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FAQs | Human Resources

Background Checks

Q1: What is the most efficient method of doing a background check on a potential company executive (checking facts as well as personality fit)?

There are many different ways to go about it, and many different areas in which to conduct a background check. There are general reference checks, credit and criminal checks, factual checks (like employment and educational verification) and finally the checking of personality fit.

Regarding general reference checks, Mario Morino believes that the most important thing to conduct very thorough reference checks. "Be sure to talk to both superiors and subordinates, and those who've negotiated with the candidate (partners, clients)." Gerri Garvin of Career Movers agrees, but adds that "Everyone has a bias. Find out how well the contact knows the person. Did they work on projects together, over an extended period of time? Do they present a balanced picture? No one is perfect, so expect to hear about some problem areas. Can the problem areas be attributed to some reasonable explanation?" Ms. Garvin finds that attitude, behavior or values and ethics problems are the most troublesome and would not hire someone with these problems.

It's also important to take into account how long ago the contact worked with the person you are investigating. As Ms. Garvin points out, "People grow and change in their careers. A critique that was accurate 5 years ago probably won't be accurate today. Looking for a common pattern or theme as you talk to various contacts helps verify information. When asking questions, ask for three positive things and three things the person needs to change or work on." Mr. Morino adds that, "Another tip for checking references is to use the references the candidate provides to get the name and telephone number of other references which may be more objective." Be mindful that timing is everything. Jane Scott Cantus of Korn Ferry emphasizes that it is important to "Always check with the candidate to make sure conducting references is appropriate at that time."

Ms. Garvin also believes you will run into contacts who may be reluctant to give damaging feedback. So, "Listen for long silences or 'damning with faint praise'. Some people may be reluctant to give damaging feedback, but want to signal that there are problems with this person. Most companies will not reveal damaging information about a former employee because they are concerned about legal liability. Keep in mind that between 70-80% of all negative terminations are related to a personality conflict between manager and direct report, not to job performance."

Jane Scott Cantus of Korn Ferry provides the following information for different types of checks you can do yourself:

  1. For Education verification - call the registrar's office of the university from which candidate received degrees; with a social security number or date of birth, anyone can verify degrees.
  2. For Employment verification - call the HR department of employer to verify dates of employment. The only real way to verify claimed accomplishments would be through reference checks (interviewing past bosses, colleagues, etc.).
  3. For Credit/Criminal checks - we use a paid service (Equifax) to conduct credit and criminal checks. These companies charge a minimal fee (about $35 to $50) to produce these reports. It usually takes 48 to 96 hours.
  4. With regard to personality/fit, there really are few short cuts when trying to determine the qualitative factors. A well trained human resources executive who understands the company's culture would be able to discern if a candidate fits the culture of the organization. And the best judge for the initial hire would always be that candidate's prospective manager.

Q2: Should you use an outside firm?

Mario Morino believes that, "While you can use an outside firm, be sure to do some of the checking yourself." One thing you can do yourself, if you just want some basic self-reported information is to order a Dun & Bradstreet report. Larry Ross of Ross Financial Services recommends this method for basic checking. "Even if you are not a subscriber, you should be able to buy a D & B Business Information Report for less than $100. It usually contains a brief biography obtained from the principals. If you want to delve any deeper, you should use an outside firm that has access to the thousands of on-line business databases that are available by subscription."

"You can also hire private investigators that specialize in investigating candidates for high level executive positions," says B. Solnik. "They do routine checks such as driving record, credit history, criminal record; and, for a higher fee, can delve deeper by checking other records (such as whether or not the person has been sued), and by making discreet inquiries with the candidate's associates."

Q3: Which outside firms are recommended?

Christina Bublick [] recommends Informus, They do routine employment investigations, credit and driving history checks. You can even sign up online.

Larry Ross, of Ross Financial Services, [] does this exact work and comes highly recommended (by Mario Morino). Ross Financial Services provides clients with pre-letters of intent due diligence. They analyze the history of the business to determine how their previous deals were struck or implemented, the contentiousness of their proposed partners, undisclosed liabilities and so forth. As part of this service they provide background information about the officers and shareholders. In many cases they uncover information early on that has dramatically improved the negotiating strategy for their clients. For example, they have been known to discover the favorite book, the basic business bible, of a targeted CEO, which then opens the conversation on a comfortable path.


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