Recruitment and selection

The principle that positions are filled on the basis of merit is fundamental to the recruitment and selection of employees in the public sector. Merit selection is designed to ensure that:

  • all eligible applicants have a fair chance to gain a job in the public sector

  • selection is based only on a person's ability to perform the work

  • the best candidates are selected, resulting in a high-quality public sector workforce.

The Government Sector Employment Act 2013 provides a statutory framework for NSW Government sector employment, including recruitment practices. The Local Government Act 1993 places requirements on councils with regard to selection processes. For example, s 348 and s 349, respectively, require the advertising of positions and selection on the basis of merit.

Poor accountability and probable bias in recruitment

The ICAC received complaints about the recruitment procedures used by a regional council to fill a labourer's position. The selection criteria included a requirement that the successful applicant be a qualified electrician. This surprised many people because, in the past, the council had not employed an electrician and used contractors to undertake any electrical work.

Only one applicant met all the required selection criteria, and he was appointed to the position after an interview. That applicant was the son of the council's director of engineering.

The council could not adequately explain why a labourer's position required a qualified electrician. No job analysis had been undertaken, there was no up-to-date position description and there was no record of who had authorised the changed selection criterion.

The ICAC advised the council that:

  • anybody with a potential conflict of interest, such as the director of engineering in this situation, should not have been involved in the recruitment process

  • if records of the key decisions in the recruitment process had been kept, this would have reduced suspicions that the process had been unfair and improved overall accountability

  • it (the council) could have enhanced transparency by explaining to people who may otherwise anticipated applying, the reasons for changing the position description and advertisement.

    Source: Complaint to the ICAC.

Common corruption risks in recruitment and selection include a public official:

  • making a long-term temporary appointment to evade a competitive merit-based process

  • restricting advertising timeframes to limit who is able to apply

  • writing selection criteria to favour a certain applicant

  • appointing panel members that can be influenced to ensure a favoured candidate is selected

  • concealing negative referee reports from the rest of the selection panel

  • appointing a fellow employee, who is a friend or family member, to a more senior position than their current role without declaring a conflict of interest.

Developing a strategy

To ensure the best person is selected, organisations need an impartial selection panel and accurate information about applicants’ skills, training and qualifications. Managing corruption risks around these activities requires a mix of tools and controls, some of which require longer-term efforts around general workplace culture and establishing a mechanism to report suspected corrupt conduct.

Agencies will benefit from having a written policy and procedures for managing corruption risks around recruitment and selection. Having a written policy is only useful, however, if staff are trained in the policy, understand it, are able to comply with it and are motivated to comply.

Consider the following measures:

  • advertising positions widely enough to maximise the potential field

  • making records of why applicants are chosen for interview, why other applicants are culled, and who was responsible for these decisions

  • verifying academic and professional qualifications, and recording that this has been done

  • including independents from outside the organisation on the selection panel

  • retaining interview notes made by each member of the selection panel on the recruitment file

  • screening candidates prior to employment and checking references.

False qualifications used to gain employment

The ICAC investigated an information technology (IT) manager who claimed false degrees, professional memberships and falsified his work history to gain employment at three different universities.

After being hired, the IT manager engaged in further corrupt conduct by causing $146,165 worth of false invoices to be paid by the universities. The three universities did not have processes in place to verify the information provided in the IT manager’s job application. The Commission made recommendations that universities ensure that they perform employment screening checks for preferred applicants.

Some examples of better practice employment screening checks include:

  • verifying degrees and professional memberships with the issuing institution
  • verifying the applicant’s work history by contacting the human resources department to confirm previous employment dates and roles held
  • keeping records of verification checks, especially if those checks are performed by recruitment consultants
  • requiring all applicants to sign a declaration that their job application is genuine, and that they acknowledge any false claims could lead to dismissal
  • including a provision in letters of appointment or other contractual documents that permits the termination of a staff member who has made false claims.
Source: Report on investigation into the conduct of a university manager and others in relation to false invoicing, June 2015.

Recruitment or selection involving internal applicants is particularly vulnerable to perceptions of favouritism, especially if there are no independent interview panel members involved in the process. Filling vacancies promptly ensures that employees who are acting in a more senior role do not obtain experience that gives them an advantage over potential candidates. Staff managing the recruitment need to demonstrate fairness and impartiality when dealing with internal applicants by avoiding biased treatment, such as coaching or providing advice, not available to other applicants or encouraging an expectation of success (or failure).

Potential internal applicants should not be involved in any part of a recruitment process, such as acting as the contact person for potential candidates, preparing position descriptions or drawing up advertisements for the position. All information about the process should be kept confidential.

Recordkeeping – including both making records and retaining them – is especially important when a recruitment or selection has departed from established public sector processes, including a decision not to undertake a competitive process or to contact referees. Recordkeeping requirements should extend to:

  • recording why unsuccessful applicants were considered unsuitable

  • interview panel members writing comments for each interviewee against all selection criteria

  • integrating the joint deliberations of selection panel members into the selection panel report

  • making notes of referee checks.

Unmanaged conflicts of interest are a particular risk for recruitment and selection. The presence of family ties or a close friendship, indicated by such factors as regular socialising outside work (rather than routine daily interaction as colleagues), should be treated as a conflict of interest. Panel members should be required to sign declarations in the selection panel reports about any associations they have in relation to any applicant. If it is difficult to find panel members from inside the organisation who are not close friends with applicants, the organisation can recruit external panel members to replace them. The ICAC’s “Conflicts of interest” tip sheet contains advice on managing conflicts of interest.

Using the same independent panel member on a number of different panels is not a desirable practice. Regularly choosing the same independent could result in a perception that the person is not truly independent.

Employment screening is an important feature of any recruitment and selection strategy. It involves checking the identity, integrity and credentials of candidates to make an informed hiring decision. Identity checks are particularly critical for an employment screening program because other employment screening checks are premised on identity having been established.

One function of employment screening is to prevent agencies from hiring candidates that have engaged in employment application fraud such as listing false qualifications or fabricating a work history. Employment application fraud can serve as a red flag that a candidate may not have sufficient integrity for a given role. If a candidate is willing to lie on their application, they may commit other acts of dishonesty once they are employed in the role.

Employee screening, such as criminal background checks, can be useful for eliminating undesirable candidates. However, such checks are intrusive and time-consuming and should only be used when it is justified given the type of position that is vacant and when informed consent has been provided. Generally, the greater the position of trust, the more justified an employer is in performing more extensive employment screening, as recommended by the Standard Australia’s AS 4811-2006 Employment screening.

There are several sources of advice about recruitment and selection. The Public Service Commission’s Employment Portal offers advice on recruitment and selection, including legal requirements of the Government Sector Employment Act 2013 and the Government Sector Employment (General) Rules 2014, and the NSW Office of Local Government oversees Guidelines for the Appointment and Oversight of General Managers (2011). In 2018, the ICAC also released a publication on these issues titled Strengthening employment screening practices in the NSW public sector.  

View the ICAC's video on CV fraud: how to know when applicants are lying for furher information.

The following ICAC investigations have dealt with corruption in the recruitment of IT contractors:

  • Investigation into the recruitment of contractors and other staff by a University of Sydney IT manager (October 2012)

  • Investigation into alleged fraud on the former NSW Department of Education and Training (January 2012)

  • Investigation into the conduct of a University of Sydney ICT manager (May 2016).


Updated December 2018