Last week’s media frenzy focused on Scott Thompson, the new CEO of Yahoo! , who claimed to have earned a degree in computer science when in fact, his degree was in accounting. Some see the slight fudging of a college degree earned thirty years ago as insignificant, while others say you can’t compartmentalize trust, and that if you lie on the small issues you will lie.
End of story.
We will get to the lessons learned from the saga but first, a brief story.
The year was 1990 and we had been retained by a major corporation to recruit a president for a division. We conducted a national search and found what we thought was the perfect candidate. Susan (not her real name) had everything our client was seeking and was open to relocating from the East Coast to California.
As is typical of search firms, we began checking references and verifying the educational degrees as our client prepared the offer. We called the university that Susan listed on her resume and were unconcerned when the registrar could not find her name. This happens frequently when women graduate under their maiden name and change their name as they marry. Back then, even for large universities, you did not need release forms, nor did you need social security numbers. You just called and noted whom you spoke with and what they confirmed.
After a week of the registrar searching, I called my client and advised them to hold off until we straightened it out. My client exclaimed “Oh, Jane, you are being too cautious, . I’m going to extend the offer.” My heart sank, as after many years in this business, I have a sixth sense about these things. I hoped I was wrong.
I called Susan, and she listened quietly. She gave me her social security number with no comment. The next day a Federal Express package letter arrived for me from Susan saying, “I lied to you. I quit college to take care of my child and got a job at a university where a sympathetic colleague forged a degree for me. When both she and I left the university, the forged record disappeared. Because I have had such a successful career for so many years with my current company, I almost forgot that this could come up again.”
I gulped hard and called my client, who had no choice but to withdraw the offer. I was fearful of the consequences because the candidate had given notice at her current position, but fortunately she was so highly regarded that she was quickly welcomed back by her employer after telling them she’d had a change of heart. Her secret was safe.