Desperate times often call for desperate measures -- and in a brutal employment market, some job seekers may be tempted to falsify their work or education history in order to make themselves more attractive to potential employers. HireRight.com, a provider of on-demand employment background screening, found that 34 percent of job applicants lie on resumes.
But job seekers who stretch the truth are playing an ever-riskier game, according to Dennis Nason, CEO of the recruiting firm Nason & Nason. "Background checks are much easier now," he says. "It's all pretty open on the Internet." And many companies and recruiters now employ background-check providers who specialize in sniffing out untruths.
The Gray Area Between Fact and Fiction
Almost all career experts advise job seekers to customize their resumes to individual jobs they apply for. So where's the line between self-promotion and falsehood? Some experts say it can be hard to define. "The dictionary says that 'embellish' means 'to make beautiful,' which is when a candidate is great at self-promotion," says Tim McIntyre, president and CEO of The Executive Search Group. "The difference between that and a damaging lie varies by industry and profession."
For instance, financial executives are subject to more intense scrutiny than many people going into entry-level positions that don't involve money.
But at any point in your career, stretching the truth is risky -- especially on official job applications. Brad Karsh, president and founder of JobBound, doesn't see a gray area at all: "Any uncovered fib is liable to severely damage your reputation in the workplace."
Most Common Resume Lies
According to Forbes.com, some of the most common resume lies concern:
- Employment dates
- Job titles
- Technical skills
These are the same resume areas that, if you fudge them, can cause problems -- the Internet has made it much easier to verify a person's claims about education, for instance.
And Nason notes that firms like his are sleuthing far beyond a candidate's given references to corroborate his claims -- for instance, finding and contacting the candidate's former colleagues via LinkedIn.
Career expert Liz Ryan says, "People think that they can make up and embellish details about companies that have been sold or gone out of business. But LinkedIn, Facebook and our wide-ranging networks will put a quick stop to most efforts to change history in our favor."
Truth or Consequences
And even if false credentials get you the job, those untruths may come back to haunt you.
"You're subject to immediate dismissal if it turns out you misrepresented something," says Nason.
If your company is acquired, for instance, the acquirer's HR department may perform an audit of its new employees. Or your background may be checked when you apply for a promotion. Former Yahoo CEO Scott Thompson, former Notre Dame football coach George O'Leary and celebrity chef Robert Irvine are just three of the people who made news when false background information cost them high-profile jobs.
Keeping It Real
Career experts have practical advice on how to deal truthfully with some of the problems that may cause people to lie -- follow it, and you'll be able to sleep more easily at night.
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- Employment Gaps: Just because you weren't getting paid for something doesn't mean you weren't being productive and gaining skills. If you volunteered or worked on your own projects, say, you should speak to those things on your resume, in a cover letter or in an interview.
- Misrepresentative Titles: "Job seekers need to lay claim to projects and results that may not have been in their formal job descriptions," says Ryan. "Here's an example. An office manager I know took on HR in her company after the HR coordinator left. The office manager's title was never changed, but she took on responsibility for payroll, benefits and so on. She put all of that on her resume, and changed her title to 'Office Manager (with HR responsibilities).' That's a perfectly good way for her to brand herself, because she hasn't changed the title to something her old employer wouldn't recognize or support."
- Past Salaries: If you feel you were underpaid, Ryan says you should arm yourself with information about the salary you should be earning. For more salary-related information, see Monster's salary tools.
- Skills: If you're tempted to lie about having a technical skill, for instance, the right thing to do is clear: Gain that skill by enrolling in a class (or committing to learning it on your own). Then you'll be able to explain to potential employers truthfully that you're working on getting up-to-speed in that area.