Note: This article appears in the February issue of Talent Acquisition Excellence Magazine and the content was also published in modified format in Consulting Magazine’s February issue.

While watching the fall-out from the faux sign-language interpreter at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service, I was reminded of the adage, “Learn from your mistakes”.

And there’s certainly a lot to learn from this debacle where whoever was tasked with selecting the “interpreter” obviously failed to conduct a background check or even confirm basic professional credentials.  As it turns out, the “interpreter” doesn’t know sign language and, to top it off, has a dangerous criminal record. The greatest lesson learned for recruiters is that our jobs don’t exclude screening – in fact, screening, detailed interviewing, reference checking and, bottom line ensuring you are getting the honest truth from each candidate is a central part of the role.  As professional recruiters, we cannot hide behind the veil of “well, we are not responsible for hiring candidates because that’s the hiring manager’s job”.  That thinking, in my opinion, is just wrong.  Recruiters, by definition, recruit, and as part of that process we need to focus on best practices in assessment, due diligence and risk mitigation.

More on each follows below:


At some point in the interview process, you must have a method that tests the validity of the candidate’s answers.  Behavioral interviews are fine, but for complex positions, you need to consider testing and assessment tools to verify that the candidate can actually do what she/he claims.  In the embarrassing example drawn from Mandela’s memorial service, it appears that no one tested the candidate on his knowledge of sign language to learn whether he actually knows it.  Many employers are using case studies or ask candidates to prepare a presentation to test whether he/she can perform the tasks required for a position.  These are great ways to get to the core of whether a person actually can do what they say that they can do.  

Due Diligence

My mom always said that a healthy amount of skepticism is a good thing.  Nothing is truer when it comes to answers that candidates give to most questions.  “Tell them what they want to hear” is advice job seekers hear every day.  So, why are we surprised that candidates don’t always give us the full story? What is the best way to conduct due diligence?  Recruiters must probe below the surface to validate that candidates are what they say they are.  And who they say they are.  Candidates will obviously never intentionally provide you with contact information for a bad reference.  So go a step further, dig deeper and use your professional network to check back door references.  There are also other tools to ensure the correct level of due diligence is done, including in-depth background checks to investigate police records, uncover resume padding and verify academic degrees.  All of these ought to complement what the recruiter does; not substitute for it.  Finally, a well-crafted employment application is essential and it should be accompanied by a disclaimer informing the applicant that any material or conscious misrepresentations will be considered an act of dishonesty and constitute grounds for dismissal.  

Mitigating Risk

Let’s circle back again to our example of the sign-language interpreter.  Let’s suppose the recruiter who was assigned to fill that position didn’t know or understand sign language. Would we let him/her off the hook?  Absolutely not, in my opinion. Companies need to ensure that the recruiters assigned to find candidates for a particular position are, in fact, qualified to assess the qualifications of those individuals.  It is absolutely critical that recruitment function leaders have the right people in place – with the right training – to do their jobs.  In any company, that means recruiters need to understand the requirements for all the jobs they are assigned to recruit for.   If you are hiring software development specialists, for example, your recruiters need to understand what specialized skills, knowledge and experience that role requires within the context of your company.  Too often, rookie recruiters tasked with sourcing critical roles actually have little idea of what those jobs entail.  Experience really does count!  I’m proud to state that my primary qualification to recruit stems from working in the industry for nearly 30 years.  Resumes cannot and should not be the sole validation of one’s professional experience.   Otherwise anyone can do it, which leads us straight back to the example regarding the sign-language interpreter!  


Learn from this recruiting nightmare:  make sure that your recruiters are trained in assessment, due diligence and managing risks and avoid a catastrophic embarrassment.

J. James O’Malley

About the Author

Jim has spent 25 years on both ends of the table, developing HR and talent solutions to align leadership, talent, and business needs.

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