Pamela Babcock is a journalist based in the New York City area. She writes frequently about business, real estate, personal finance, legal issues and more for a variety of clients. Connect with Pamela at www.pamelababcock.com.
Digging Deeper into Agents’ Background
Seventy-five percent of HR managers have caught candidates lying on their resumes, according to a CareerBuilder.com survey. Here are steps to uncover the truth when vetting potential agents.
August 3, 2018
In a job interview, one applicant claimed to have written computer code that was actually created by the hiring manager. Another said he worked for Microsoft but couldn’t identify the company’s founder, Bill Gates. Yet another falsely claimed to have a Project Management Professional designation when applying for a job at the Project Management Institute, which grants the credential.
These cringe-worthy examples are from a 2017 CareerBuilder.com survey of more than 2,500 U.S. employers, which found that 75 percent of HR managers have caught a job applicant lying. Exaggerations and falsifications on resumes and on personal and professional websites may be more common than you think. What’s more, HR managers often only skim resumes: 39 percent say they initially spend less than a minute reading a resume, while nearly 19 percent spend less than 30 seconds.
Whether they are sales associates or potential employees, job candidates looking to stand out may embellish accomplishments, education, and skills—or worse, they may be hiding a serious criminal background. Brokers and hiring managers can take steps to detect deception by changing the way they interview prospective agents and even considering additional background checks.
When Words and Actions Don’t Line Up
Relying on visual cues in interviews can be problematic because it’s often difficult to accurately detect deception, studies have shown. People often associate body language such as poor eye contact and fidgeting with dishonesty when they may be cultural affects or meaningless movements.
Gary Aschenbach, a former Maryland state police investigator and owner of private investigation company Law-Tech Consultants, says the key is identifying “the subject’s normal behavioral baseline pattern” to discern reactions that might suggest lies. To gain insight into a candidate’s normal behavioral pattern, begin the interview with neutral, nonthreatening questions unrelated to the position.
Body language and the person’s words should be in sync. Watch how fast the person responds, Aschenbach says, because “the truthful have the gift of freedom without hesitation and fear of getting caught.” However, someone who is lying searches for “the better answer, and experiences an internal conflict” that often leads to changes in body language.
“Always,” “never,” and phrases such as “to tell you the truth” or “to be perfectly honest with you” can be telltale signs someone is lying, Aschenbach explains. Ask: “Are your numbers accurate? Have you told me everything? Has everything you just told me been the truth?” If you suspect a candidate is lying, their body language and responses may confirm your suspicions.
What Some Have Seen and Heard
Elizabeth Weintraub, a broker-associate with Lyon Real Estate in Sacramento, Calif., has written about agents who bluff or lie about accomplishments to attract clients and says many of the same things should be red flags for brokers. Don’t take a candidate’s resume or website at face value. Are there unexplained gaps in employment? Does the person speak vaguely about how long they’ve been in the business?
Someone who wants to break into a trendy area may promote him or herself as the neighborhood expert or specialist when that person hasn’t sold a single home in the area. Same goes for people who say they specialize in a particular type of property—such as high-end homes—or advertise that they’re FHA specialists but have yet to close an FHA transaction.
“Just because people want something to happen, they often label themselves specialists,” Weintraub says. “I can kind of read between the lines when I look at someone’s website, but not everybody can.”
Adam Conrad, CRB, SRS, broker-owner of Perry Wellington Realty in Hollidaysburg, Pa., says pumped-up sales figures can be a warning sign. Someone might brag about being the top producer in his or her office or closing $6 million in a year when that’s not the case.
“I’ve had people puff up and exaggerate production significantly,” Conrad says. “Every agent you talk to is super busy. They’re killing it. They’re on fire, and their pipeline is full.” Conrad tries to confirm stats on the MLS but says the system is “disabled” because brokers in many markets can’t pull sales figures for agents that don’t work for them.
Conrad says if an applicant is a “heavy hitter asking for the sun and the moon and the stars,” he’ll ask for the candidate’s last three years’ of 1099 tax returns to confirm income. Because education fraud is a big issue for organizations—particularly with the rise of “diploma mills”—Conrad verifies education by asking for transcript releases.
In addition to confirming that a candidate has a valid real estate license and no ethics charges, Conrad calls a previous broker the person worked for to ask why the agent left. Conrad says he once fired an agent who went to another broker and “told everybody he had quit. His new broker simply didn’t call to verify.” Lastly, Conrad says he’s skeptical when a candidate takes credit for everything at their previous brokerage.
“If I hear someone say, ‘I changed their whole marketing program’ and ‘I built their whole Facebook page,’ I’m super nervous,” Conrad says. “You can’t be the top salesperson and also do all their email marketing and shoot all their drone video.”
How Far Should You Go?
Les Rosen, an attorney and CEO of Novato, Calif.–based Employment Screening Resources, says checking the honesty and integrity of real estate agents and nonlicensed office staff is “mission critical.” That’s because brokerages have access to homes, clients’ valuables, and personally identifiable information that can be exploited in identity theft.
“Unfortunately, some real estate firms mistakenly assume that just because a person has a license, no additional due diligence is needed,” Rosen says. Not all states require fingerprint checks for licensing, and FBI criminal record databases used for such checks “are far from perfect.” A significant number of records never make it to the FBI database, and a large percentage that do don’t have final dispositions, he says.
Likewise, state licensing agencies may not be as efficient as you think when it comes to finding criminal records or taking appropriate and timely action on a license. Rosen says it’s not uncommon in many professions for the licensing agency to either not know a licensed professional has committed a crime or to take “substantial” time to react, particularly if the crime was committed out of state.
In general, employers can conduct background checks on all individuals performing work on their worksites, including contingent staff, “such as staffing agencies’ temporary employees, internally hired temporary employees, consultants, independent contractors, and subcontractors,” according to an online toolkit from the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM).
When deciding whether to do background checks on independent contractors and other contingent workers, “employers should consider legal requirements, client agreements, government contract requirements, and common industry practices,” SHRM says.
Background checks are “immensely” legally regulated, Rosen says, so brokers who retain a screening firm should make sure it understands federal and state law, such as the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act, the EEOC prohibition on the automatic elimination of a person based on a criminal record, and the impact of “ban the box” laws in their jurisdiction that limit asking about criminal records on a hiring application.