How much employee screening is too much?
It was said back at the height of the cold war, that everyone in East Germany had their own spy. Kind of like a social worker with a bad attitude, even the spies had spies. Trust no one and no one trusted you. Germany reunited in 1990, the spy agency Stasi ceased to be and I guess everyone just got along awkwardly for a while, not talking about stuff. Any child conceived during that time would now be old enough to drink, vote and soon get discounted motor vehicle insurance. It was a while ago. There was no FaceBook. I know, crazy.
Back in 1990, it was probably relatively simple to concoct a CV crammed with generous over-achievements. A Commonwealth Games swimming bronze medal here, a Masters degree there. It was a hassle because there were no word processors and you had to type up multiple copies of your fraudulent qualifications but it was very do-able. And even if prospective employers thought to bother to check, it was no simple matter to do so. No Google. I know, crazy.
It was generally bad luck getting caught out. People would make their lie on their CV, they’d get the job and they’d truck on quite happily and maybe even quite successfully. Then something would happen. Maybe there was an accident or event which caught the media’s attention and in their muckraking they uncovered some facts which revealed the original falsehoods. Look it up in the Dictionary under ‘Icebergs: tips of.’ Or, you’d get invited to speak at a function and discover that a chap in the front row also served in the S.A.S. Afghanistan at the same time and in the same village that you claim to have done, yet he has never heard of you. New Zealand is a small town. Never burn a bridge and keep your lies away from computers and microphones.
As it is with insurance claims, exaggeration was probably more commonplace than outright total fabrication. I know I myself often refer to my DBA as “half an MBA.”
Employers who used executive search consultants were indignant that the mega fees didn’t include a thorough screening to ensure that the new CEO did actually have a law degree from Harvard University’s Rio de Janiero campus.
That was then and this is now. There are internets everywhere. Over half of your prospective employers will search you out on FaceBook, LinkedIn etc and see how that synchronises with what you’ve been claiming about your qualifications, achievements and personal morality and hygiene. I’m surprised the figure is only half. It will certainly grow. There are many websites where you can check out a hotel, movie or restaurant before you go. IMDB.com gives ‘Dallas Buyers Club’ an 8.0 and RoboCop a 6.7. You have the feedback and can make a more informed choice. How long before we get the same feedback aggregating services for us as employees? They already exist for trades people – plumbers, sparkies etc. The wisdom of crowds online. Or the logic of pitchfork-wielding mobs. Tomayto, tomahto.
Screening employees has become quite the industry. I remember Pinkerton as a private detective agency from the movies as much as anything else. They didn’t track down Zorro in the 2005 movie, nor Butch and Sundance, so now they’ve turned their skills to perhaps easier prey – they have an entire division dedicated to employee screening. No disrespect to employees but Zorro was self employed and they do tend to work a lot harder.
There was a local case recently where an unsuccessful job candidate was subsequently successful at convincing a judge to compel the employer to release the CVs of the other applicants. The employees are now screening the employers. I have mixed feelings about this particular case but the principle of 2-way screening is only fair.
Methodical pre-hire screening can significantly reduce poor hires. Drug screening and background checks often filter out the worst hiring mistakes. But really, the worst aren’t the drug addicts, fakers or those with criminal backgrounds. The largest volume are those sneaking by even the sharpest hirers are applicants who lack the skills necessary to do their job or attitude to fit the organisation. Screen by all means but of greater importance is a robust and systemic approach to recruitment generally.
Employees get screened during recruitment for crimes, debts, health and on the veracity of their CVs. Once employed, they can get screened for drugs, stolen goods, whistle-blowing or confidential information. They can even be screened after their employment ends if any restraint of trade type arrangements were made. The common element in all this is a lack of trust. My favourite quote regarding trust came from that cold war era I wrote about earlier. Reagan and Gorbachev were signing nuclear arms reduction treaties and Gorbachev talked about trust. Reagan quipped on what must have been one of his lucid days, “Trust… but verify.”
I don’t know what responses we’d get if we asked one hundred people to tell us the first thing they thought of when we mentioned the term ‘screening.’ They might think of screening as in airport security or preventative health check-ups – keeping the dangerous out. They might think of screening as in letting your phone go to voicemail or checking caller ID and answering for only for the sexy callers – keeping the timewasters and unsexy out. Screening is also a gold mining process – keeping the valuable in. They might think of a movie screening. The difference between a movie screening going badly and employee screening going badly is that the movie screening will just spoil one night. Poor employee screening could mess you up for years. Employee screening is probably a combination of all these different perceptions of screening – except for keeping the unsexy out. That’s illegal and also clearly not working. Where would the unsexy end up working – in any department of a radio station other than sales?
My uncle, now in his 80s, and my son, now in his 18s, were talking about getting their first jobs. My son’s first job was with a supermarket in the seafood section. He made a written application and went through several written interviews and assessments before winning his role. My uncle spoke of showing up on an Aussie building site, saying he was from New Zealand, demonstrating which end of a hammer was up and that was it. (He got the job.) Times have changed. I’m not sure they still use hammers, I think the internet does that now? And now, no one in their right mind would screen an employee so poorly and perfunctorily. Actually, applicants are often screened to make sure they’re in their right mind. Even leaving aside things like skills and attitude, there was no screening for previous work injuries, criminal records, financial shenanigans, child-molesting, non-child molesting, drug use, bringing employers into disrepute in well-light Christchurch offices across from pubs, being a jerk on social media and all the other things you need to screen for now.
I should probably call it pre-employment screening. It might be the smallest part of the phrase but that ‘pre’ is awfully important. Anything you find out ‘post’ is too late – someone’s potential problem has now become your actual problem. Pre-employment is to employment as dating is to marriage.
There’s forensic CV analysis too. That’s a thing now. That exists. In an age where there is software to compare a student’s essay via a search engine that compares it to anything else written ever for familiarity without accreditation, there would have to be forensic CV analysis. I see ‘forensic’, I think CSI. First there was CSI Las Vegas, then CSI Miami, then CSI New York. Now we have CSI HR. Which song by The Who should be the theme song to that show? I think all the good ones are gone.
I found one New Zealand company online offering polygraph testing as part of their pre screening process. I’ve seen too many movies with the cliché lie detector scene to take that process seriously (cue sound effect of heightened heart beat.) In fairness, it was quite an impactful marketing technique to list a series of headlines beneath that offer highlighting the dangers of not taking up their services. Examples of these headlines included: ‘Former insane mass killer unknowingly hired by Wellington school’ and ‘Convicted arsonist gains job as fire fighter.’ Although, in fairness, the latter could actually be a really good news story – a story of redemption about which movies are made (movies like ‘Backdraft,’) I checked the mass killer one. He’d killed six people, described as “friends, family, neighbours and complete strangers.” No teachers or students, so it’s questionable as to whether it’s relevant to his role working in a school but their point is still a powerful one. Frankly they shouldn’t limit their services just to employers. Remember my previous “Pre-employment is to employment as dating is to marriage” remark? I’ll take someone on their word that they like long walks on the beach but I’d sleep a little easier with greater certainty on the non-former insane mas killer front.
There are few risks and many benefits in conducting a systematic and thorough pre employment screening process. You reduce risk, increase certainty, lower costs, enhance productivity and profitability and minimise your chances of being murdered.
Obviously in this modern age of internet hammering and privacy legislation, you need the permission of the applicant to conduct any screening. Although a quick Google could be legal, illuminating and disappointing very quickly. A refusal to provide permission is the easiest and cheapest screening of all.
[Originally published in the May issue of Employment Today magazine.]