CareerBuilder Menu Search Search

Honesty is the Best Policy in Résumés and Interviews

Rachel Zupek, CareerBuilder.com writer

  • Email

When Jessica* couldn't provide a hard copy of her degree to a potential employer, the company contacted the college itself. A background check confirmed that Jessica was one class short of earning her degree. Despite the false claim, the hiring manager employed Jessica, only to terminate her shortly thereafter for performance problems.

Not all candidates are as lucky as Jessica to get a second chance after getting caught lying on their résumé: 57 percent of employers automatically dismiss applicants who fabricate any part of their résumés, according to a July 2008 survey by CareerBuilder.com. But, as millions of people search for jobs in the tough employment market, candidates like Jessica are going to extremes -- like lying on their résumés -- to stand out to employers.

Although only 8 percent of the 8,700 workers surveyed admitted to lying on their résumés, 49 percent of the 3,100 hiring managers have caught a job applicant fabricating some part of his or her résumé.

"Even the slightest embellishment can come back to haunt you and ruin your credibility," says Rosemary Haefner, vice president of human resources for CareerBuilder.com. "If you're concerned about gaps in employment, your academic background or skill sets, invention is not the answer."

Compelling reasons
The bleak job forecast has sent many job seekers into panic mode, but desperation is not a valid reason for lying to get ahead of the competition. Not only are your falsehoods likely to catch up with you eventually, but the long-term consequences far outweigh the short-term rewards.

"It's [never] OK to lie or embellish a résumé or application. It can cost you your license, your job, your salary, your reputation, your credibility and your freedom," says Lisa Mininni, president of Excellerate Associates, an organizational consulting company. "It is not only unfair to the countless other honest candidates, but to employees who work with this employee. It is a matter of integrity even in the face of adversity." 

It seems like a no-brainer, but you'd be surprised at how job seekers have convinced themselves that it's OK to embellish the facts. Jessica, for example, blamed it on a friend's advice to indicate that she had a degree; she took none of the responsibility herself.

"Passing the buck or a lapse in good judgment is no excuse [for lying]. It is your résumé, so carefully consider the content," Mininni says. 

Here are a few reasons why she says people lie on their résumés or in an interview:


  • They overanalyze a past employment issue and think it's worse than it actually is, so they try to cover it up.

  • They think it is easier to lie than to explain it, acknowledge it or accept responsibility for it.

  • In an interview, people sometimes have difficulty coming up with an example when asked. Instead, they try to make something up rather than admitting they don't have one. 


When it comes to deception in your job search, there are certain areas that are more common to embellish than others. Here are areas job seekers fib about and why, plus ways you can get around being deceitful:

Dates of employment
Why job seekers lie: People think it's necessary to cover up or omit potentially negative employment situations like gaps between jobs or short-term employment, Mininni says.
How to spin it: Address discrepancies about dates of employment in your cover letter. Be honest about what you did during the breaks between employments and identify any relevant transferable skills you learned during that time.

"If you've only spent one month at a job, it should still be included in your employment history," Mininni says. More employers are conducting background checks and/or confirming dates of employment, so take a paragraph in your cover letter to say that you're looking for a job where you can really thrive and grow professionally -- you just haven't found it yet. 

Education
Why job seekers lie: 
There are many lies job seekers tell about education: alleging that they attended college when they didn't; declaring a degree at a school they never went to; or claiming to have a degree at all when they really never finished college.
How to spin it: "Companies are looking for the value you bring to the organization and often have 'or equivalent' statements in their job requirements," Mininni says. "If you have the equivalent amount of experience in lieu of a degree, you will want to highlight that experience."

If you went to college but didn't finish, don't focus on the lack of a degree. Instead, outline other education you acquired through professional certifications or company-sponsored education, she suggests.

Experience, accomplishments and job titles
Why job seekers lie: People often inflate previous experience, undertakings and job titles when they apply for jobs where they aren't qualified, Mininni says. "It's interesting how many people don't know their actual titles," she says. "If you don't know, don't guess.  Ask your manager." 
How to spin it: "If you don't have the required experience, focus on your natural talents.  Are you known as the idea generator, the communicator or the process improver? This will be important to highlight and provide examples of how you have demonstrated those natural talents and how it aided the company," Mininni says.

Salaries
Why job seekers lie: Candidates inflate their salaries in an effort increase their starting offers, Mininni says. Unfortunately, upon checking, the employer discovers the exaggeration. 
How to spin it: Keep in mind the responsibilities of the position, the scope and the job market. If you've stayed at your company for 25 years and haven't received market increases, you may be behind the market. Researching what the current market pays is critical in knowing your leverage points when it comes time to talk salary.

Criminal history
Why job seekers lie: Some people lie through omission because the extent of their criminal record is a misdemeanor assault charge from high school. Others lie about more serious offenses. Perhaps they had a drug problem and got their nursing license taken away, or they were jailed for embezzlement. 
How to spin it: Own up to the situation or use that experience to reinvent yourself, Mininni says. Look for jobs that don't tie in to your criminal background -- for example, if you had drug issues, don't try to work in medicine, and if you embezzled, don't work with money. Learn to use your skills in different ways and sell that to the employer.

Consider these tips when working with potential deal-breakers on your résumé:


  • Highlight your achievements. "One [fault] does not negate the entire career.  Highlight your achievements making sure to note the result your initiatives had on the organization," Mininni says.

  • Be prepared for the interview. If you have any blips on your résumé, be prepared to answer questions. Always be able to discuss what you learned from the situation. "In a tight job market, one blemish doesn't necessarily rule you out of a job, but polished interviewing skills and dressing for success become increasingly important especially if you have to overcome a tarnished history," Mininni says.

  • Network. If someone can recommend you, it goes a long way to getting the interview -- even if you have a conviction on your application, Mininni says. "Make sure your network is broad and outside of your comfort-zone network. If you're just out of college, make sure there is more than just your college roommate on your reference list and in your network," she says. 


*Name has been changed at the request of the candidate.

Rachel Zupek is a writer and blogger for CareerBuilder.com. She researches and writes about job search strategy, career management, hiring trends and workplace issues.



Last Updated: 27/03/2009 - 4:55 PM


Article Reprints
Permission must be obtained from CareerBuilder.com to reprint any of its articles. Please send a request to reprints@careerbuilder.com.