Since 9/11 a growing number of employers are using background checks for job applicants, current employees and contract services. In addition to spotting potential terrorists, these checks help answer one of employers' most urgent questions, "Are we hiring or providing work to a person we can trust?"

Our nation is experiencing a crisis in ethics and trust. I don't even need to cite the litany of examples. People are fed up with the cheating and lies.

We are also seeing less tolerance for bogus environmental health and safety credentials. I've been concerned about this for years, and with good reason: The book, "Diploma Mills: Degrees of Fraud," (Stewart and Spille, 1988) supported by the American Council on Education, voiced concern that "public health and safety is threatened" by the large number of fraudulent safety and health degrees.

John Bear, a leading researcher on diploma mills, wrote in an article this year that he loses sleep over "two sleazy universities that specialize in quick and easy home-study doctorates in nuclear engineering safety."

Diploma mills have grown to over a $200 million annual business with approximately 300 diploma mills and substandard "schools" in operation, according to Bear. He says it is not unusual for one large fake school to sell as many as 500 Ph.Ds (of all kinds) every month.

Here are examples of how the ethics and trust issue is hitting home in our EHS world:

  • Stephen Bokat, senior vice president and general counsel for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, cites the case where an employee didn't like his boss who ran an environmental department. The subordinate conducted a background check and discovered his boss lied about his academic credentials. The whistle was blown and the boss was fired.

  • One of the final three highly qualified candidates to head Oregon's Department of Environmental Quality lost his chance for the position when a background check found out he claimed a bachelor's degree from a diploma mill.

    Spotting bogus academic credentials today is getting easier. Growth of online databases now makes it simple and quick to check up on somebody. And as the number of businesses offering these services goes up, the cost has come down. A full background check on an individual by a professional service can be conducted for under $100.

    Why risk it?

    Bear says citing a degree from a diploma mill is like putting a time bomb in your resume. It's bound to go off. Why would someone risk it?

    People who misrepresent their EHS credentials provide many lame excuses for their actions. In the final analysis, they are cheating the system to unfairly get ahead. After all, academic credentials, certifications and titles open doors to a new job or promotion. People will also fib about academic credentials to become eligible for membership in professional EHS associations or to become qualified to obtain EHS certifications such as the Certified Safety Professional or Certified Industrial Hygienist.

    But EHS pros are far from alone in misrepresenting their qualifications. Jeff Christian, chairman, Christian & Timbers, an executive search firm, says about 23 percent of the resumes his firm looks at contain misrepresented academic credentials. Some studies put the percentage as high as 41 percent. If EHS pros fit in the middle of this pack - we're talking about a lot of misrepresented academic credentials.

    Tougher standards

    Earlier this year I met an individual with a Ph.D. and a CSP who resides in Michigan. I found that his Ph.D. in environmental engineering came from a diploma mill. He can claim the Ph.D. in Michigan because he is not breaking any state law. But if he pulled the stunt in Oregon and several other states he wouldn't get away with it.

    In 1998, Oregon established the Office of Degree Authorization "to provide protection of the citizens of Oregon and their post-secondary schools by ensuring the quality of higher education and preserving the integrity of an academic degree as a public credential." It's a crime in Oregon for any person to "claim to possess a valid academic degree that in fact was issued by a fraudulent or substandard school or by some entity posing as a school." Oregon provides a list of "schools" that fall into this category, and the school where the Michigan CSP bought his doctorate is on this list.

    While Michigan may not protect its citizens from misrepresented EHS credentials, the Board of Certified Safety Professionals has taken steps to protect the safety profession. Last year the BCSP issued new standards for "Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct." The new ethic standards for CSPs include: "Avoid deceptive acts which falsify or misrepresent their academic or professional qualifications." Bogus credentials are being smoked out and the time bomb is closer to going off for the Michigan Ph.D. CSP.

    Real academic credentials are also becoming necessary to call yourself by EHS professional titles such as an industrial hygienist. New Jersey's 1997 "Industrial Hygienist Truth in Advertising Act" is one example.

    Playing it safe

    For every EHS pro who cheats the system there are many more who play by the rules. Greg Mason, who has a real MS in industrial hygiene and a CSP, is working on his doctorate in health education at the University of Toledo while holding down a full-time EHS consulting job. He laments about how much time the schooling takes away from his son and other leisure activities.

    I asked Greg, "Why don't you just buy your doctorate through the mail?" "It's just not right," he said. And that comment sums up this whole issue.

    Remember, when a background check discovers the half-truths and fibs all the dominos start to fall. Trust is lost - and maybe your current job and EHS career.