Reducing Resume Fraud: Fantastical Degrees and Where to Find Them

Few cases of resume bolstering get as much attention as that of George Santos, the U.S. representative for New York’s 3rd congressional district. After Santos’s 2020 resume was published in the media earlier this year, it was revealed to include a number of lies about his past activity, including fabricated education credentials and a partly fictional employment history, leading to bipartisan calls for his resignation.

resume fraud

While not every occurrence of resume fraud will be as high profile as that of a person appointed to a role in public office, it’s a good example of a growing problem employers everywhere are facing. Now that hybrid and remote working is commonplace in many industries and employees can often access highly sensitive and confidential data from their own homes, it’s essential for employers to be able to trust their workers.

In this article, we look at what may be lurking beneath the surface of your candidates’ resumes and what employers can do to mitigate potential reputational, financial, and corporate risk.

Lowered Risk vs. Efficiency

Employing anyone will always carry an element of risk, but businesses can implement steps to manage their risks with robust due diligence. While industries such as transportation and health care often have regulations mandating specific background checks for certain job functions, for businesses in other areas (and nonregulated roles within regulated industries), employers must use their best judgment to determine what their policies will be for vetting their candidates pre-hire.

By omitting certain background checks, employers may be able to reduce new hires’ onboarding time, but some facets of their candidates’ backgrounds, which could reveal things that may make recruiters reconsider their hiring decisions, risk being overlooked. Conversely, a “leave no stone unturned” approach could be unnecessarily costly for a business and time-consuming for both the employer and its candidates and result in candidates’ withdrawing from the recruitment process to pursue a job they can start sooner.

So how can employers strike a balance between mitigating risk, managing costs, and reducing time to hire?

Assessing Your Employment Risks

First and foremost, a background check must always be relevant and proportionate to the role candidates have applied for. Employers should work with their legal counsel and seek best practice information from a knowledgeable employment screening provider regarding which checks may be considered appropriate for various roles, as well as any checks that may not be available in the different states, countries, and territories their business is screening in.

More senior roles, or those with access to highly sensitive information, are typically considered higher risk, and individuals applying for these types of positions may undergo more thorough vetting. For example, an executive-level hire may be required to undergo specific checks above those routinely required for all employees, such as a directorship check (to search for any current or previously held directorships that may present a conflict of interest), an adverse media check (to verify that the individual hasn’t been negatively reported in the media for anything that may be relevant to the role), and a social media check (to confirm the candidate hasn’t posted anything on public social media profiles that could potentially embarrass the company or that indicates certain behaviors that wouldn’t be appropriate in the role).

However, education checks are sometimes overlooked despite being relevant and proportionate to most job roles, and their omission can potentially result in a company’s hiring underqualified workers. 

Education Checks 101: What Are Education Checks?

An education check, or an academic history check, verifies education details provided by candidates on their resume or application form. For this check, educational institutions are contacted directly or via their authorized agents to validate the academic qualifications a candidate claims to have. Additionally, employers may also request that candidates provide supporting documentation, such as degree certificates and transcripts.

While regulated positions may dictate the specific requirements of an education check, for other roles, employers must decide what they feel is appropriate to provide them with peace of mind in this area to support their hiring decisions. Employers may choose to verify a candidate’s most recent education only, all higher education (all undergraduate and postgraduate qualifications, possibly including courses still being studied), or even all education history (including high school attendance dating back to when a candidate was 17 or 18 years old).

Finding Fake, Forged, and Fabricated Degrees

Another consideration when verifying a candidate’s education credentials, particularly if a business is doing this in-house, is diploma mills. These are organizations that claim to be higher education institutions but instead sell fabricated or falsified educational qualifications to individuals for a fee.

Documentation provided by diploma mills can appear genuine, and without access to databases of known diploma mills, which many employment screening providers use or build themselves, it can be hard to know for certain if your candidates’ education qualifications are genuine.  

Our recent annual Benchmark Report revealed that just 41% of survey respondents from the United States and Canada who said their company had a background screening program were conducting education checks in 2022. Shockingly, almost three-fifths weren’t checking this basic information as part of their preemployment screening programs, potentially leaving them exposed to reputational and financial risk if candidates secured roles based on illegitimate academic qualifications. In comparison, 76% of survey respondents from Asia-Pacific (APAC) and 70% of survey respondents from Europe, the Middle East, and Africa (EMEA) said they conducted education checks.   

The survey additionally found that 21% of employers globally had identified candidates during the background screening process who had discrepancies in their education credentials. These types of discrepancies were at their peak in India, where 53% of respondents found education discrepancies while conducting preemployment background checks.

While discrepancies could be due to several reasons, such as misremembering dates of study, it’s important to verify this information to catch any candidates who are intentionally trying to deceive their potential employers by bolstering their resumes with fraudulent education details.

High-profile cases in which an individual or employee’s education credentials are said to be false are often shared in the media. This can damage the credibility of the individual, as well as potentially put the reputation of a business or brand they represent in jeopardy. A single incident could undermine the integrity of an entire workforce. If one bad apple has managed to get through the company’s recruitment process, how do people know that others haven’t also slipped the net?

A robust background screening program, including education checks, can allow employers to look deeper into their candidates’ backgrounds at what potentially lurks beneath the surface. This can help organizations hire with greater confidence, knowing their candidates are who they say they are and have the experience and qualifications they claim.

Steve Girdler is the Global Managing Director at HireRight.

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