The end of the embellished CV

If one bad apple occasionally slips into a company undetected, does that infect the whole barrel?

Web searches and social media have changed how companies screen for employees.

Yahoo! chief executive Scott Thompson is the latest high-profile manager to be exposed as having been economical with the truth when he compiled his CV.

Thompson’s error was to embellish his academic qualifications by claiming he had a computer science degree, as well as one in accounting. Exposed by shareholder Daniel Loeb, Thompson was forced to step down after only four months in the job.

Many Australian managers would not have been surprised by the revelation. A survey by recruitment firm Robert Half, conducted in 17 countries, has shown Australians are the second-most sceptical employers when it comes to the veracity of CVs.

Job applicants are most likely to embellish or lie about their former roles and management skills, according to 72 per cent of Australian managers. That’s why people are asked to supply references – but these aren’t necessarily reliable, says Australian firm Balance Recruitment, which found that 39 per cent of the 900 workers and managers it surveyed from the IT and finance industries had used their mate as a referee.

If one bad apple occasionally slips into a company undetected, does that infect the whole barrel? Recruitment agency Discovering People reports that more than two-thirds of Australian companies experience fraud, of which more than 80 per cent comes from an internal source.

Perhaps Loretta Delianov, currently on trial in Melbourne accused of stealing at least A$3 million from her employer, Visy, is just the tip of the iceberg. Delianov, who worked in payroll, has admitted to part of the theft. However, questions about Visy’s background checking procedures remain, because the company hired her 18 months after she was released from jail after serving time for stealing more than A$500,000 from her previous two employers.

The larger the organisation, the easier it is for it to become a target of fraud, says Kim Macdonald, general manager Australia and New Zealand at recruitment specialist First Advantage. In 2010 the firm’s Background Screening Trends Australia report drew on 1345 background checks delivered to clients. It shows the risk of attracting an unsuitable applicant increases significantly from 12 per cent for businesses with fewer than 100 staff to 35 per cent for organisations with more than 10,000. Senior management appointments create the greatest risk, with 44 per cent of applicants recording an “alert”.

Little wonder employers are increasingly turning to social networking to vet potential employees. What kind of person someone is outside of work, who they are connected to and how they present themselves all give clues as to how well that person will fit into the workplace culture.

Sarah Mitchell, website content director at the Australian resource industry employer body AMMA, says the group uses social media extensively as a tool for engaging jobseekers.

“I hear people say they have applied for hundreds of jobs and can’t get an interview,” she says. “I’ll click on their Facebook page or Twitter and see photographs of risky behaviours, evidence of poor judgement, racist and misogynistic comments. The lines have really blurred between private and public life.”

In an age of proliferating information, individuals need to take responsibility, adds Judith MacCormick, Sydney partner in the CEO and Board Practice division at executive search and leadership consulting firm Heidrick & Struggles. “It’s like having a filing cabinet in the middle of Martin Place in Sydney – we should be aware of what we are putting out there,” she says. Her view is that employers mostly use social networks – mainly LinkedIn and general Google searches – as cross-referencing tools to confirm resume details.

Macdonald believes employers should make a distinction between sites such as Facebook, which contain private information, and LinkedIn, which is more of a public tool. “There is no forgetting anymore,” he says. “Facebook will have those pictures of you indefinitely. No generation has faced this problem before.”

However, ethical considerations aren’t always a priority when the cost of hiring the wrong person is so high, Mitchell suggests.

“There’s a big debate about whether it’s ethical or not to look at someone’s profile online. Some would say they’d never do that, others would say that while ethically it might not be fantastic, they are the hiring manager who is making a really expensive decision and because of that they’re going to do it anyway.”

Employers in the US are split on the issue. A report published this year by US company EmployeeScreenIQ surveyed 655 people from a wide range of organisations. Nearly half said they consulted social media sites as part of their screening process; 9 per cent admitted they always looked at such sites, while 52 per cent claimed they did not.

“Despite the potential, social networking sites are not yet widely accepted as a trusted background check resource,” insists an EmployeeScreenIQ spokesperson, who expects this to change rapidly.

Some commentators believe the web and social networking sites are an opportunity for jobseekers to take ownership of their identity and brand themselves. Dan Schawbel of Millennial Branding, a US Gen Y research and management consultancy, predicts that online identities will replace resumes because there are advantages in gaining “control over how you’re perceived online and thus what employers find out about you”.

“Reputation is the new value,” agrees Andrew Keen, author of Digital Vertigo. Keen says the traditional routes into work are disappearing and it’s driving people onto digital networks. “A lot of people are kind of uncomfortable about the networks, they don’t know why they’re on it but they realise they need to be.

“They have to understand what’s in it for them, but also learn how to draw the line in terms of distinguishing their real identity from creating a private one as well.”

Evaluating Facebook

Which is a more accurate predictor of the success of a job applicant: a self-evaluated personality test or a perusal of the same candidate’s Facebook profile?

Don Kluemper, a professor of management at Northern Illinois University (NIU), asked a group of students to fill in a personality questionnaire and IQ test typically used by employers. The students were asked to gauge themselves on five key traits: conscientiousness; agreeability; extroversion; emotional stability; and openness.

A panel was then asked to check the students’ Facebook profiles and answer questions similar to those used in the self-evaluation tests. Two scores were given to each student, one based on the test, the other on their Facebook assessment.

“Personality profile questionnaires are subject to people providing what they think is the socially acceptable answer. It’s harder to do that on Facebook,” Kluemper said in an interview with website NIU Today.

In a follow-up with students employed for six months, researchers found that, compared with the Facebook and personality test scores, the Facebook scores were a more accurate predictor of job performance.

Keep it private

Sarah Mitchell, website content director at AMMA, the resource industry employer group for mining, oil and gas jobs, says the onus is on the job applicant to control their online presence. She advises:

  • Make personal profiles private. Most people use at least one social network, typically Facebook or MySpace, to connect with friends and family. Fun conversations, personal photos and unprofessional comments have no place in a job search. A single inappropriate comment or photo can raise a red flag with recruiters. Make it a priority to lock down privacy settings, preventing recruiters from entering your personal network.
  • Avoid making controversial comments. Never voice your opinion on religion, sexual preference, politics or other people on your public business profile. Keep your conversation strictly professional, only discussing subjects relating to your field of expertise.
  • Keep your online resume up-to-date. The online resume – such as a LinkedIn profile – should accurately reflect the resume typically submitted with job applications. Missing information or exaggerated claims will leave recruiters doubting your honesty.
  • Remove any unfavourable information. Google your own name on a regular basis. If you find unfavourable information in Google’s search results – such as negative comments made about you, or comments you have made about others – make every attempt to remove it from the internet.

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