Background verification checks: Should you be scared?

Background Checks

Though everyone around him has labelled him as the villain (and for good reason), Mathew Martoma (shown in the pic) has probably gained some goodwill from background verification companies for unintentionally giving their services a boost.

Martoma, a Stanford MBA graduate, was recently in the news for getting sentenced to 9 years in jail for insider trading. But his trail of misdeeds goes back to his college days.

His immigrant parents from India may have never guessed in their wildest dreams how their son would try to make hay (worth $276 million in the hedge fund business) in the land of opportunities.

Martoma had earlier managed to stay below the radar during the MBA background verification checks at Stanford. He left out the teeny-weeny bit about being thrown out of Harvard Law School for the itsy-bitsy mistake of faking his transcripts.

This was in 2001 when background checks and screenings weren’t as widespread. Stanford stripped him off his MBA degree in 2014, over 10 years after graduation when the toughest bschool in the world found out about the fraud.

What is background verification?

Very simply put, a background verification process is where the business school or company that you are going to join takes a more practical stand that everyone may not be as honest in their MBA application or resume as would be expected.

This could be related to the unofficial GMAT score and academic grades that you self-declared before the official GMAT scores and the official academic transcripts reached the admissions office or HR departments.

Or it could be about the little gap in your career for which your explanations seem a little implausible. It could also be about all the brilliant accomplishments that you’ve claimed as your own in the application.

Maybe the background check could be related to your personal experiences as well. In your youthful exuberance, did you do something stupid (or dangerous) that got you charge-sheeted and earned some disciplinary action.

Background verification processes would cover all of these areas and more.

When are background verification checks done?

Some basic background verification for MBA admissions that doesn’t require too much effort and cost could happen in-house (managed by the business school), when you submit your application. For instance, ensuring that you reported and actual test scores and grades are matching.

However, don’t be happy when the Adcoms send you a congratulatory acceptance letter to the MBA program (instead of a standard MBA rejection letter), because the serious background screening could start after that.

Background screening in many cases is managed by background verification companies that provide background verification services to bschools and companies. This can be an expensive process when you consider the class size of some top bschools.

Bschools like Johnson (Cornell) begin the background checks only after the accepted candidate has paid the deposit.

How Background verification companies work

The top name in the list of background verification companies hired by business schools is Kroll. Then there are others like ReVera.

The process is similar to what they do for employee background verification checks, except it’s customized for MBA colleges.

Depending on the mandate that they get from the business school, the background checks that they carry out could be on a sample basis or for every single candidate who’s been given an offer.

The process might seem intrusive to many. As some MBA applicants have mentioned on MBA forums, these background verification companies have reached out to recommenders or the HR of the company to validate the information submitted by the candidate in MBA applications.

However, it’s not an easy win for them. Employers may refuse to share employee data due to confidentiality or privacy reasons. Or the recommender (who’s not a direct manager) may genuinely not know the specifics such as the candidate’s current / earlier salary, variable pay, appraisal details.

Either ways, the background verification companies in charge of screening your profile, may not get all the information that they seek out. But they could still try, in the hope that some discrepancies may come out of the screening process.

Of course, not all discrepancies in your application will hurt. There may be honest slip-ups. For instance, you mention your experience with one of your companies as 26 months instead of 25. Or you selected the wrong undergrad specialisation from the drop-down list in the online application form.

Apart from raising questions about which calendar you used, your hand-eye coordination, motor skills and maybe your quantitative ability there’s not much for you to worry about.

Should you be scared about background verification checks?

Yes – if you have been planning to embellish your application by stretching the truth.

No – if you are being honest in your applications.

The good news is that only a very small proportion of the MBA applicant pool will get their offers rescinded after backgrounds verification checks and the screening process is done.

What if you’ve had some aspects that you aren’t really proud of – low grades, some disciplinary action as a student or employee, lapse in judgment?

Be honest about it in your application and provide a rationale for it. If you’ve used the experience to learn and grow, the Admissions Committee might be far more lenient and forgiving to your case compared to others who’ve intentionally kept it out to avoid the undue attention.

As admission consultants, we don’t audit our clients’ claims about what they’d done or presented to us. We believe they are being honest with us.

Some of those folks have concerns about their low GPA, low / average GMAT scores, not-so-impressive career accomplishments, lack of extracurricular activities / NGO experience and (voluntary and involuntary) gaps in their career.

Rather than take the easy way out, we advise them to tackle the issue head on. The optional MBA essay is a great opportunity to handle it.

If you are worried about unintended mistakes, such as choosing the wrong option from the drop-down list in your online MBA application, start playing video games to improve your hand-eye coordination.

Umm, on second thoughts don’t do that. Focus on validating and reviewing your application before hitting the Submit button.

Play hard. Play fair.

 

Sources: Wall Street Journal, Forbes, New York Post | Picture Source: NYTimes


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Sameer Kamat //
Sameer Kamat
Founder of MBA Crystal Ball. Author of Beyond The MBA Hype & Business Doctors. Here's more about me. Connect with me on Google+ | Twitter | Facebook | Linkedin

7 Comments

  1. Alka says:

    Sharing with two others. Good one.

  2. manasa says:

    Hello,

    Thanks for the article. It was very informative. I was wondering if background checks are done for other programs as well? say, an MS in Finance.

    Thanks.

  3. Sameer Kamat says:

    @Manasa: Background checks are universal in nature and can apply to any degree or job. The higher the demand for an opportunity, the higher the risks of candidates trying to game the system.

  4. Aakash says:

    Really good article. Most of the Indian citizen does’t aware about the employee background verification and its process. Might be after reading this article people start to provide only true or real information about himself to the employer.

  5. If we have multiple school admits, do we have to pay for each verification? 100$ a pop that is a lot of money!

  6. Sameer Kamat says:

    @Bitun: Accepted candidates generally don’t have to pay extra for this service. It’s part of what the admissions team would do, probably on a case by case basis if they suspect something or maybe just as a sanity check.

    And other rejected candidates have already subsidized this expense (via their application fee) for the selected ones. So, unless the bschool mentions that you have to shell out extra, enjoy those admits and plan for the future.

  7. Adam Jones says:

    A big thanks to you @Sameer. This article would help many to clear their misconceptions regarding background check. Prospective employees or the students who are about to get enrolled in their dream MBA colleges in the world should know the truth. Background check is not performed to reject candidates rather it is done to know whether the person who says who they are or not. Telling lies or embellishing the resumes are the biggest red flag and are considered harshly by the interviewers.

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