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Executive Candidates: Still Consider Doing a Reference Check
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Just because you have an executive-level applicant doesn't mean you can toss aside background checking in final-stage screening.

Yvonne LaRose, CAC

Until recently, many had the impression that because a person was a seasoned executive under consideration for a lateral move or a step up that it was a bit ridiculous to even consider making them do something as fundamental as completing a job application. It was even more outlandish to feel a full background check on the applicant was necessary. After all, this is an executive who's gained a prestigious standing in the company, been responsible for taking it to financial glory and hundreds of thousands of dollars per year in revenues, has degrees and advanced degrees. This person has polish and solid business knowledge.

This applicant is just as human as the rest of the world. In addition to the scandals that are now seeing the light of day, other companies have discovered some of their executive hires were less than desirable. Upon further investigation, criminal records involving theft, abuse, multiple bankruptcies, and murder were among the elements of undisclosed, colorful backgrounds of some executive applicants.

While some of these matters probably would not have been disclosed on a simple employment application, a thorough background check would have revealed these things. These steps, combined with good reference checking, should provide a much more solid basis for knowing your applicant is a good choice and among the top five (or so) contenders. There are several Net firms that offer background checking services that are quite thorough and reliable. Their rates are extremely reasonable when compared with the outcome sought.

Some are combining the background check done by companies such as PeopleSoft, US Search, CISOnline and KnowX with Internet searches. Internet searches are especially useful when checking representations of those under consideration. Some recommend using this type of search for checking on the candidate's school record, former employment and associations. Wisely, it is pointed out that information found on the Net can be cloudy. Although you find a person at all of those places who has the same name as your candidate, they may be two different people. It's wise to base your searches and conclusions on verifiable information.

Further, the background check should be combined with some type of professional psychological screening (administered to all persons for a position of the type in question) and some follow-up interviews. The psychological screening should disclose personality traits that may affect corporate dealings or propensities toward questionable behavior and cognition of its fringe status. Psychological tests are also useful for determining how a person will react under certain circumstances. If you have an applicant who, when the time for the psychological testing arrives, suddenly has one excuse after another for not being able to attend the screening, it would be prudent to look a little more closely at who you actually have. If these excuses arise after there's been constant enthusiasm about the position and a "hurry up and hire me" type of attitude, it may be a good idea to pass on that person.

In addition to the psychological screening, it's prudent to do at least one follow-up interview. The follow-up interviews serve several functions. There may be some things that come up in the background search that leave some questions about certain issues. The interview can be used to ask about those matters and provide some time for the applicant to discuss or explain the situations. Some other issues may have been found while doing an Internet search or collecting personal references. Again, the follow-up interview is a time when these issues can be clarified. Now that the applicant is a serious contender, the follow-up interview can also be used to more closely evaluate the applicant and their philosophies on key issues.

However, the critical steps to hiring -- even for someone under consideration for an executive-level position -- is doing a background check and requiring a formal employment application. Just because it's a high profile position doesn't mean anything if you've put the wrong person in the slot.

Originally published July 16, 2002

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  • Accounting Industry Overview from Vaults Bookstore.
  • Investment Management Industry Overview from Vaults Bookstore.
  • Management & Strategy Consulting Industry Overview from Vaults Bookstore.
  • Company Insider Guides from Vaults Bookstore.:
    • Andersen (Arthur Andersen, Accounting and Financial Services), 2002 Edition (Published: February 2002. Available at
    • Andersen's Business Consulting Practice, 2002 Edition (Published: December 2001). Available
    • Enron, 1999 Edition (Published: December 1998)
    • Ernst & Young "Why Work for Us" Guide