Yahoo Resume Case Raises the Obvious: How Could It Happen?

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May 11, 2012

The brouhaha over the academic credentials of Yahoo! CEO Scott Thompson raises an obvious question for the search profession: How could this happen? So obvious a question, in fact, that Business Insider headlined its post about the debacle with that very question.

The answer, as Chuck Wardell, CEO of executive search firm Witt/Kieffer, explained it: “People take certain things for granted when they hire. They take for granted that you don’t drink at breakfast and you’re not a career alcoholic. I don’t really think (it’s the Yahoo board’s fault). I think that’s Thompson’s fault.”

No disagreement that Thompson is at fault, if it turns out his claim to a degree in computer science isn’t true, which appears likely. But letting off the hook the Yahoo board, and whatever firm handled the background checks? I don’t think so.

It’s pretty clear that at least the head of the Yahoo search committee felt some heat over the issue. As the scrutiny over Thompson’s credentials, and his hiring grew more intense this week, search committee chair Patti Hart said she would leave Yahoo!’s board at the end of her term at the upcoming annual meeting. Her credentials have also come into question.

Yahoo then appointed a three-person board committee “to conduct a thorough review of CEO Scott Thompson’s academic credentials, as well as the facts and circumstances related to the review and disclosure of those credentials in connection with Thompson’s appointment as CEO.”

Thompson sent a “I feel your pain” email to the Yahoo troops Monday, but otherwise has been mum about his resume. It’s fuzzy at this point just when and how a computer science degree started appearing along with his accounting B.S. from Stonehill College. It’s there on his official eBay bio and on his Yahoo bio. But it’s not on his LinkedIn profile. It’s mentioned sometimes, and not other times.

Should the peek-a-boo credentials have raised eyebrows?

Nick Fishman, chief marketing officer and EVP of EmployeeScreenIQ, says that for more routine background checks, maybe not. “Generally, as background screeners, all we can do is verify what the company gives us.” For as high a profile job as CEO of Yahoo, Fishman says, a different kind of backgrounding would typically be done.

“Truth is, a company of that size, would want to do a complete background investigation, something like what a private investigator would do,” Fishman explains. That kind of backgrounding would “almost absolutely” have turned up the academic discrepancy.

Was a background search or even a verification done? That’s something Dan Loeb wants to know. The Third Point Capital hedge fun manager who first challenged Thompson’s credentials, has demanded documents relating to the pre-employment screening and investigation.

It’s not known whether he’ll get what he wants, but there’s certainly a suggestion Yahoo at least contemplated a screening. Thompson’s employment offer says, “Please understand that this offer is contingent upon the successful completion of your background check.”

It’s not as if padding or outright falsification of academic credentials is unheard of. In 2001, George O’Leary quit as head football coach at Notre Dame within days of being hired. He had padded his resume with master’s degree he didn’t have. In 2006, RadioShack’s CEO David Edmondson quit over his resume’s academic listings. Ditto Marilee Jones, the dean of admissions at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Fishman says about 9% of the screens his company does turn up academic padding or falsification. More common are discrepancies in the employment listings, because, he says, those are harder to discover.

His advice to employers is to take nothing for granted, “no matter how high a profile person.”

That’s also good advice for search firms. While most will never get a contract for as high a profile position as Yahoo CEO — and there’s reason to believe this search wasn’t handled by a firm — for key positions, it still makes sense to not only verify the candidate’s resume, but to do a little independent searching.

Are there discrepancies between what you find and what the candidate says? Ask, check, and verify. It could save you embarrassment and your fee. For guidance on what to look for, Marquet International has a handy guide to the top 10 resume lies.

What’s your opinion?

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