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Ethics and Millennials

Lying on Resumes Reaching Epidemic Proportions

Truth in Advertising One's Education, Experiences, and Job Skills

As the famous television doctor, Gregory House, likes to say -- everyone lies.” That seems to be the case on resumes in increasing proportions these days. Some offenders will argue that embellishing one’s skill set is necessary to get a foot into the front door. Some will rationalize it is a white lie when saying, for example, that one has graduated with a specific degree when courses were taken but no degree was received. Others include fictitious employment to cover spaces in the employment part of their resume. The ethical question is if an employee lies about items on the resume, can that person be trusted to do the right thing and be a reliable employee in the workplace?  

There is a fairness issue as well. If one employee is hired over another as a result of his or her more preferable experiences, which are untruthful, then another employee who might have (or should have) gotten the job is cheated out of that position. Lying about one's past experiences eliminates the level playing field that should exist when two employees are competing for one open spot. It's not fair to other employees who are honest on their resumes about experiences to have to compete on a non-level field.

A 2012 CareerBuilder survey found that 38 percent of employees have embellished their job responsibilities at some point, while 18 percent have lied about their skill sets. The problem is becoming more troublesome in our slowly recovering economy and the increasing trend towards hiring part-time rather than full-time employees. Potential employees look for any edge to land that job and lying on one’s resume is viewed as an innocuous way of getting that edge.

Another survey of business owners by online payroll provider Sure Payroll shows just how common the practice is:

  • 21 percent of respondents reported hiring dishonest employees
  • 47 percent of respondents say the hiring mistake was caused by a job seeker who lied in an interview.
  • 79 percent said they had hired employees with mismatched skill sets or who displayed underperformance on the job, despite the claims made on their resume

Applicants may not be aware of the fact that lying on the resume can have serious consequences down the road if they duplicate a lie on a formal employment application. When the job-seeker completes the application, perhaps as part of the interview process, he or she is legally affirming the dates of employment and employment history. Even after the hiring, lying on a job application is grounds for termination at any point in the future - even years later.

History is littered with names of liars on their resumes such as:

  • George O'Leary, former football coach for Notre Dame, fired in 2001 after only five days on the job for lying on his resume about a master's degree he never earned.
  • Sandra Baldwin, former president of the U.S. Olympic Committee, who resigned in 2002 when a reporter revealed she had not earned the doctoral degree from Arizona State University she claimed on her resume.
  • In 2002, Bausch & Lomb rescinded a bonus for CEO Ronald Zarrella after learning his resume included an MBA degree, which he never earned.
  • In February 2006, RadioShack CEO David Edmondson resigned after admitting to lying about his educational background by stating he had received a Bachelor of Science degree, a four-year college degree, instead of a ThG diploma, which is awarded for completing a three-year degree in theology.
  • In May 2012, Yahoo CEO Scott Thompson stepped down after it was found he padded his resume with an embellished college degree, ending his term at the company after just four months.

The facts of Scott Thompson’s case illustrate how closely companies review resume information and how what may seem to be a relatively minor issue can get the liar fired. Thompson's published Yahoo bio claimed that he held a bachelor's degree in both accounting and computer science from Stonehill College. His degree is actually in accounting only.  For Thompson, the issue now is: Where can he go from here? He can always upload his resume to a number of job boards, but recruiters already know the information may not be accurate!

How likely is it that an employee’s resume, job application, and credentials will be reviewed for inaccuracies? According to the Society for Human Resource Management, 96 percent of human resources professionals reported that their organization conducts some form of background check on every employee. For some candidates, it doesn't take much more than a Google search on the applicant's name to find out the truth. Beyond that, most recruiters check references at every company you list to verify your duties, tenure, salary, even your W2.

Here are common ways a potential employee lies on a resume and questions for an employer to ask to uncover the false/misleading credentials:

  1. Job title/Role: Is the title inflated? How many directors can one company have?
  2. Job Requirements: Do the responsibilities match the role? Are they embellished?
  3. Financial Success: Has the candidate exaggerated on the revenue brought in to one’s employer or financial benefits to make him/her appear more successful?
  4. Dates of Employment: Are they accurate? Have they been tampered to remove gaps of unemployment?
  5. Certification or degree: Did the candidate complete, fail, or drop out? Was the degree listed attained? Can this be confirmed?
  6. Previous salary: Does the salary match the role and responsibilities?
  7. Reason for leaving previous employer: Does the wording mask poor performance, or a conflict situation?
  8. Academic dates: Has the candidate changed these to cover failed or repeated subjects?
  9. Technical abilities: Is the candidate exaggerating? Does the candidate really understand ASP.NET?

Trust is an essential element in the workplace. Once a lie is told the liar begins to slide down the proverbial ethical slippery slope where it is difficult to reverse direction and head uphill. The tendency is to cover one’s tracks by perpetuating the lie and compounding the problem.

The most important workplace skill is ethical reasoning. If a prospective employee lacks a moral compass or does not know how to do the right thing when ethical dilemmas arise, then pressures that build up to deviate from ethical norms are likely to lead that person astray. The challenge is to evaluate this aspect of an applicant’s character and reviewing the resume is a good place to start.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on September 4, 2013