Background Checks: Trust But Verify

25 June 2008 By Lisa Hoogerwerf Knapp

Imagine this scenario: The manager of a yacht recommends a friend for a job on board as a temporary engineer. The captain hires the engineer. He gets along with the crew and is very competent. A few weeks later, the engineer is flown to the Mediterranean for a return engagement.

Question: Should the captain re-check the engineer’s credentials? After all, everyone already knows him, right? Does a captain really need to verify a returning crewmember’s official paperwork before re-committing him to a new assignment abroad?

This scenario is true, and the names were withheld to protect the innocent…and the guilty.

In this case, upon the second engagement, the engineer left the captain a “Dear John” letter saying, “Have a nice summer.” Then he disappeared into the fog in Genoa, unable to be repatriated out of the country to the yacht’s last port of call.

The captain was nearly arrested for smuggling someone into the country after the immigration department determined that the engineer’s passport was bogus and expired.

If the passport is expired, the captain should catch on right away. However, if it is falsified, the captain is not really trained to determine that, in spite of being responsible for the crew manifest.

“The captain is not as responsible for the passport being fraudulent,” says Rupert Connor, president of Luxury Yacht Group. “I’d give him [the captain] a free pass on the fraudulent passport, but I’d rake him over the coals for overlooking an expired passport or visa.”

A passport is difficult to forge and one would assume that a crewmember is not “bad” once he or she is on board, Connor said. Background screens, secondary verifications, and character vouching usually avoid these scary scenarios.

“We have a private investigation firm,” says Capt. John Doty. “Our crew is manned by Americans so we have more control, but it is harder to verify foreign crew. [The U.S. Department of] Homeland Security is cracking down on this now and is creating other entities for security purposes.”

“It does happen,” says Capt. Richard Johnson.  “It’s the largest part of my job, dealing with foreign countries. I hold little faith in any resumes and braggers don’t get anywhere with me. I question their integrity immediately.”

Johnson sees more falsification of credentials and licenses, not necessarily passports. “If you have cash in your hand, you can buy your courses in certain countries like Panama and the Philippines. I get as many references as I can get.”

Fake licenses only would incur expenses for a commercial vessel. “They would have rush fees for the paperwork because they would technically not be able to leave the dock,” says Marcy Williams, crew placement specialist for Northrop and Johnson. “There are penalties for being pulled over without proper licenses for safe manning and if there was a fire, insurance might not pay.”

There is a lesson to be learned the hard way for this crew. Trust is not a must; verification of all papers and necessary background checks is.

As former U.S. President Ronald Reagan famously advised when dealing with the Soviets toward the end of the Cold War, “Trust, but verify.”

Do you verify all documents during the hiring process? What kind of hiring practices do you have in place to ensure secure background checks of all new hires and returning crew? Let us know. Leave your comments below and vote in our interactive poll.