“Trust but verify” is a political adage from the Cold War era, but it’s a useful reminder of what IT managers need to do when considering a candidate for an open job slot. To avoid expensive and embarrassing hiring mistakes, you should take the time to authenticate candidates’ statements.

Since double-checking what anyone says is an indirect way of saying you don’t trust them, it’s something managers tend to shy away from and something they don’t do often enough. They say they prefer to rely on their own instincts, but it’s all too easy to be fooled.

Ask Nancy Moran, account manager for CCN Corporation, an IT recruitment and temporary staffing firm in New York, NY. Moran says that during their hiring process, once a candidate does well during a short telephone interview, Moran will talk with the candidate face-to-face. During one such recent meeting, she found herself across the desk from someone who seemed like a good help-desk candidate. His resume showed he had plenty of experience, yet he couldn’t explain how to do any basic e-mail procedures, such as attaching a file to an e-mail message. After tripping over a few such questions, he confessed. Incredibly, he was an out-of-work actor with no help desk experience. To draft the perfect resume, he had cut-and-pasted sections of resumes he had found on job-related Web sites.

Had the company simply accepted the resume at face value and presented the candidate to a client without further verification, the company would have made an embarrassing mistake. At CCN, every applicant goes through a multistep screening process involving initial calls, face-to-face meetings, and objective skills testing. The system works. In the case Moran cited, the deceit was caught, even if the candidate did make it through the initial screening.

Find a screening process that works

To help you see what is necessary in ensuring a job candidate’s honesty, check out TechRepublic’s verification checklist, which you can download here for free.

Ask the right questions, early and often
In an effective screening process, more than one person should meet with the candidate and offer an opinion on the candidate’s personality and skill set. Any crucial and secondary IT skills the candidate professes to have must also be checked out in a process that includes at least some objective testing. Don’t take any claims at face value. Finally, someone in the organization needs to double-check the education and job history listed on the resume.

When you test for IT skills, asking the candidate to explain how to do something is a good start. As in Moran’s story, doing so can help you eliminate weak performers quickly. Such a system fails, though, if the person asking the questions doesn’t know the right questions or the right answers. Make sure the staff member doing the questioning is thoroughly trained in the appropriate Q&A for an initial screening for each position.

When dealing with candidates who must have highly developed skills, it’s more difficult to train someone to spot weaknesses. For these types of jobs, some companies ask employees who are doing the same kind of work to talk with the candidate and to try to stump them. Such a plan works best, though, when the questions are developed in advance and all the candidates are asked the same set of questions. It isn’t enough to let the employee and the candidate shoot the breeze for a while and then give you some feedback.

Developing a solid Q&A set is a good start for objective testing. Being prepared this way allows you to be consistent in your evaluations and also lets you evaluate candidates on a more impartial basis. It lets you put personality aside and focus more on the applicant’s skills.

When you’re thinking about the kinds of questions you should ask, decide first if you want to test for competency or for proficiency. Competency is having skills that are adequate for a task. Proficiency is having above average or excellent skills. Someone who is competent can get the job done. Someone who is proficient knows several ways to get the job done and which way is the fastest/easiest/best way.

Think carefully before deciding which you need because you will always pay more for proficiency than competency. Yet, overall project costs can be lower when you have proficient workers who get more done in less time.

Handy resources
If it’s too time consuming to develop a battery of questions on your own, you can turn to outside resources for help. One of the easiest ways to test someone’s skills, particularly if the person holds a certification, is to use test questions from a test preparation program. You can purchase a book or a CD-ROM and draw the questions and answers from these materials. You should select the questions that have the most bearing on the work the candidate would be doing.

The do-it-yourself approach works really well if all you want to develop is a basic competency test. You would choose any number of questions that you think are reasonable and then decide on a pass/fail number of questions. You could also designate certain questions as being more important than others for the candidate to answer correctly.

If you want to do in-depth skills testing or you want to test for proficiency, check out the options you have for working with an outside testing vendor. The services these companies offer vary widely and include custom test development and skills testing management. You can use these services when you need them, so you can develop your own testing in-house and use outside services as needed.

Some of the companies offer testing online, so you could have a candidate take a test during an interview or at a test center. Unless you want the test to be open book, it’s better to have the candidate take the test under supervised conditions.

Other sources
The Department of Labor offers an 80-page guide to testing and assessment. The document is called “Testing and Assessment: An Employer’s Guide to Good Practices” and is free to download.

TechRepublic also offers a checklist, which you can download here for free, that you can use to verify statements made by job candidates.