The George Santos Problem in Recruiting

This is not a political article. You might think it’s making a political statement, but it’s not. I promise.

Over the past month, reports have emerged that recently-elected House Representative George Santos was not entirely truthful during his campaign. He has been accused of lying about a startlingly wide range of topics, including heritage, experience, education, and even the death of his mother. Santos is set to be sworn in this month, despite a rising clamor of those calling for his resignation as allegations against him grow. 

Because my brain tends to default to my HR filter, I immediately thought about background checks and the impact they have on candidates in the “real world.” When the initial reports first broke, I tweeted:

Quick Recap on Background Checks

Federal laws, enforced by the Federal Trade Commission, dictate which types of questions you can ask about a candidate’s background and when you may ask them. Background checks cannot be run without written permission, candidates must be given a notice of rights to allow them to respond to anything found in the background check, and employers cannot remove candidates from consideration for discriminatory reasons.

In practice, however, how background checks are used in the selection process remains incredibly inconsistent. This inconsistency isn’t just found from company to company but also within an organization — the way background checks are administered and scrutinized can vary from role to role. 

This Is Where Santos Comes In

The trend in recruiting is to provide more opportunity for candidates who have a criminal background, especially at the very beginning of the application process, something I applaud. Evaluating candidates on their stated merits and qualifications should be the goal. 

Following that initial selection, background checks can be incredibly valuable when verifying experience and protecting your employees and customers. Smart organizations have established federally-compliant guidelines about what would constitute a “knockout” on a case-by-case basis when background checks results come back. Then good decisions are made.

In theory.

In reality, there is so much fluidity in enforcement of guidelines, or even in application of the policies. At the very least, there are often major disparities in the standards to which frontline employees and leadership are held. 

I have witnessed the resumes and applications of call-center agents be scrutinized as if they were applying for top-secret clearance, while SVP candidates got a free pass because they were a friend of a friend. And that’s before they even get to an official background check. 

With someone like George Santos, an elected official, people often simply accept what they are told. What’s scary is that the information supporting the allegations of lying was all part of the public record, but it wasn’t prioritized. That’s because the selection process for an election is much different than a selection process for a grocery-store cashier. What’s scary is that the former is often much less robust than the latter, and you end up with a popularity contest instead of a decision based on the merits.

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Sound familiar?

The Overarching Point

I promised this wasn’t going to be a political post, so I won’t expound upon the merits of running routine background checks on political candidates and holding them to the same standard we would for a hotel front-desk clerk. 

What I will expound upon is the need to hold all candidates to a similar, job-related standard when it comes to reviewing experience, skills, and background. If you want flexibility in your process, build it into the front-end.

You can start by reviewing your job descriptions to make sure that you can legally and ethically make exceptions to the requirements by loosening some of those requirements. Is five years of experience really needed, or can you screen for skills and augment with training and development? 

Also, train your hiring managers and interviewers to screen for the long-term and not be caught up in a candidate’s short-term interview persona. Don’t be dazzled by a smooth-talker. 

And stop trying to catch a candidate in a small lie at the expense of the big picture. Yes, an application is considered a legal document that documents that what the applicant has entered is true. Still, too many times an application requires so many details that an honest mistake may be made in entering dates or other information. Just remember that mistakes are not the same as lies. That’s why the federal guidelines require companies to provide candidates with an opportunity to clarify flags on a background check. 

Ultimately, the goal of a background check is to validate eligibility and safety. If it’s important to one candidate, it should be important to them all.

Even a U.S. Representative. 

Mary is a principal with IA, a boutique consulting firm focused on HR transformation. She is also a talent strategist and business leader with almost 15 years experience in helping organizations achieve their goals. After working on the operations side of start-ups and small companies, Mary landed in HR by way of learning and development, with extensive experience in leadership and organizational development, coaching, key talent planning, talent acquisition, performance management, business partnering, HRIS, process and policy creation, and instructional design.

In addition to her work within companies, Mary authors a leadership development blog called Surviving Leadership to continue the dialogue around the challenges of leadership – both being a leader and being led. 

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