In a headline that sent shivers down the spine of some job seekers, it was reported that Veronica Hilda Theriault was hired for a senior-level chief information officer position with the Australian government—and later charged with deception, dishonestly dealing with documents, abuse of public office and terminated.
Theriault was accused and convicted of lying on her résumé and falsifying references to obtain a prestigious position paying the U.S. equivalent of a $185,000 annual salary. She plead guilty to all charges and dealt a harsh 25-month sentence with a non-parole period of one year.
During the trial, it was claimed that she allegedly committed fraud by submitting a résumé that contained false and misleading information concerning her education and prior employment. Theriault posed as a previous employer during a reference check and “gave glowing feedback” about herself. She also posted a photo of supermodel Kate Upton on her LinkedIn profile instead of her own picture.
Theriault’s brother, Alan Hugh Melville Corkill, got involved too. He wrote a false reference claiming that his sister was a senior leadership official with 20 years of relevant experience. Theriault later hired her brother—who did not possess the requisite skills—for a contract that earned him more than $23,000 in three weeks. It came to light that she had used résumés with false information to obtain employment at two prior companies back in 2012 and 2014.
Theriault’s defense counsel told the court that her crimes were “not particularly sophisticated” and that she was “deeply ashamed and embarrassed,” wouldn’t do this again and she suffers from bipolar disorder. The scam unraveled and was detected when people at her office started to notice Theriault’s mental health deteriorating.
The interview process is far from perfect. Many claim that it is badly broken. There is a large element of trust—as opposed to hard data— involved with the hiring people. It’s not like other disciplines, such as accounting, where all of the numbers add up and there is an absolute right or wrong answer. While the résumé, references and prior work experience are vitally important, people still base hiring decisions—in part—on emotions, gut feelings or an urgency to fill the role.
The job seeker wants to believe the veracity of the hiring manager and human resources professionals when they say that she will work on exciting projects, have upward career mobility, enjoy friendly co-workers, a mentoring empathetic manager and will be in line for raises and promotions. The company would like to take at face value the candidate’s résumé and what she says about her skills, experiences, academic background and work history.
At the time an offer is being extended or after it’s accepted, it’s standard practice to request three or more references from the candidate. Most companies desire applicants to provide the names of current hiring managers. These supervisors could attest firsthand to the quality of the person’s work and offer important insights—enabling the prospective hiring manager to make an intelligent and informed decision to hire the person or not.
It’s easy to game the reference requests. Applicants will naturally obtain references from people whom they know will say wonderful things about them. They’ll avoid anyone who may potentially offer anything unflattering. It’s naive to think that an applicant would supply their current boss as a reference (if the person is in between jobs, then it’s different). If they were to do so, it could be potentially job-threatening and won’t end well. The supervisor will view the person as a flight risk, disloyal and likely take the ask as a personal insult.
In lieu of a current manger, the company may ask for previous supervisors, colleagues or leaders in other divisions who can vouch for the applicant. This leaves the door open for a job seeker to find sympathetic employees to go to bat for them. The candidate will ask allies to supply references that extol all of their virtues, how great they are and strongly endorse their candidacy.
At times, the hiring manager and others desperately want to fill the empty seat because the work is piling up and accepts the recommendations at face value to get someone in the door quickly. Most people, when asked to be a reference, will play their part in helping out and push for the person—even if they don’t really hold the person in high regard.
The degree to which background checks are conducted vary greatly. Some companies take weeks or even months to conclude a rigorous and thorough investigation into the applicant’s past history. Many companies run a superficial search. Think of how many times you were contacted by a person from what sounds like a call center on a bad connection asking about a former co-worker. The person making the call seems to be going through the motions, ticking off boxes and cares more about getting this done than your honest response. If you’re a generous person, you’ll probably say good things about the former associate to get some good karma for yourself and not make any enemies.
Résumés and LinkedIn profiles are easy to fluff up. Good interviewers will dig deep into the jobs and responsibilities listed on the résumé. If they’re not comfortable with the applicant’s answers, they’ll take a pass. Other interviewers avoid pushing too hard, as they do not want to offend the job seeker or come across overbearing. If a manager likes a candidate and is eager to fill an open role, they’d rather not push too hard since they would like for someone to start as soon as possible.
A similar instance to Theriault recently occured in the United States. Last month, it was reported that a senior Trump hire, Mina Chang, for the position of the deputy assistant secretary in the State Department’s Bureau of Conflict and Stability Operations, stood accused of taking liberties with her educational achievements and inflating her work at a nonprofit outfit. It was alleged that she invented a role on a United Nations panel and falsely said she addressed both the Democratic and Republican national conventions. Chang went as far as creating a fake Time magazine cover page with her face on it—giving the impression that she was the subject of a positive news piece. Chang subsequently resigned her position. This is indicative of the lax vetting that happens at even the highest levels of government.
In the case of Theriault (as well as with other job seekers), at the very least, a modicum of probing and digging could catch these types of scams and over-the-top embellishments before the person’s hired.