Evaluating background checks Featured

7:00pm EDT November 24, 2006

Businesses often retain executive search firms to identify candidates to fill leadership positions. Once the

search firm presents its top candidates, it becomes the client’s responsibility to assess their credentials. The final evaluation of candidates often raises some questions as clients analyze and weigh each individual’s qualifications and assess how well they match the organization’s needs. For example, they must consider how much emphasis to place on a candidate’s ethics, how much faith to put into references, whether to overlook some desired qualifications, or what might be “deal-breakers.” Clients appreciate the value of a well executed “due diligence” and reference report.

Smart Business talked to C. Cable Neidhart, a consultant with TNS Partners Inc., to learn how clients can complete the evaluation process effectively and select the most viable candidate.

What specific criteria are included in a candidate’s background check?

The criteria differs among search firms and clients. Generally, ‘due diligence’ and reference checks are customized based upon a client’s needs and preferences. Due diligence typically includes factors like verification of candidates’ academic and employment backgrounds, references, emotional intelligence, savvy, leadership attributes, relationship skills, change management capabilities, character developmental needs, and the validation of technical skills. Some clients use formalized behavioral testing as a component in the selection process, as well.

At what point in the process are references provided to the client?

Due diligence activities must be completed prior to the candidate meeting the client. This includes all academic and employment verification, thus ensuring the accuracy of duties, titles, etc., as well as one preliminary reference. There is often a direct correlation between the due diligence accuracy and the quality of the can-

didates. Although references can be supplied at any time, they are traditionally performed prior to developing an offer or earlier if the client has some concerns about a particular individual.

How much faith should clients put into references in the background check process?

References play a significant role. But they have to be balanced with other components of the background check. Ideally, search firms will provide a cross-section of references from internal and external sources. Regarding work references, we would talk to one or two of the candidate’s current or former bosses, peers outside his or her functional area of responsibility, and subordinates. Other contacts might include customers, attorneys, auditors or other professionals who can evaluate the candidate’s personal traits, skill sets, ethics, etc.

Another significant role references play is in filling the gaps in candidates’ employment records. A candidate might have a one-year gap as a result of a layoff, acquisition or personal tragedy, and references might be able to validate that gap. Also, search firms and clients must be thoughtful about whom they choose as references.

The references themselves have to be as ethical as the candidates, thus the reason for ideally having at least two at every level.

Should clients take search firms’ background information at face value?

Not necessarily. Remember, the ultimate hiring decision is the client’s responsibility, so it is in the client’s best interest to weigh every factor critically. But it must be flexible in the process. Clients must be willing to trade off some elements of the position requirements. Clients have to weigh one desired attribute/competency against another when the situation dictates that it is prudent to do so.

For instance, the search firm may present a top performer who has an MBA degree for a position in the finance department, but the original position description states that a CPA is required. The client might accept the MBA because the candidate can supplant the CPA requirement with experience. Decisions like these make the due diligence process critical — and explain why clients have to be somewhat flexible and open-minded in making the ultimate hiring choice.

What information detected in the due diligence process will most likely lead to being a deal-breaker for the candidate?

There is never any excuse for lying or willful misrepresentations. These are immediate ‘deal-breakers’ as would be a lack of integrity or an inappropriate moral compass. It is critical our candidates’ values are in alignment with our client's commitment to manage its enterprise with the utmost professionalism.

In the final analysis, ethics, emotional intelligence, integrity, personal attributes of a candidate — as well as cultural fit — are imperative to the overall selection process.

C. CABLE NEIDHART is a consultant with TNS Partners Inc. Reach him at (214) 369-3565 or cableneidhart@tnspartners.com.