Deceptive Resumes Can Be Door-Openers
But Can Become an Employee's Undoing
By Joan E. Rigdon
The Wall Street Journal
(Copyright (c) 1992, Dow Jones & Co., Inc.)
Resumes are used to help people get hired. James Fang's almost got him
Mr. Fang holds a $65,000-a-year post as international trade director for
the city of San Francisco. Most people thought he was a lawyer because
his resume included the words "Hastings College of the Law (1987)" and
"California Bar examination passage." But Mr. Fang wasn't a lawyer and
says that those who thought otherwise must have misread his resume.
Before the brouhaha began to die down in March, a weekly newspaper
dubbed the document "the resume that ate San Francisco," and Mr. Fang
publicly apologized for "poor judgment."
Mr. Fang's resume could best be called incomplete. Many others are
downright deceptive. Fibbing on resumes is commonplace, experts say,
because job-hunters feel pressure to look perfect on paper. Otherwise,
they fear their applications won't stand out among the bushels of others
on personnel directors' desks.
People do make honest mistakes, especially when it comes to chronicling
employment dates from decades past. But according to a 1988 study by
Equifax Inc.'s security unit, almost one-third of 200 randomly chosen
resumes misstated dates of employment by three months or more --
presumably to cover up unemployment or unpleasant stints at companies
omitted from the resume.
The survey also found that 11% of applicants lied about why they left
previous jobs, 4% fudged job titles, 3% listed fake employers, 3%
fabricated jobs, and 3% pretended to have a college degree. Equifax
hasn't updated the survey.
But beware: There may be stiff penalties for those who don't tell the truth.
Employees who get caught lying on their resumes can be fired no matter
how well or far their careers have progressed. And in cases where an
employee is suing on grounds of wrongful discharge, an employer who
can prove the employee lied on a resume may not have to defend against
the other charges, one federal appeals court determined recently.
The true extent of resume deception goes largely unchecked, since only
finalists' resumes are screened, says Michael Oliver, a former executive
recruiter who is now director of executive staffing for Dial Corp. of
Phoenix, Ariz. And of 3,000 resumes he received for two posts, he says,
only seven made it to the final stage where they get checked.
In extreme cases, applicants fail to tell employers about felony
convictions. (Although applicants wouldn't be expected to list such a
blight on a resume, withholding that information during an interview -- and
especially on application forms where the question is asked -- is
considered deceptive.) Officials at Vericon Resources Inc., an Atlanta
background-check company, say criminal checks have turned up felonies
including rape and child molestation.
In one case, Vericon discovered that a luxury high-rise apartment building
manager, who had keys to all the apartments, also had a warrant out for
his arrest related to a charge for theft. The man's employers didn't screen
him until after they hired him.
Cases that involve hiding a criminal past are rare -- accounting for less
than 2%, Vericon says -- compared with fibs about education,
experience and previous salary. In the latter case, because one's previous
pay can be used to negotiate a higher starting salary at the new job, some
companies discourage lying by asking for W-2 forms.
Mr. Oliver of Dial says he once discovered that a strong candidate for a
senior marketing management position had lied during an interview about
having a master's degree in business administration from Harvard
University. Although the man's undergraduate degree was valid, Harvard
had "never heard of him," Mr. Oliver says.
The same candidate claimed four years of experience at his previous
company when he had only had two. And he said he was a vice president
of marketing when, in reality, he was a senior product manager -- two
levels down. When confronted, the candidate apologized and said he had
erred in inflating his credentials.
"The scary thing is, this is someone who looked the part, dressed the part
and spoke articulately. You could not have guessed ordinarily that you
had a flake on your hands," Mr. Oliver says.
Most people who lie about time spent at companies are trying to patch
over an unproductive interlude at other companies they have omitted from
their work histories. Applicants shouldn't feel compelled to lie, says
Marcia Thiel, Vericon's co-owner, because most human-resource
executives are willing to overlook a blotch or two on work histories. She
says one client hired a man even after Vericon discovered he often fell
asleep at his warehouse jobs. The company understood that "if he was
kept busy, he wouldn't fall asleep," Ms. Thiel says.
It is also acceptable to omit some work experiences as long as the
omission isn't a cover-up, says ethics professor Raymond Hilgert of
Washington University's Olin School of Business. "If you don't misstate
the dates, then you have not misrepresented. It's up to the employer" to
ask about gaps during the interview, he says.
If deceptive resumes can sometimes help an employee get hired, they can
also become the same employee's undoing, as Mildred Johnson recently
discovered. Ms. Johnson was fired in 1984 after eight years as a manager
with Honeywell Information Systems, then a unit of Honeywell Inc. She
sued, alleging she had been forced out because she insisted on adhering
to affirmative-action hiring goals.
In preparing its defense, Honeywell discovered that Ms. Johnson had lied
about having a college degree and a year of applied-management study.
According to court documents, Ms. Johnson had only taken six college
courses in Detroit, two of them audited, and the school where she
claimed further studies had no record of her.
Ms. Johnson also described herself as her own property manager during
a time when she owned no properties and was unemployed, according to
Honeywell unsuccessfully argued before a federal district court that Ms.
Johnson's misrepresentation gave it a complete defense against her
wrongful-discharge allegations. In January, however, a U.S. appeals
court in Cincinnati sided with Honeywell, ruling that Ms. Johnson had no
grounds to sue for wrongful discharge because she had lied on her
employment application. The court said that "an employer may defend a
wrongful-discharge claim on the basis of facts unknown at the time of the
Ms. Johnson's lawyer, Charles Gottlieb, says most people lie on their
resumes. He adds: "Honeywell didn't give a damn about whether she had
a college degree. She gave them some very good performance." Court
records indicate she consistently received favorable performance reviews
until shortly before she was fired.
Mr. Gottlieb says Ms. Johnson only lied "to get her foot in the door." And
he argues that the fictitious college degree was irrelevant, as her
supervisor didn't have one either. (A Honeywell lawyer says that's true
but adds that the supervisor didn't fabricate one).
Mr. Fang says that wasn't the case with him. He submitted his resume
after he had been promised his job, a political appointment that he says
doesn't require legal work. "This is not a case of a person blatantly lying
on a resume to get a job," he says. He says people incorrectly assumed
that the words "Hastings College of the Law (1987)" implied that he had
graduated (he hadn't, although he had attended the school) and that
"California Bar examination passage" implied he was a member of the bar
(members are also required to take a shorter, less grueling exam, which
Mr. Fang hadn't yet taken).
Among those who misunderstood was Mayor Frank Jordan, who thought
Mr. Fang was a lawyer when he appointed him, according to a
spokesman. The mayor declined to comment for this article, but in a
published letter accepting Mr. Fang's apology, he said: "Honesty is the
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