“Not True” That False Credential Was Search Firm’s Doing

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May 14, 2012

Heidrick & Struggles, the prominent, global search firm, over the weekend  defended its reputation over the Yahoo CEO resume falsification in a strongly worded letter.

Claims by Yahoo’s now departed CEO Scott Thompson that a “junior staffer” at a search firm years ago erred in saying he had a degree he doesn’t is “simply not true.” So says Heidrick & Struggles CEO Kevin Kelly in a letter obtained by All Things Digital.

“While we were not involved in this placement, there have been both direct and indirect mentions of this relationship in several news articles,” Kelly writes in the letter to staffers at the firm. A similar letter was sent late Friday to the Yahoo board. Kelly declares:

The media articles in question have indicated that the Yahoo! CEO told members of his senior staff that, many years ago, a junior member of our firm invented an academic credential for him in the course of preparing standard profile materials. Based on information in our possession, this allegation is verifiably not true and we have notified Yahoo! to that effect.

As Kelly says, the search firm was not involved in Thompson’s Yahoo hiring, though H&S does handle searches for the Internet company. Instead, it’s connection to Thompson goes back several years to when he was a candidate for a senior position with eBay’s PayPal. Then, he was was placed by the search firm, and the false listing of a degree in computer science became part of his submission package.

After his hiring, it appeared in his official bio on eBay and in other materials, all of which, Thompson allegedly insisted, he never reviewed or corrected. Obviously, when he was hired at Yahoo, the board committee charged with vetting candidates, failed to discover his phony degree. The committee chair, Patti Hart, who may have some resume issues of her own, was forced to quit.

But what happened back in 2005 when H&S was handling the eBay placement? We don’t know what Kelly was referring to when he said the firm has “information in our possession.” H&S isn’t explaining; the company has not called me back about this.

Whether it’s a resume, a bio, or something similar, it’s evidently something that Kelly believes exculpates Heidrick & Struggles. However, the question that comes to mind is, what then? Did H&S verify the information provided by Thompson before submitting his name to eBay? Should it have?

There isn’t an easy answer to that question, says Peter Felix, president of the Association of Executive Search Consultants. “It depends on the level of agreement,” he says. “What the client wanted is a matter of agreement with the consultant.”

“We mustn’t assume,” Felix says, “that this is totally black and white.”

The AESC offers guidance to its members on reference and background checking. “Background checks,” says the organization in its Industry Standards section, “seek to ensure the accuracy of more objective data such as employment chronology and educational credentials.”

The organization recommends:

that the search consultant explicitly agree with the client as to who will assume responsibility for such background checks. Regardless of who conducts them the search consultant should ensure that there is agreement with the client as to the level of checking and degree of thoroughness appropriate to the engagement.

It’s entirely possible that the search agreement between eBay and H&S assigned backgrounding duties to the client. Interestingly enough, when the auction company’s legal department filed Thompson’s bio with the Securities and Exchange Commission, there was no mention of his computer science degree. But the PR material did include it. Someone did some checking.

I admit, it’s easy to second-guess here. The shouldas and wouldas are easy to see after the fact. We may never know what happened with the Thompson placement back in 2005. However, as an object lesson, it’s a reminder that even in situations where the client assumes responsibility for background checking, some rudimentary verification by the consultant of at least the most relevant parts of a resume would avoid embarrassment.

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