Weeding out the fraudsters: Misrepresentation of qualifications

The South African employment landscape is littered with employees who have misrepresented their qualifications to achieve a higher status or make more money by being appointed to positions for which they would not have been eligible without those qualifications. 

25 Mar 2024 4 min read Employment Law Alert Article

At a glance

  • Stories of fake qualifications are unfortunately too common in South Africa.
  • As part of the effort to counter this trend, the National Qualifications Framework Act 67 of 2008 (NQF Act) seeks to regulate, amongst other things, the verification and evaluation of qualifications.
  • Employers should review and strengthen their recruitment processes to ensure that the legitimacy of qualifications is confirmed before a candidate is appointed to a position.

Stories of fake qualifications are unfortunately too common. In January this year, Business Day broke the story of a well-regarded economist, who sat on the boards of a number of blue-chip companies and on the Presidential Advisory Council, who falsely claimed under oath that she had a PhD from the London School of Economics.

A councillor in Cape Town has had to stand down after it was exposed that he had misrepresented that he had an MBChB degree. A Cabinet Minister has been called out for “obtaining” honour’s and master’s degrees without an undergraduate bachelor’s degree.

To make matters worse, an illicit industry has built up around this type of fraud. An employee from the Department of Higher Education and Training has recently been arrested for issuing diploma certificates in exchange for cash. Certain unscrupulous online “educational institutions” offer degrees and certificates for a fee.

The adverse consequences of these types of appointments can be severe, not only to an employer but also the public. The SABC was hollowed out over a number of years, during a certain CEO’s tenure. PRASA misspent hundreds of millions of rand buying trains that were too high for the local rail network. What these institutions had in common was the appointment of individuals who falsely claimed to have qualifications that they did not.

Umgeni Water case

Previously we wrote about the High Court judgment in Umgeni Water v Sheldon Naidoo and Another (11489/2017P) [2022] ZAKZPHC 80 (15 December 2022). The employee in that matter applied for a position at Umgeni Water which required, as a minimum, a chemical engineering degree. After a few years he applied for a more senior position. By this time Umgeni Water had appointed an external company to verify all qualifications. It was then found that the employee did not have an engineering degree at all. The employee resigned to avoid disciplinary proceedings. Undeterred, Umgeni Water sued the employee for repayment of all the monies that it had paid to him as a result of his fraudulent misrepresentation. The court held that the employee should not benefit from his fraudulent behaviour and granted Umgeni Water the relief it sought. It allowed Umgeni Water to execute the judgment against the employee’s pension fund in terms of section 37D(1)(b)(ii) of the Pension Funds Act 24 of 1956. As a sign of its displeasure with the employee’s conduct the court also ordered punitive costs against him on an attorney and client scale.

The ease with which these unscrupulous fraudsters get through the appointment process is worrying. The harsh reality is that most companies do not conduct a proper due diligence of candidates when appointing employees. Most employers simply take a candidate’s purported qualifications at face value and do not use any sort of verification process.

Legislative obligation to authenticate qualifications

The National Qualifications Framework Act 67 of 2008 (NQF Act) seeks to regulate, amongst other things, the verification and evaluation of qualifications. In 2019 a number of material amendments were introduced to the NQF Act. One of these is section 32A(1), which places a legislative obligation on all employers, prior to an appointment, to authenticate that the applicant’s qualifications are registered on the national learners’ records database, and if not, to refer the matter to the South African Qualifications Agency (SAQA) for verification. Where a qualification is found to be inauthentic, misrepresented or fraudulent, the SAQA must refer this finding to the relevant professional body.

Section 32B(1)(c) makes it an offence to knowingly provide false or misleading information in any circumstances which the NQF Act requires the person to provide information or give notice to another person. The penalties for such an offence are a fine and/or imprisonment for a period not exceeding five years.

Section 32A(1) still needs to be proclaimed by the President in the Government Gazette. However, it will go a long way to weeding out the fraudsters from legitimate jobseekers through the pre-employment authentication of qualifications.

Reviewing recruitment processes

Notwithstanding the proclamation of section 32A, employers should seriously consider their recruitment processes with a mind to introducing a formal verification process. As a starting point, employers should ensure that the people responsible for recruitment are properly trained and understand the importance of verifying qualifications and experience.

Jobseekers should provide written consent to the company to conduct background checks and to verify qualifications before any appointment is made. Employment must be made contingent on the verification process.

There are a number of accredited verification agencies through which qualifications can be checked. Employers should be especially cautious when foreign qualifications are presented, or qualifications from unknown institutions. Verifications should also be done to check that these institutions are accredited to provide the qualifications claimed.

Potential employers should focus on competency-based questions in the recruitment interviews. These are questions that will test a candidate’s knowledge and experience. For more technical or specialised positions, employers may consider having candidates take some form of practical assessment.

Finally, employers should make it clear to employees in their contracts of employment and in their policies that the misrepresentation of qualifications will not be tolerated, and the consequences of such misconduct should be clearly stated.

For more information on the Umgeni Water case, refer to our previous alert here.

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