her professional or educational qualifications.
4. Generally, the best time to verify an applicant’s professional and educational qualifications is after he or she has accepted a conditional offer of employment.
Most employers require an applicant for employment to specify his or her level of education or professional qualification. A person’s education level is often a strong indicator of his or her ability to succeed in a position.
3.3 Education fraud on résumés
Surveys suggest that a surprisingly high percentage of job applicants lie on their résumé. Some surveys suggest that education is the most frequently falsified qualification on a résumé. One background checking company found that 45 per cent of the 453,320 education, employment and/or reference checks it conducted in 2007 revealed discrepancies between the information provided by the applicant and the information that the checks uncovered. (1)
While most cases of résumé fraud go unpublicized, on occasion, the media reports on high-profile cases. For example, in 2007, media outlets widely reported the resignation of Marilee Jones, the Dean of Admissions at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.), after it was discovered that Ms. Jones had misrepresented her education when she had originally applied to M.I.T. 28 years earlier. (2) At various times, she had reported having degrees from Albany Medical College, Union College and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. In reality, she did not have degrees from any of these institutions. Examples such as this show why background screening firms often conduct what is euphemistically called an “information difference” check on educational qualifications. This check compares the résumé to the person’s actual educational qualifications.
Too often, however, an employer simply relies on the applicant’s own representations about his or her educational qualifications. As long as the applicant appears to demonstrate knowledge consistent with these qualifications, the employer often does not take further steps to confirm the representations.
For a number of reasons, this practice can be problematic. This chapter will provide some guidelines to assist employers with satisfying themselves that the applicant has accurately represented his or her educational and professional achievements.
3.4 Why verify an applicant’s education or professional certification?
a) Misrepresentation of educational achievements is not uncommon
Unfortunately for employers, it is not uncommon for applicants to either exaggerate – or outright misrepresent – their educational or professional qualifications in order to increase their chances of getting the job. Additionally, there are a number of organizations throughout Canada and the United States that operate as “diploma mills” and make a business out of selling diplomas, degrees and transcripts without providing any formal or informal training. A simple online search reveals multiple hits for Internet resources that can provide fake educational documents. (3) Individuals can obtain documents that either purport to have been issued by real educational institutions or documents that are “issued” by fictitious or disreputable educational institutions. Either way, it may be very difficult for an employer to determine which documents are genuine and which are not.
b) Reduce the risk of negligence claims
As discussed elsewhere in this book, employers can be liable for “negligent hiring” if an employee, who is hired without a proper background check, causes harm or a loss in the course of his or her employment. If an employee lacks the educational or professional requirements necessary for his or her job, and causes harm to a third party because of his or her lack of qualifications, the employer may be liable to the third party because of his or her lack of qualifications, the employer may be liable to the third party. Because it is so easy to check a person’s educational credentials, it will be difficult for an employer to justify its failure to check.
c) Business reputation and employee morale
Employers often advertise the credentials and achievements of their employees both internally and externally to their organization. Not only is this typically done in print, but often electronically as well, in order to best fulfill marketing and business development goals. By doing so, employers are seen to be “standing behind” of “vouching for” their employees. If it comes to light that an employee does not have the educational or professional requirements for the job, the employer may need to explain this state of affairs to its customers or clients, its other employees and possibly to other third parties or independent regulators. A properly executed background check will decrease the risk of such an unpalatable situation.
d) Protect against future costs
Some of the most significant risks facing employers who do not check the educational and professional qualifications of their applicants do not become apparent until well after the initial hiring. If a background check is not performed initially, it can take time for an employer’s suspicions to be raised to the point that it considers investigating the employee’s qualifications. If it is discovered that an employee misrepresented his or her qualifications, the employer may well decide to terminate the employee’s employment for just cause. Since the employer will likely refuse to provide the dismissed employee with any notice or pay in lieu of notice, the employer may then be faced with a wrongful dismissal claim. The employer will suffer the inconvenience of dealing with the claim and its attendant legal fees, in addition to the costs that the employer will incur in order to hire and train a replacement employee. Again, conducting a background check prior to hiring the applicant can substantially lessen the risk of incurring these costs.
(1.) See “Screening Index”, Automatic Data Processing, online: http://www.adpselect-info.com/clients/screeningIndex.htm(date accessed: Jan. 4, 2012)
(2.) See Dean of Admissions at M.I.T. Resigns, Ending a 28 Year Lie, online: New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2007/04/27us/27mit.html (date accessed: Jan. 4, 2012)
(3.) At the risk of further publicizing any such services, see the shamelessly named http://www.phonydiploma.com/.