Background Checks Beyond the Public Domain

Background Checks

More and more frequently, our clients are asking us to go beyond the public domain when conducting background checks on executive and board candidates. While the intelligent search and analysis of public information is the foundation of background checking, some past controversies can only be found through interviews, especially interviews of former colleagues, who often have unique knowledge of a candidate’s personality, performance and character. We find these interviews helpful in identifying red flags — a valuable supplement to traditional searches such as criminal records, regulatory filings and social media.

It can be useful to think of background checking as having two parts: searching the public record and interviewing. Each part is important, as even the most basic online checks can raise questions about a candidate. Here are a few recent examples from part one, public records and social media checks:

Identity verification: The seemingly basic but critical step of confirming someone’s identity is not as easy as it may appear, and it should not be taken for granted. In one case, through comparative analysis of public filings, we found that a financial officer had conveniently borrowed an old friend’s date of birth on his job application; under his true date of birth, he had a record of felony convictions including theft and extortion. Swapping out a birth date, Social Security number or home address may seem like a surprising risk for an executive to take to keep a past scandal hidden, but we have caught a number of senior candidates trying to get away with this.

Social media review: The fastest growing repository of public information can be accessed for free by anyone with an internet connection, but the sheer volume of social media content poses a big challenge. Some clients tell us they have a young social media superstar who reviews the Twitter accounts of all candidates. But what to do when someone has tweeted 10,000 times? And how to identify whether that candidate has another account under a different handle? Mintz Group identifies candidates’ profiles on mainstream and obscure networks using a combination of manual research and sophisticated tools that crawl content across the Web. It is important to review not only a candidate’s own profiles, but also every mention of the candidate’s name or handle by anyone else. In one case, we found that a candidate, just before consenting to our background check, had taken down photographs of himself taking illegal drugs; while the images were no longer easy to find, we accessed an online tool that stores cached websites, which had saved prior versions of the photos in question.

Criminal check: Needless to say, it is important to know if a candidate has been convicted of a crime. But take caution, as “ban the box” restrictions and other local, state and federal guidelines have placed restrictions on when criminal checks can be performed, and in certain cities and states it is unlawful to search a candidate’s criminal history before an offer of employment is made. A number of companies did not properly navigate such guidelines, and as a result they had to pay multimillion-dollar settlements involving violations of consumer reporting laws. Background check providers should know when running a criminal check is unlawful, even though it is often considered the most basic part of vetting a candidate.

Vetting prior employers: Vetting a candidate’s past employers can be as important as vetting the candidate personally, particularly when searching for workplace misconduct. For example, a plaintiff alleging sexual harassment against a supervisor will often sue the employer or company instead of the offending individual. This means that if a candidate committed sexual harassment at a past job, it is unlikely to be revealed by searching the candidate’s name in legal databases. And if the offender remains anonymous through the course of the proceedings (when identified in legal documents only by job title, for instance), there might be no way of identifying that person except by interviewing people who were there at the time, who know the real story.

Which brings us to the value of conducting interviews, as they can identify the risks an executive may bring to an employer that do not show up in court records, news articles or elsewhere on the public record.

We use a variety of tools to identify people who worked with a candidate at his or her past jobs. An effective conversation must be more than a routine, “check-the-box” exchange, in part because the people we talk to are not expecting our call. We often interview references that candidates provide, but in our experience, the most valuable conversations happen when we identify the references ourselves. We like to talk to subordinates, such as administrative assistants and interns, in addition to superiors, such as board directors to whom a C-level candidate reported, to paint the most complete picture possible. Our interviews are of course mindful of any confidentiality obligations the former colleagues or others owe to current or former employers.

Here’s an example of a case where interviewing was the only solution: A public company received an anonymous tip that its own head of marketing had a history of sexual harassment in the workplace, specifically that he had been fired from a prior job for related reasons. The company asked the Mintz Group to help confirm or refute the tip. Through a series of interviews with the officer’s former colleagues, and thanks to the rapport we developed with one of his old assistants, we confirmed that the officer had been fired from a prior executive role due to his inappropriate treatment of a female coworker. No mention of the reason for the departure was to be found in the news or courthouses. The company had stated in a press release simply that the officer had left to pursue other opportunities.

In another case, a sales executive’s former assistant shed light on a history of abrupt departures. The public record showed the executive had bounced around among software companies in short stints, but revealed nothing about his reasons for leaving each role. The assistant, having worked for him through numerous jobs, understood his strategy: find a high-paying position, foist off responsibility, skate by doing the bare minimum and apply for new jobs as superiors start to notice. He also had questionable ethics, we were told, when it came to charging personal expenses to his employers.

Of all the information that speaks to a candidate’s character, reputation and suitability, only some can be found on the public record. Of all non-public information, the lion’s share is locked inside people’s heads, and interviewing is the key to that door.

About Mintz Group

Mintz Group is the exclusive due diligence partner of the Association of Executive Search and Leadership Consultants. Founded in 1994, they have a team of more than 250 investigators, including former investigative reporters, federal investigators, prosecutors, anti-corruption investigators and former intelligence officers, with offices in 16 cities in North America, Latin America, Asia, Africa and Europe. Having vetted many thousands of executives for search firms and their clients over the years, they are recognized as a global thought leader on executive background checking.