At last. Yesterday saw the public release of the very catchy sounding report “The Circumstances into which Mr Stephen Wilce was employed as Director of the Defence Technology Agency”.
For any of you who have been living under rocks lately, this report is of significant interest to our New Zealand recruitment community because of the role played by Momentum in the sourcing and presenting of Stephen Wilce as a candidate for the role. Placed by Momentum back in 2005, Stephen Wilce muddled through 5 years in the job before an expose on 60 Minutes last month revealed him to be a fantasist making wild claims of Olympic bobsleigh exploits, representing Wales against the All Blacks and, my favourite, playing guitar on the British folk circuit (is that something you’d actually make up to try and impress someone?!)
The New Zealand Defence Force realised what an almighty and embarrassing mistake this was and immediately went about the honourable process of seeking to lay blame elsewhere. So, despite assembling an expert interview panel themselves and deciding to make the appointment, they have been trying to suggest it was all Momentum’s fault for not conducting adequate reference and background checks. Momentum denied this, saying that it was not their responsibility to conduct reference checks as the NZDF had agreed to do this as the hiring process unfolded.
You might have read my comments on this in earlier blog posts but I have always sided with Momentum on this. This isn’t due to some form of nepotism or bias towards them but really because I see this as an issue affecting all of us in recruitment, and this is something that could have happened to any other firm out there. The fact Momentum’s reputation has been severely tested does not just affect Momentum, it affects all of us in recruitment. People outside our industry are quite happy to tar us all with the same brush, and you will have all experienced this first hand. They don’t care if your firm isn’t Momentum, they would happily believe that because of these stories, it probably means that all recruitment companies fail to conduct proper background checks.
Let me ask you your impressions of finance companies when you hear about Blue Chip. Or your impression of used car salesmen when you hear about one dodgy one on Target. Even your impression of professional footballers when you hear about John Terry…err actually that might be a bad example as they probably are all like that (apart from the saintly Fabregas).
But joking aside, it has been disappointing for me to hear about other recruiters smirking into their flat whites at this controversy, and barracking Momentum from the crowd at the Seek Awards. Get off your high horse, this attack on Momentum’s reputation isn’t just a pain in the backside for them, it affects all of our reputations out there in the wider business community.
I am particularly glad this report has finally come out because I believe it goes quite a long way (but not the whole way) to exonerating Momentum from blame. You can download the whole report here but on the whole it is incredibly tedious and I can summarise the main points of interest as follows:
h. Momentum Consulting Group Ltd (“Momentum”) carried out qualification checks on Mr Wilce in accordance with the then provisions of DFO 16. Mr Wilce holds the qualifications that he claimed to hold in his curriculum vitae.
i. Momentum carried out a criminal history check through a subcontractor.
j. Momentum was obliged, under the contract it entered into with the Crown, to “undertake detailed reference checking” to the standard indicated in its Proposal.
k. Momentum did undertake referee checks.
l. The checking undertaken by Momentum met the basic standard then required by DFO 16; enquiries were made of Mr Wilce’s referees and no concerns about his background, integrity or character became apparent.
m. The checking undertaken by Momentum did not satisfy the higher standard of thoroughness required by its contract with the Crown; adherence to this standard was necessary given the nature of the position.
n. The NZDF recruitment project team placed an undesirably high level of reliance on Momentum carrying out the proper checks. The NZDF could not contract out of its responsibility to ensure that adequate checks were conducted prior to appointing Mr Wilce. Accordingly, the relevant manager, [the then Assistant Chief Development], bears command responsibility for any failings in this regard.
o. The standard of checking required by DFO 16 at the time was inadequate in the circumstances.
It is with point “m” from this Executive Summary that Bede Ashby, the MD of Momentum, has taken umbrage. In a press release issued last night he says:
“[Our] proposal recognized that the post of Director of the DTA required high-level reference checks. At no stage in the recruitment process did the NZDF ask us to complete these checks on Mr Wilce.
“If Momentum had been asked to carry out the full reference checks, as the Inquiry agrees was set out in our initial proposal to the NZDF, his claims about his performance in previous jobs would have been tested more rigorously. Although the checks were included in our proposal the client decided to take responsibility for these themselves.
“Variations on the original proposal are common in recruitment processes and this was no different. For example, Momentum completed assessment reports on all 14 members of the long list. This is very unusual but was carried out at the request of the client. The NZDF varied our original proposal by taking responsibility for the reference checks rather than having us complete them as originally proposed. These were among a number of variations agreed with the client during this process and our documents support this.”
So where are we left after all this? I’m sure it will act as a catalyst to make many of us sharpen up the standard of our reference and background checking even if Bede’s assertion is a fair one in that they did do what was required. And this is a good thing. But we also don’t want to get carried away for fear of this happening to us some time in the future. We are recruitment consultants. We do not make the final hiring decision for our clients. Yes we have a duty to assist our clients in making the right decision by providing them with as much accurate information as possible, but ultimately the buck stops with the person making that hiring decision. As recruiters our skills are best applied in networking, sourcing and attracting the best available talent to a role. We cannot suddenly become so uptight about background and probity checks that we lose sight of what we really are best at.
My advice would be that if you feel the nature of the role you are recruiting demands a higher level of background checking than the usual 2 or 3 employment reference checks, then put this in a written proposal to the client and offer to undertake whatever they deem necessary. But then outsource this process to someone that can do it better than you – and charge your client for this service on top of the standard recruitment fee.