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An honest look at lying on the job

February 17, 2007 14:26 IST

Say you spent two years "finding yourself," living at home, watching a lot of daytime television and letting your mother do your laundry. Now it's time to get a job. But how do you explain those two missing years?

Fake it, says former headhunter Derek Johnson. On his free site, Fakeresume.com, Johnson suggests that former freeloaders can explain those off years by saying they worked for a small, now-shuttered company. Read the obits in trade magazines to find a "former" boss. Reference issues? Rent a P.O. box that accepts mail addressed to massive companies. For Johnson, keeping it real just doesn't make sense. Employers assume there will be some "puffery" on the resume, so they discount some of your experience, he says. "Those of us who play by the system, we're getting screwed."

Even if you don't buy his logic, Johnson has a point: Almost everyone lies on their resume. That includes everyone from CEOs to security guards. Over half of human resources managers say they've flagged a lie on an applicant's resume, according to an October Careerbuilder.com survey. (Interestingly, another study by the company showed that only 5 per cent of applicants confess to lying.) Eighteen percent of applicants lied about their past employment, according to the Careerbuilder.com study. "People just make up jobs," says Mike Paul, a public relations and reputation management expert. "Often they never worked there at all."

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Also popular: fudging academic credentials. A 2004 report by the Government Accountability Office found that 463 government employees in eight federal agencies listed bogus academic credentials on their resumes. Twenty-eight of the fibbers held senior-level positions, a number the GAO called "an understatement." The most senior fakers included three managers with top security clearance at the National Nuclear Security Administration and executives at the Departments of Homeland Security and Transportation.

High-level executives also bluff their way through the Ivory Tower. Last February, former RadioShack chief executive Dave Edmondson was busted for faking his college degree. Edmondson claimed to hold diplomas in psychology and theology from Pacific Coast Baptist College in California. There was no evidence he ever graduated from the school. Bausch & Lomb CEO Ronald Zarrella pulled the same stunt, claiming an MBA from New York University's business school in his bios for 10 years. He'd started the program, but he never graduated.

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For C-level executives, a little lying isn't so bad, as long as they're prepared for a little public humiliation. Bausch & Lomb canceled Zarrella's $1.1 million bonus but kept him on as CEO. He still received his $1.1 million base salary and $1 million in long-term incentives, as well as stock options. Edmondson walked away with $1.03 million plus his unpaid accrued salary. "If the CEO of RadioShack had been doing a better job," says Johnson, "guaranteed, he'd still be there right now. Generally speaking, these things don't come out until your performance goes to crap."

But for those in less vaulted positions, a lie can be riskier. Of the hiring managers surveyed by Careerbuilder.com, 93 per cent of those who caught a lie did not hire the candidate.

The problem, says Paul, is that hiring managers aren't catching enough of the liars, which leads to the type of vigilante action encouraged by Fakeresume.com. Most hiring decisions are made in the first four seconds of an interview, says Paul Endress, president of hiring consulting firm Maximum Advantage. "We have a tendency not to do the due diligence that we should be doing," he says.

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Not all businesses conduct full background checks on their employees, leaving them and their customers open to all kinds of dangers. In January, the Columbus School District of Columbus, Ohio, had to cancel classes, after the Cincinnati-based First Student busing company discovered it hadn't properly processed criminal background checks on school bus drivers.

Ohio police arrested a First Student driver on a charge of cocaine possession. Eight other drivers were later removed from their routes after investigations found they had previous DUI convictions. These kinds of slip-ups are unacceptable, says Endress. "The organisation itself has to be accountable and ethical and make these key practices," he says, and "talk about a best practice approach to employment."

If hiring managers don't do their jobs, Johnson will keep doing his. "These guys are clueless," he says. "Corporate America really needs to step back and interview people based on who they are as human beings." That might not be the best suggestion. If being honest is a factor, it seems a lot of us won't quite make the cut.

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