Part 2: Verifying qualifications and handling potential integrity concerns

Inquiry into immigration matters: Public sector recruitment processes involving Mary Anne Thompson and related issues (Volume 2).

In this Part, we discuss our expectations about:

Verifying qualifications

Public sector employers should consider whether to verify the qualifications that job applicants claim, based on what is appropriate for the organisation and the role.

We spoke to a number of recruitment and human resources practitioners to understand what is reasonable to expect of processes to check academic qualifications. We also reviewed good practice guidance material about recruitment, including that issued by the SSC.

When a person applies for a job, they are making certain representations about themselves (including their skills, experience, qualifications, and behavioural styles). Applicants' details and claims in their curriculum vitae (CV) must be truthful and accurate. The employer can act if they discover that those claims are wrong. However, the employer does not have to actively check all details in a CV unless there is good reason to do so.

While we were told by some sources that every detail in a CV must be checked, others told us that the focus is on testing the candidate's suitability for the position. For example, the employer (or their consultant) may focus not on qualifications but on other details, such as claims about relevant work experience. We were also told that checking involves judgement and is based on risk. For example, more checks are likely to be carried out for an unknown or overseas candidate than for a candidate with an established reputation in New Zealand.

Some people that we spoke with during our inquiry noted that, in the employment environment that existed more than 20 years ago, checking qualifications was important. Qualifications directly determined the appropriate salary grade for an employee in the public service. However, remuneration no longer works like that in many jobs.

Some also noted that the public service may still be perceived as a single employing entity. In that case, a person moving from one department to another may be seen as moving internally, and may to a greater extent be taken on trust. In practice, the public service is close and collegial. Considerable emphasis is placed on collaboration, including the collective development of senior leadership capability. However, that does not remove the formal responsibility that each chief executive has under the State Sector Act 1988 for employing their own staff.

Some people also noted that the public sector started to pay more attention to qualifications after a high-profile scandal in 2002 involving the inaugural Chief Executive of the Māori Television Service.

We looked at each of the recruitment processes involving Ms Thompson before 2004 to determine whether the uncertainty about her PhD should have been identified. These processes are discussed in Part 3. We also considered whether these processes raised any common causes of concern about public sector recruitment practices.

We do not expect all recruitment processes in the public sector to verify every academic qualification that an applicant claims to have. Rather, each employing entity has to decide what approach is most suitable for it, both generally and for specific positions. In our view, a case-by-case assessment based on risk is appropriate.

The extent of checks required is likely to vary depending on the seniority of the role and the experience and qualifications needed for the role. The applicant's previous work history may also be relevant. However, each entity within the public sector is a distinct organisation, and each chief executive is responsible for their employment practices. The fact that an individual has previously worked in the public sector does not excuse a public entity from carrying out a proper process with the appropriate checks.

It is reasonable to expect a more careful and thorough approach for the appointment of a chief executive and senior positions because of the leadership and management role they have in an organisation. They are also the visible face of the public sector, and must be able to withstand scrutiny.

Handling potential integrity concerns

We would expect that, whenever a concern is raised by a credible source that may question the integrity of a public sector employee, the matter will be investigated.

Generally, we would expect that when concerns are raised by a credible source that may question the integrity of an employee, that those concerns will be properly investigated. If the suspicion is unfounded, then in fairness to the employee the doubt that has been raised should be removed. However, if the matter does demonstrate a lack of integrity, then appropriate action should be taken. This would usually be by the employer. In our view, this approach applies to recruiting all public sector employees, but especially to those in senior positions.

We accept that it may not be essential to resolve the potential integrity concern in order to conclude the recruitment process. Nonetheless, we consider that it is important for all those responsible for employment decisions to maintain a broad view of their collective responsibility for ensuring the overall integrity of the public sector. Working to maintain public trust in government organisations is a fundamental responsibility for all chief executives, and is an area where the SSC has specific leadership responsibilities. The public is entitled to expect that there will be a low tolerance of risk in relation to integrity questions within the public sector, particularly at a senior level.

page top