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Employment Today, HR Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Employment Today Magazine

Screen check—How to avoid hiring mistakes

Including a pre-employment screening programme in your recruitment process can minimise the risk of a bad hire. Craig Gubbins looks at why it’s worth doing.

The almost three-quarter million dollar fraud committed by senior Ministry of Transport executive Joanne Harrison, who already had convictions for stealing from a previous employer, once again places a spotlight on what employers are, or rather are not, doing when it comes to protecting their business and their reputation by only hiring honest and trustworthy employees.

Based on the comments of the MoT’s CEO Peter Mersi, speaking to the media after appearing before a Parliamentary Select Committee, it seems the answer is “not much”.

Mr Mersi was reported as saying Harrison’s fraud was so “sophisticated” and “deceitful” that no system could have stopped her. Frankly, as one who has been involved in employment screening in New Zealand for over 20 years, I can tell you that Mr Mersi is wrong. There were any number of opportunities to identify Harrison’s unsuitability for employment, but the Ministry chose not to take advantage of them and even ignored the Government’s mandatory protective security requirements for employment screening.

The MoT is not alone. More recently it was reported that the Waikato District Health Board (DHB) recruited a fake psychiatrist. In March, Mohamed Shakeel Siddiqui pleaded guilty to four charges including using forged documents, obtaining a licence by deception, and receiving a salary and expenses while working as a psychiatrist for the DHB.

He had been recommended to the DHB by International Medical Recruitment Ltd (IMR). The recruitment agency checked his references via email correspondence with only one of the referees being contacted by phone. All three references were fake. Siddiqui answered the emails himself, while the telephone number for the one oral reference was later found to be registered to Siddiqui’s brother.

Following Siddiqui’s guilty plea, the DHB claimed it was conned in a “sophisticated scam”. I disagree. It was the simplest of scams that would have been uncovered immediately by a company experienced in employment screening. Unbelievably, the DHB has continued to use the same recruitment company even more than a year after this fraud was uncovered.

Several years ago, the Health and Disability Commissioner censured Wanganui Hospital for the inadequate reference checking it undertook before employing Dr Roman Hasil, an obstetrician and gynaecologist from Slovakia. The enquiry arose because failed tubal ligation operations performed by Hasil resulted in eight women later becoming pregnant (a failure rate of 25 percent, compared to an accepted failure rate of 0.2 percent).

Another woman had her ovaries removed by Hasil without her knowledge, and only discovered it had happened after a routine visit to her GP. From the beginning of his employment, nursing staff had complained of Hasil smelling of alcohol on the ward.

Hasil had originally been referred to the hospital by recruitment agency Enterprise Medical, a branch of Auckland-based Enterprise Recruitment, and the Commissioner observed that it was clear that both Hasil and the recruitment agency (which prepared Hasil’s CV) had difficulty in providing satisfactory referees.

The Commissioner’s report concluded that one referee (a consultant obstetrician) had provided a “damning” reference to Enterprise Medical, but that it was not documented nor reported to Wanganui Hospital. The Commissioner noted that recruitment agencies have a commercial interest in placing a candidate and that Enterprise Medical’s process was less than reliable.

Recruitment companies are good at locating and short-listing candidates, but they simply do not have the investigative or interviewing skills to elicit the useful, meaningful information necessary to assess integrity or undertake background enquiries. Often they are even unable to arrange foreign criminal checks or overseas degree verifications.

An ever-present and equally important issue for employment agencies is that it is not in their interests to uncover anything in the background of a candidate which would impede the securing of a commission for a successful placement—there is an inherent conflict of interest.

Relying on a recruitment company to undertake adequate background checks with respect to a candidate is akin to relying on a real estate agent to write a report on the structural integrity of the house you are thinking of buying. If you are relying on your recruitment company for background screening, then perhaps you need to re-think your strategy.

