Watch out for the CV detectives

Failed to mention that you were sacked three years ago? Forgotten to list your failed A-levels? Well watch your step, says Katy Guest - there's a team of private investigators on your trail
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The Independent Online

"'Lying' is a very emotive term," he says, stirring his coffee thoughtfully and gazing from his high window over Russell Square. "People 'get things wrong', as we like to call it. Fewer people than last year, but those people are getting more things wrong than they were. It is quite cheeky on their part. And we always find them."

Have you "got things wrong" on a CV? Made a teeny slip-up about the odd A-level grade, perhaps? Had selective memory about your leading role in a debating society that never quite got off the ground? If so, you need to worry about Waite. He has ways of finding out.

A survey by The Risk Advisory Group (TRAG), of which Waite is chief executive, says that one in four of us has been victim to these strange lapses. When the company looked at 3,000 CVs, it found that a number of people had forgotten they had failed a few of their O-levels. In some cases, being sacked from a previous job had been lost in the mists of time. Others had county court judgments (CCJs) that had slipped their minds. We are a forgetful nation. But, fortunately, TRAG is here to jog our memories.

When TRAG was set up in 1997, its main aim was to deal with corporate investigations and internal fraud. It wasn't until an American investment bank asked them to screen prospective employees in the UK that they realised the scale of our workforce's forgetfulness. They now have 25 clients - mainly in the financial services sector, but rapidly expanding to IT companies, call centres and the public services - as employers realise just what kind of amnesiacs they are employing.

Jobseekers are lucky here; in the US, employers can test their staff's blood for drugs and alcohol. Here, we are more likely to be caught out for our optimistic anticipation of our employment references, or for neglecting to mention having had to retake our GCSEs.

Last year, TRAG found that two-thirds of applications contained what they call "discrepancies", and that women in their late 20s and early 30s were the main culprits. This year, the number of CV amnesiacs has dropped to 25 per cent. The problem is that these people make an average of three mistakes each.

Funnily enough, applicants are unrepentant. "It is a case of lie and be lied to," says one CV embellisher calling himself Alan. "I lie shamelessly on my CV, just as prospective employers have lied to me in the past about job content, responsibilities and, in one case, salary."

But undiscovered CV embellishments, Waite believes, can be dangerous. "Surprisingly, we haven't yet been overwhelmed by a flood of requests from the NHS after Neil Taylor," he says, "but more worrying would be doctors and nurses lying about their qualifications. There are no rigorous checks. Think of all the staff coming to Britain from overseas who have qualifications that are not properly checked, and think about the litigation a hospital might face if something went wrong."

Then there is Michael Brown, who was removed as the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency amid allegations that he had made small exaggerations about his experience in emergency relief. And that is not to mention Nick Leeson. Had TRAG been asked to screen his CV, the CCJs that he somehow neglected to mention would quickly have been discovered. Barings Bank did not employ CV screeners at the time. ING, who bought the bank after Leeson brought it to its knees, now does.

TRAG employs about 50 people, mostly young languages graduates who can cheerfully ring up the University of Thunder Bay to make sure it is not one of the "degree mills" that sell bogus qualifications (it isn't) and wrestle information out of recalcitrant referees in Tokyo and Torremolinos. All applicants are screened for "mistakes". Some are even caught out. But the ones who come up clean clearly love their jobs. "Getting information out of Spanish universities in the middle of August is interesting," says Marsha Gaynor, an account manager, "but when we find someone with a lot of county court judgments or something, it can be very satisfying. Often if you find CCJs, you will find later that there will be something else."

Waite is a natural CV detective. I arrive at his office to find I have been comprehensively Googled. "Do you have a National Union of Journalists card?" he demands. "Put it on the table." He used to work at the Serious Fraud Office interviewing suspects, and says that "the one thing that would always make them talk was giving them more coffee". He says this as he pours me a large cup.

"If you think about the time, cost and energy it takes to recruit an individual, the cost of getting that wrong and the difficulty of getting rid of somebody, screening is a small price to pay to make sure they can do the job," he insists.

As such an evangelist for the cause, I muse out loud, Waite's CV must be a paragon of truth and clarity. There is a pause. He looks sheepish. "I have never lied on a CV," he says, "but I have never stated that it took me three years to get my maths O-level. And some clients we work with would withdraw a job offer for something like that." He takes another gulp of his strong coffee, glancing down at a report on his desk. "Obviously," he adds, "I wouldn't make a mistake like that if I were the one being screened."

Little white lies

* When applying for his £115,000-a year-job as an NHS trust chief executive, Neil Taylor claimed he had a degree and graduate diploma from Nottingham Trent University. In fact he only had "one or two" A-levels. Taylor pleaded guilty last month to obtaining a "pecuniary advantage by deception". It was an even more serious matter, said the prosecuting counsel, because a truly qualified candidate had been denied the job. Last Friday, he was given a 12-month jail sentence, suspended for two years.

* Sales manager Saira Khan admitted on the BBC's The Apprentice this year that she had exaggerated her experience on her CV. The tough-talking businesswoman, who came second in the competition to win a job with Amstrad chief Sir Alan Sugar, said she wanted to get her "foot in the door".

* Claims that Richard Li, the Hong Kong tycoon who bought the territory's telecoms business from Cable & Wireless in 2000, graduated from Stanford University were erased from his company's website after the university confirmed that no degree had been awarded. Mr Li was later quoted as blaming his staff for mis-describing his education.

* Godwin Onubogu was jailed ifor charges including indecent assault, wounding, obtaining by deception, supplying prescriptions and perverting the course of justice. Claiming on his CV that he was a doctor, he wrecked relationships with unfounded diagnoses of venereal disease, offering services to people facing court appearances at a considerable fee. In fact, he was a lab technician.

* Nick Leeson omitted to disclose county court judgements when he applied for a job at Barings Bank. Had his CV been vetted, these CCJs would have been discovered before Leeson racked up £862m losses that eventually broke Barings in 1995.

* Lord Archer's CV read impressively, mentioning the former Tory party chairman's education at Wellington and Oxford. Wellington was a school in Somerset, not the prestigious public school, while "Oxford" was a few months on a postgraduate education diploma in the city.