What's the Story?
At the Mintz Group, the due diligence and investigations firm where I am a partner, we conduct background investigations of executive and board candidates on a global basis. An important part of every background check is verifying a candidate’s bona fides, including past employment, educational degrees, professional licenses, board memberships and other types of affiliations. Whereas these credentials always used to be presented in a traditional résumé or curriculum vitae, we are nowadays just as apt to be given a candidate’s LinkedIn profile as we are a résumé or CV.
The widespread use of online profiles, most commonly LinkedIn at least in North America, has some clear advantages. For one, LinkedIn profiles tend to be up to date, and are relatively easy to create and revise, while some résumés are more like time capsules, last updated years if not decades ago. But as professional investigators, we don’t view LinkedIn as a replacement for the stalwart résumé. To the contrary, in some ways they are entirely different things.
First, the résumé has traditionally been both a private and a personal document. It was meant to be seen by people with a “need to know,” such as human resource professionals who have legitimate reason to examine a candidate’s personal history. LinkedIn, on the other hand, is a public forum, where the very point is to share your profile with others. Even with privacy settings, there should be substantially less expectation of privacy on a social networking site.
This means that a candidate must be more circumspect about what he or she includes in a LinkedIn profile. While a résumé might highlight that the candidate was instrumental in turning around his employer’s retail division, or growing profits by 11% last quarter, if this is a private company, those types of specific examples naturally can’t be disclosed in a public-facing profile—even though they could be helpful to a prospective employer and lead to fertile discussions.
In the same vein, candidates tend to omit personal background information from LinkedIn that they might otherwise include in a résumé. Hobbies, charitable interests, language fluencies and family information can be useful background but may not be suitable for public broadcast. This sort of curating of one’s background is usually benign, because it relates to non-essential information.
But there are also times when curating one’s background is less innocent. One of the more common flags we encounter is when a candidate omits a job from his employment history, often because it doesn’t fit the candidate’s ideal narrative, or the employer was involved in a controversy. In one such case, a candidate failed to disclose that he had been employed by a company run by a family member that was shut down by regulators as an illegal pyramid scheme. That candidate used a common trick: he stretched the dates of the jobs held just before and just after the job he was trying to hide. Another trick is to replace the omitted employer with a difficult-to-verify position, such as working as a consultant out of one’s “home office.”
Having conducted many thousands of background checks, we have found that candidates embellish more frequently on LinkedIn than on traditional résumés. While there is a long history of executives lying in résumés, from misrepresented college majors to professional licenses never held, we find the reins on the truth to be even looser on social media. This can become problematic because, while résumés are usually written by the candidates themselves, we often hear the defense—which is difficult to verify—that the candidate didn’t even write his or her LinkedIn profile. We recently vetted an executive whose LinkedIn profile falsely stated that he had a particular college degree. When asked about it, he said he had no idea the embellished degree was on his profile, and someone in his marketing department must have written it. This is why we prefer vetting a résumé either authored by, or carefully reviewed and approved by, the candidate himself.
Résumés can also vary significantly by region or country, both in terms of format and the information they communicate. In China, for example, job candidates often create one résumé in English and another in Mandarin. Sometimes the English version omits a credential that is prominently featured in the Mandarin one. Or some candidates might omit their political affiliations from their English language résumé, such as deputy to a People’s Congress, although most would include this information on their Chinese résumé to their advantage. Chinese résumés often include a section where the candidate evaluates him or herself. While this would seem out-of-place on a US résumé, this information could be useful to a prospective employer or search consultant.
There are also instances where a candidate has changed his or her name or adopted a name in a different language. When conducting a background check, it is important to seek out these name variations so they can be included in the various searches we conduct, such as criminal-records checks. We like to ask for a candidate’s résumé in the native language, because it might disclose name variations (or spellings) unknown to us.
One of the great benefits of LinkedIn is how it condenses our professional backgrounds into a user-friendly, shareable form. But as executives progress through their careers, they leave a trail of biographical documents, whether published in SEC filings, company websites, programs for charity events, and so on. And then we add to this pile of real or virtual documents the current and past versions of the executive’s résumé and LinkedIn profile. It is our job as investigators to find and validate as much of this paper trail as we can.
If any of these résumés, bios or LinkedIn profiles contain misleading information, the executive may have to answer for it down the road. An activist investor would make a point of gathering all of these documents and comparing them for any inconsistencies that could be used for leverage during a proxy contest. And employers hire firms such as the Mintz Group to conduct background checks.
Whatever the reason for looking into a candidate’s background, LinkedIn is a helpful starting point, but it may not tell the whole story.
About The Mintz Group
The 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 15 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.