Waterloo forced to fire top bureaucrat weeks after hiring

City hired chief administrative officer without knowing ‘critical information’ about problems in earlier CAO position

When the city of Waterloo hired Bob Robertson as its new chief bureaucrat, city hall claimed it had turned a corner and was now running a tighter, more efficient operation.

“The hiring of the new chief administrative officer is one more step in the city’s goal of returning public confidence to Waterloo city hall,” said Herb Epp, mayor of the southwestern Ontario city, in announcing the appointment Aug. 9. The previous CAO had been forced to resign over the fallout from a city development scandal, which reportedly went $33 million over budget.

Three weeks later Robertson was terminated by the city. In a press release announcing the firing, the mayor explained the decision was made “following a review of information that came to light after Mr. Robertson’s appointment was announced.”

The city “determined that critical information concerning Mr. Robertson’s employment history was not disclosed by him to the search committee.” The “critical information” was that Robertson had been CAO in Maple Ridge, B.C., when a similar land development deal went bad in the late ’90s. A forensic auditor examining the Maple Ridge deal concluded rules were broken, and that Robertson provided “inaccurate and misleading” information to council about the project that eventually went $11.4 million over budget.

This highly relevant event in Robertson’s employment history apparently wasn’t uncovered by either the recruiting firm retained by the city or by the city officials who twice interviewed him. Though Robertson was most recently employed as city manager with the City of Hamilton, his problems during his time as CAO in Maple Ridge were well-documented and publicized. Neither the city nor the recruiting firm responsible, Toronto-based Kinley Connelly, would comment.

Robertson was not obligated to bring up the matter during the recruitment process, and he contended that he had so thoroughly refuted the criticism against him that there was no reason to bring it up.

Mayor Epp promised to “implement a rigorous process of reference cross-checking to find a CAO who meets the search criteria.”

Though the Robertson hiring and firing appear to have arisen from some basic oversight, the fact is all job candidates go to great lengths to portray themselves in the best possible light. And with an abundance of career counselling, outplacement and resumé writing assistance available, many applicants have become highly adept at producing sparkling CVs. The problem is that some candidates cross the line from self-promotion into misrepresentation, exaggeration and even outright lying about what they have accomplished.

A 2002 study by ADP Screening and Selection Services concluded that more than 40 per cent of resumés have discrepancies in employment and education history.

If recruiters let their guards down, even for a second, and allow themselves to be impressed by the appearance of a candidate, they may miss the flaws and problems that have been carefully concealed.

Resumé fraud doesn’t appear to be any more prevalent than before, but it isn’t going away either, said Jeff Rosin, Canadian managing director of executive search firm Korn/Ferry International.

“We don’t see a trend upward, but we do know that people will bend the truth or misrepresent certain things in their background,” he said.

It’s a little surprising resumé fraud isn’t on the decline given all the talk among managers and business leaders about the importance of reference and background checks, he said. Though there have been a number of high-profile stories of people lying about their backgrounds to get jobs, it may take a few more examples before the message gets out, he added.

According to a survey of Korn/Ferry recruiters, applicants still play fastest and loosest when listing educational accomplishments and talking about reasons for leaving prior jobs (see chart).

“One of the questions I always ask is ‘Why did you leave that role? What was the motivation for leaving?’” said Rosin.

Most people are pretty comfortable talking about being let go because there is less of a stigma attached to layoffs than there once was. Most executives understand job instability is a fact of life with so much downsizing going on, he said.

In fact, if people aren’t comfortable talking about it, that should be viewed as a red flag. “You then say to yourself that might be a situation I need to probe a bit more.” Past employers might be called, references and referrals double-checked, he said. “There is a lot more Googling going on too.” A simple online search may reveal a lawsuit against the candidate that was never mentioned.

It’s also not uncommon for people to list academic courses they’ve signed up for and even begun, but never completed.

Usually, if the applicant is reminded during the interview process that everything on the resumé is subject to independent verification — that academic transcripts will be sought, for example — then he’ll usually come forward and explain that he signed up but didn’t graduate, said Rosin.

The key for recruiters is to delve deep into a candidate’s accomplishments. When describing their professional background, most candidates focus on responsibilities and titles.

“But if you had a certain position, then by definition you had those responsibilities,” he said. “You have to take very little at face value,” and figure out what the candidate accomplished with those responsibilities.

Steven Anderson, vice-president of HR at Crawford Adjusters, said he hasn’t seen much change in resumé fraud, but he is always cautious of candidates who look perfect.

“I tell my managers that if a candidate is so good that you can’t believe it, then you had better not and you had better be careful,” he said. “They need to be even more thorough in their investigations to confirm what is said in the interview.”

As a rule, Anderson doesn’t rely on resumés for much anyway. They are a good introduction but not much more, he said. Similarly, he doesn’t put much stock in references provided by the applicant.

“References that are provided by the candidate are generally useless,” he said. “I make it a rule to call previous employers or other sources that may have experienced the work product. In many cases it is difficult to acquire the information, but we are usually able to confirm whether what is said in the interview is true, false or exaggerated.”

Recently, one candidate for a job at Crawford claimed to have built an IT system for a gift retailer. “It was evident through proper situational questions using a behavioural event interview technique, that there were major gaps in his story,” said Anderson. “I knew the owner, and so I called him and it turned out the story was a complete fabrication.”

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