Rutgers University is a mess.

First, their basketball coach Mike Rice was fired for verbally abusing players. To replace Rice, they hired Eddie Jordan, who said he had a degree but never actually graduated. More disturbing, and hard to believe, is that the purported degree was from Rutgers University.

Following the fallout from the coaching abuse scandal, Rutgers hired Julie Hermann as the new athletic director, who turns out to have a history of misconduct and is at the center of a sex discrimination lawsuit from 2008. In hiring Hermann, Rutgers reportedly conducted a “thorough background check conducted by one of the world’s leading private security firms.”

Yesterday, news was released that Parker Executive Search was the firm hired to find Rutgers a new athletic director and provide other support with the hiring process, which included conducting a background investigation.

Most people are asking: How could they have missed all this?

It’s an excellent question, one that can’t fully be answered at this point, but this whole process has taught us a couple of valuable lessons about background investigations.

An executive search firm should NEVER be responsible for conducting a background investigation!

First, they are an executive search firm, not a background investigation firm. You wouldn’t hire a lawyer to do your taxes, especially if the lawyer’s fees are directly related to how much money you get back on your tax return.

Second, by nature, an executive search firm has absolutely no motivation to conduct an in-depth background investigation. Why would they? To dig up dirt on their own candidate whom they spent all this time looking for? It’s a complete clash between the university’s interests and their own.

Even if a search firm hires one of the “world’s leading private security firms” to conduct the background investigation, they have no motivation to dig deep and find the stuff they need to protect their clients. They are interested in protecting themselves.

If you hire a candidate for a very public position that pays $450,000 per year and you are coming off a very public scandal, splurge on a background investigation!

Rutgers paid Parker Executive Search $70,000, which included finding the candidate, providing other services and conducting the background investigation. USA Today and numerous other news outlets ran an outrageously false headline suggesting that Parker paid $70,000 for a background check. They didn’t, I promise you. They were paid a total of $70,000, a portion of which was used for a background investigation.

Rutgers University Background InvestigationPictured above: The “background investigation” outlined in the engagement letter between Parker Executive Search to Rutgers University.

Based on what they described in the engagement letter (see above), the portion set aside for the background investigation was probably no more than a few hundred dollars (not including the reference checks).

In fairness, based on some recently reports, it looks like they went a bit deeper, but the so-called “background investigation” that they describe here is nothing short of a joke.

McDonald’s candidates get a more thorough background check.

Dear employers: Stop checking the box with those background investigations.

Background checks are one of those “check the box” things that employers do. Something to put in the file. It’s not until things like this happen that they really start looking into the process a bit more deeply. The same thing happened when the CEO of Yahoo was found to never have earned a degree.

Granted, not every candidate needs a thorough, in-depth background check, but for executive hires, C-level hires, public positions, board members or companies coming off a major scandal, don’t get a “check the box” background check for the file.

This kind of background investigation is good for the circular file, but that’s about it. Get a real background investigation done.

Oh yeah … don’t count on the executive search firm to do it (properly, at least).

Not all background investigations are created equal.

Parker’s “background investigation” included “criminal, credit and motor vehicle investigations”; confirmation of candidates’ degrees; reviewing derogatory media; and checking the NCAA for infractions, in addition to some reference checks. Oh yeah … they were supposed to have the candidate sign a statement that their bio was accurate (another sick joke).

We’ve talked about this in a previous post, but the terms “background check” and “background investigation” get thrown around quite a bit. As far as I’m concerned, the so-called background investigation that Parker Executive Search promised in the engagement letter for Rutgers is a joke, especially given the level of the position and the scrutiny that Rutgers had already been under. A lot more can and should be done.

Background investigations will go as far as you want them to go.

A background investigation can be whatever you want it to be. You might consider a Google search to be a background check (it’s not). Or a criminal record search in the county where a candidate lives (sort of a background check). You can go as far as you want and call it whatever you want.

The fact is, it’s impossible to dig up everything, but at the end of the day, you get what you pay for. A background investigation firm may recommend conducting a $20,000 investigation, which in this case would not have been outrageous.

Rutgers, I am sure, would have balked.

Now, Rutgers is paying for what they got … in spades.


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