If you’re a hotshot angling for an exec job at a big New York City company, chances are Ken Springer is on your tail. He’s the president of an innocuous-sounding outfit called Corporate Resolutions, and it’s his business to dig out your dirty laundry, give it a good sniff–then tell your prospective boss all about it.
Springer visited me here at TIME last week to talk about his work, tell tales of unnamed execs with big background booboos, and give advice on how to avoid getting snagged in his net. He’s an amiable guy with a brushcut, not the sort you pin as a 12-year FBI agent who hunted white-collar criminals. He started up his private business 16 years ago conducting background checks on high-level executives as well as on suppliers and clients.
In the age of Google, of course, any yahoo in HR can do a background check–of sorts. But Springer’s checks transcend that level. Of course, his staff of two dozen might begin with the web, trawling Facebook or old newspaper clips. But he also looks at legal histories, finding, for instance, cases in which the candidate has settled–“stuff that won’t show up on legal records,” but is meaningful to an employer as it might signal a lawsuit-happy candidate. In 29% of cases, he digs up something “significant,” he says–such as a CFO candidate who’s filed for personal bankruptcy (bet that bit wasn’t high up on the resumé).
You IT guys think you’re exempt from the probing eye? Think again. “Lately, that’s one of the biggest problems,” Springer sighs. Employers don’t consider the geek squad key employees. “And yet, they have the keys to the kingdom, don’t they? They can access the CEO’s e-mail if they want to.” His group spends a lot of time vetting IT candidates resumés for fakeries; phony online degrees are big. “They say they have a master’s when in fact they just paid some guy for it online,” he says.
If you don’t have any skeletons in your closet, you’re home free. But if you do? “The absolute best thing you can do,” says Springer, “is come clean in the interview process.” He cites the case of one CEO candidate whose approval for the job was one rubber stamp from the board away. Springer found an arrest–for domestic violence. When Springer sat down with the exec, he quickly owned up, then explained his side: his former wife had called the cops during an angry spat, and had since dropped any charges. After confirming the information with the ex, Springer cleared the exec for approval.
“Look,” he says. “We’re going to find out anyway. There are always two sides to the story–wouldn’t you rather we hear yours?”