High-Priced Recruiters Don't Check References

Chris Van Someren got in trouble during his first full-time job in 1989. He was working as a secretary for Mary Starkey, a Denver household-help placement agency, and she let him use her corporate credit card to buy office supplies.

In 1991, she found that he had bought several thousand dollars of personal gifts with the card. She docked his pay to recover the money.

That same year, after helping her find a nanny, van Someren became secretary for Patricia Cook, a recruiter in the executive-search division of management consultants A.T. Kearney.

Cook didn't seek a Starkey reference because "he said he and his boss weren't getting along."

And, he proved so efficient that she promoted him to researcher and guaranteed a bank loan for him so he could pay other personal debts and follow her to the firm's New York office from Denver.

Unfortuntely, Van Someren used his corporate credit card to buy $28,000 in Christmas gifts. When he confessed to this, Cook urged him to devise a schedule to repay the credit-card debt and her guaranteed loan. But van Someren said that was impossible "because he wouldn't be able to live a normal life with those debts." Cook then fired him.

In May 1993, Van Someren became a recruiter's secretary at Johnson Smith & Knisely. Barbara Pickens, his boss, says she didn't contact Ms. Cook because another AT Kearney search consultant told her "he can do a lot of things for you" despite his unspecified problems at AT Kearney.

Van Someren filed for personal bankruptcy protection a month later. His Chapter 7 petition, filed with U.S. Bankruptcy Court in New York, listed few assets and $100,335 of debt, plus living expenses that exceeded the take-home pay from his $40,000 salary by nearly $18,000 a year.

That September, a bankruptcy judge wiped out his debts, including what he owed A.T. Kearney. That move forced Cook to pay her bank about $19,725 in principal and interest on Mr. van Someren's behalf.

Van Someren flourished under Ms. Pickens's tutelage and was promoted to recruiter. Mike Wellman, then head of Korn/Ferry's New York office, began wooing the young man in spring 1996.

During his second job interview, van Someren admitted leaving A.T. Kearney because he had used his corporate credit card for personal purchases. "Chris said the amount was somewhere between $5,000 and $10,000," Wellman recalls. "I got the sense Chris had learned a lesson." Wellman says he didn't feel he needed to confirm the amount or the circumstances of van Someren's departure with Ms. Cook.

He decided "Chris deserved a second chance". He contacted a former co-worker at Johnson Smith & Knisely but he did not speak to van Someren's boss at at A.T. Kearney.

At Korn/Ferry, van Someren generated so much revenue that he was named a managing director eleven months later. He won his first management spot in 1999, and took command of the global consumer-industry practice a year later.

His ascension to global markets president in December 2001 occurred partly because he had impressed the recently hired chief executive, Paul Reilly. The post enabled van Someren to enjoy a globe-trotting, affluent lifestyle, earning about $700,000 a year.

Korn/Ferry senior management learned the full details of Mr. van Someren's past in May. A London colleague clashed with him, feared retribution and decided to delve into his employment history.

Don Spetner, a Korn/Ferry spokesman and senior vice president, said an internal investigation of the disgruntled staffer's allegation had confirmed the firm's prior conclusion that Mr. van Someren got into financial problems at A.T. Kearney because "he was basically young and irresponsible. He couldn't pay his credit card, defaulted and declared bankruptcy."

After weeks of harassment from The Wall Street Journal, the big search firm stripped van Someren of his presidency and made him a full-time recruiter again. "I wouldn't call it a demotion," Spetner said. Korn/Ferry eliminated Mr. van Someren's position and several others as part of "a flattening of the management structure."

The van Someren case is not an isolated event. This past January, the president of A.T. Kearney's executive-search division resigned a week after industry consultants Hunt-Scanlon Advisors raised doubts about his professional and educational credentials.

Gene Shen, denies he misled A.T. Kearney about having a master's degree or about his title at New York search firm Whitney Group, his prior employer. He still maintains he was a Whitney Group co-founder, a claim that firm says is untrue.

Jack Groban, a former A.T. Kearney managing director who helped recruit Mr. Shen in March 1999, said he didn't check Shen's educational background because they cared more about his Whitney Group work.

Nor did they confirm his title there. "Nobody ever called me from Kearney to do a reference check on Gene Shen," says Gary Goldstein, CEO of Whitney Group.

Shen now works for Options Group, a small New York search firm that, in turn, never quizzed A.T. Kearney about him. "I didn't need to do a reference check on him. I have known him for 14 years," says Michael Karp, a founding Options Group partner.

If Karp had checked with AT Kearney, officials would have divulged that they challenged the business purpose of expenses Shen sought reimbursement for when he quit. Shen currently owes two corporate credit-card providers $80,000 in expense-account money.

(Does anyone else think this is a tempest in a teapot?)

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