What does employee screening mean

Pre-employment screening: the applicant put to the test

Application fraud: When the career is properly fudged

It does not have to be a fake doctorate or a false identity, but practice shows that some applicants are not always so strict about the truth: fake references, embellished résumés or the concealment of financial problems - Bernhard Maier goes out for employers Look for inconsistencies in résumés and other things that might get in the way of employment. We asked how pre-employment screening works, how black sheep can be discovered among providers and what a background check means for applicants:

The practice of screening an applicant in advance is not a common practice in Austria. Who do you typically hire?

Maier: In Austria, pre-employment screenings (PES) are uncommon, but there are a few areas where it is mandatory. Screenings are mandatory when it comes to filling a position with systemically important, critical infrastructure. Otherwise, these checks are also carried out in the financial sector, at banks and companies with American owners. In the US, these screenings are a common way to screen people before hiring them. This policy then also has an impact on European subsidiaries.

Are Austrian employers already sufficiently aware of positions that are prone to risk?

Maier: There is a certain leap of faith, that's my feeling. Employers say to themselves: That will be true, what is in the résumé. You shouldn't distrust everyone or immediately accept bad things. The presumption of innocence applies to applicants. This is of course convenient, because as an employer you don't have to do anything, but often there is also no awareness of the risks that may prevail.

What are the risks and why are these screenings carried out?

Maier: The purpose of the PES is to reduce risk and keep dangers and threats away from the company. The greater the responsibility and the potential for abuse of a position, the more it makes sense to check applicants in advance. On a financial level, I minimize the risk of hiring someone who might cheat on me. In an unsafe work environment, someone who is not reliable or does not have the necessary qualifications could cause harm - including physically. Damage to reputation caused by an employee who has a representative function and who attracts attention through negative behavior or questionable private activities can also be prevented. Ultimately, pre-employment screening also reduces management liability. If something does happen after a screening, the management is on the safe side: There will never be one hundred percent security, but everything has been tried to prevent damage.

"No screening without the applicant's consent!"

How does such a background check work? Do applicants know they will be screened?

Maier: No screening without the applicant's consent! It is common for a declaration of consent to be obtained in advance, as one collects private data and invades the privacy of a candidate. This should be made clear to the applicant. Part of a PES is verifying the applicant's information. He specifies his professional career in the résumé; the screening checks whether this information is really correct: work experience, academic qualifications, etc. The next step is to research additional information - provided that this information is relevant to the position. Discussions with reference persons are then also held. These can be former employers or those references that the applicant himself makes known. In this way, information is obtained from people who are or have been in direct contact with the candidate and who can assess what makes the person tick.

"The behavior of an employee in his spare time can very well be relevant to the position."

What role do social networks play in this? Are Facebook & Co. taboo for research?

Maier: That is a contentious question. Some privacy advocates take the position that the private life of an applicant should not be of interest to the employer. From this it is deduced that social networks that are mainly used for leisure purposes should not be used for research. I do not share this point of view for the following reason: An employee's behavior in their spare time may very well be relevant to the position. Let us assume that a truck driver who regularly consumes a lot of alcohol in the evening and still posts copious party pictures at 1 a.m. starts work at 6 a.m. We can assume that he is then on the road with residual alcohol. Even if he lives out his party life in his spare time, it is relevant for his job the next day. My point of view: Social media and other networks are used as a source of information, whereby it is clearly stated whether the information found is related to work. This must be assessed on a case-by-case basis.

What about screening confidentiality? The current employer usually does not know about an application.

Maier: The applicant gives his consent to the screening and in the course of this it must also be clearly stated whether one can inquire with the current employer. It is understandable that the current employer should not necessarily notice that someone is looking for a job. When addressing reference persons, the request must be kept as neutral as possible. The reference person must not be made to understand which position or which company the candidate is applying for. However, if an applicant names specific reference persons, you can be a little more open.

I often hear the objection that a former employer is not a good reference because he is not allowed to say anything negative about a former employee. This is true, but this assumption is wrong. You don't have to ask your former employer about negative things, you can ask positive and non-judgmental questions: Did Mr. Müller really work for you during this period? Was he really the head of department? Did he really, as stated in the résumé, handle project XY independently? This gives you important information to see whether the details in your résumé are correct - but does not put anyone in the dilemma of having to say negative things.

What makes good screening and how can you distinguish serious from dubious providers?

Maier: First important criterion: someone who does a screening without the applicant's consent is problematic. The next point: The screening must be relevant and have a concrete relationship to the job. This also means that there is no one-size-fits-all solution. The more responsible the position, the more accurate the screening. I cannot process the general manager with the same screening as a cleaner.
And finally - and that should go without saying: If a provider uses information that cannot be obtained legally, one should also refrain from working together. In the English-speaking area, among other things, Criminal background checks offered, also for Austria. However, only the person concerned himself receives an extract from the criminal record; even screening agencies have no legal access to it. If this is offered anyway, the request will either not be carried out and the provider is a fraudster, or he is obtaining information that he should not have at all.

What things do you come across while doing screenings?

Maier: What often happens is the glossing over of résumés. This is not about big fakes like inventing an academic degree, but it is definitely in the direction of fraud: Former positions are portrayed more meaningfully and responsibly than they were. For example, someone claims to have headed a department with 25 employees, and during the screening it turns out that in reality there were only five people. Or an applicant claims that he was primarily responsible for a project and then it comes to light that he worked on the project but was not in charge of the project at all.

What also happens is the concealment of financial difficulties. Depending on the position, this can be relevant, e.g. if someone is applying for a position that involves working with large sums of money or valuables. If garnishment of wages or personal bankruptcy then emerges, this is definitely relevant for the employer. In another case, we were able to uncover a forgery of a service certificate: the applicant issued the certificate himself, wanted to be on the safe side and used a company that no longer existed. In the course of my research I discovered that the company logo did not even exist on the stationery at the alleged time of the exhibition; it was changed once over the years.

The weirdest thing I experienced was an applicant who hunted ghosts in her spare time and tracked down paranormal phenomena in old buildings at night. This private ghost hunt is weird, but it was not relevant to the job and therefore had no influence on the screening.

Learn more about the topic

  • Anyone interested in pre-employment screening has the opportunity to do so at the HR Inside Summit in Vienna in October 2018. During a session, Bernhard Maier will familiarize the participants with the topic and clarify what makes applicants potentially risky, which sources of information can be used for screening and what must be legally observed.

To person

Bernhard Maier studied political science as well as security and risk management in Vienna. He has been self-employed as a professional detective since 1997, he is also a court-sworn expert, certified fraud investigator and risk manager. In September 2017 his book “Pre-Employment-Screening: A Risk-Based Practical Guide to Applicant Screening in the Personnel Selection Process” was published by Boorberg Verlag.