If you are involved in recruitment and value not just your employer’s but your own personal reputation, then it’s just plain common sense to ensure proper due diligence background screening of job applicants is undertaken before you hire them. It is, in fact, the single most important step in your recruitment process, because, when things go wrong, the first thing the media will ask is “Didn’t you check?”. If you treat the background screening process as just another tick-in-the-box, you are at risk of employing the very people from whom you think your processes are protecting you.

A criminal records check is always the obvious first step, but it’s important not to believe that this is all you need to do. If the Court grants name suppression a criminal check is not going to reveal the candidate’s conviction, or if the person is found not guilty then no conviction is entered.

A couple of years ago, an art school in Wellington hired Stephen Anderson as a jewellery tutor. Unbeknown to the school, because it did no checks at all, Anderson had massacred six people and wounded four others in 1997 (friends, family, neighbours and complete strangers). Two years earlier, Anderson had been diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic, resisted taking his medication, was obsessed with firearms and used cannabis heavily.

After the killings, Anderson was found not guilty of murder by reason of insanity and was detained at a secure hospital until being released into the community in 2009. He was recalled to hospital in 2011 after allegedly using synthetic cannabis.

Had the art school undertaken a criminal record enquiry on Anderson, his killing spree would not have been disclosed because his plea of insanity meant no conviction was recorded against his name. However, if the school had also undertaken other enquires such as analysing his CV for gaps in employment (because he was locked up in a mental facility) or checking with previous employers, it might have learned about his past and avoided hiring him and taking a big reputational hit for having done so. What parent would feel comfortable sending their child to learn jewellery-making from an insane mass killer?

In addition to criminal checks and confirming employment with previous employers, other background checks available include confirming an individual’s identity, their right to work in New Zealand, potential conflicts of interest, financial reports and bankruptcy proceedings, verification of their qualifications, professional licences and registrations, driving conviction history and even driver licence demerit points (because a long history of demerit points can reflect on a person’s maturity and willingness to obey the law—traits an employer would generally expect from their staff).

There are two emerging trends with respect to candidate CVs that we are increasingly encountering during our employment screening work. The first relates to qualifications. For many years, a candidate would have a heading on their CV labelled “Qualifications”, now that word had been replaced with “Education”. Sometimes when we go to verify the degree listed under Education, we learn that the candidate certainly enrolled, but never completed, the degree. Strictly speaking the candidate is not lying if that unfinished degree is recorded as Education, but it is nonetheless misleading. If you have your own company application forms, be sure to use the term “qualifications”.

The second trend is that it is becoming more common for employees to work collaboratively and in teams and often we find candidates list team achievements on their CV with no reference at all to their being but a part of a project. So, when reviewing that CV, be sure to ask the candidate if they did all that work on their own, or were they part of a team?

It is important to remember that you need to engage the candidate with the employment screening process and it is a legal requirement that they consent to the enquiries you wish to undertake.

It is possible to do all these checks yourself if you familiarise yourself with the relevant privacy and human right legislation, but it may be more economical and quicker to contact a specialist provider for help, and it ensures a consistent process is followed long after existing staff who do this work have left your company.

An external review of the MoT’s recruitment policies following Joanne Harrison’s arrest reported that it was evident that Ministry recruitment staff were not aware of the employment screening requirements required by the Government and that what pre-employment checks were undertaken were based on the past knowledge and experience of individual recruitment staff, with inconsistencies in the type of information required from applicants during the recruitment process.

A basic screening package undertaken by a background screening company (comprising New Zealand checks of criminal, driving, and financial history, confirmation of right to work and past employment history), plus an all important written assessment of the information, will cost a lot less than the candidate’s first day’s salary.

By incorporating a pre-employment screening programme into your recruitment process you can minimise, if not avoid, the nightmare that can arise from hiring a person with an unsuitable record, false qualifications, or some other issue that makes a job applicant unqualified, dangerous or unfit for the position.

CRAIG GUBBINS is a director of Personal Verification Ltd, a New Zealand pre-employment background screening company. Visit for further information.

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