Posted by: Francesca Di Meglio on June 8, 2009
With the economy in turmoil, many MBA graduates are finding the job search tough going. To give readers some insight into the strategies they’re pursuing and the difficulties they face, BusinessWeek has recruited four out-of-work MBAs to write about their experiences for a new feature called “The Hunt” that will appear periodically on the Getting In blog. Comments, as always, are welcome.
By Michael Janger
George O’Leary. Robert Irvine. Dave Edmondson. Ronald Zarrella. Jack Grubman.
Some names you might recognize, some names you won’t. But what they all had in common was: they lied on their resume. George O’Leary was hired by Notre Dame to be its football coach after years of distinguished service at Georgia Tech, but five days later he resigned after it was discovered he did not have a master’s in education from NYU and did not play college football at University of New Hampshire. Robert Irvine, the “Mission Impossible” chef on The Food Network, made Princess Diana’s wedding cake and was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II. Or did he? No. He almost lost his job.
Dave Edmondson worked at Radio Shack in 1994 and became its CEO in 2005. Barely nine months later, he was gone when it was revealed that Pacific Coast Baptist College never gave him degrees in theology and psychology. Ronald Zarrella rose to power at Bausch & Lomb on the basis of his many accomplishments at the company – and was shot down by a line on his resume that claimed he earned his MBA from NYU in 1976.
Finally, Jack Grubman, the infamous analyst at Salomon, said he attended MIT, not Boston University where he had actually enrolled. He wasn’t ousted for that fact (a bigger scandal later brought him down). When asked by BusinessWeek why he lied, he said, “I probably felt insecure.”
For many of us, we will never be CEO of Microsoft, or a U.S. Senator. If that is going to be the case, some people say, it does not matter if we lie on our resumes, because no one will catch it. In my opinion, that is a dangerous assumption.
I have felt pressure in some quarters to expand my resume in a way that embellishes my experience and accomplishments. This makes me uncomfortable. Yes, it can feel tempting, because it is easy to believe that no one would catch this, and many people do it. According to Nick Fishman of Background Information Services in the March 19, 2006, issue of The New York Times, 56% of resumes contained a falsehood: “When you consider these numbers, if you’re not the one who’s falsifying something, your neighbor probably is.”
Yet, I’m realistic about what I want to do. I am ambitious and I work hard for my goals, and I do not want my career brought down by a one-line fib on my resume. Especially on the Internet – we are constantly surprised by the increasing power and sophistication of this medium. Even though I do not post my resume in the public domain, it does get around through electronic submissions to company job websites, and with the increasing reach and power of meta-search engines and more sophisticated indexing algorithms (e.g. Google is developing a Public Records search feature), it could be some time before a potential employer would find it much easier than it is now to vet my background with a quick meta-search of my various credentials. All that is not worth it. It is much more lucrative for my career if I demonstrate integrity, honesty and fairness in everything I do. If I treat people this way, then they will treat me the same way in the future. A long-term goodwill investment pays off dividends years from now.
American Express, one of my prior employers, is an excellent example of a company that does well in business, maintains high ethical standards, and is highly meritocratic. Senior executives constantly preach that relationships are important for moving up the ladder. AmEx’s culture is very collegial, yet it is outwardly competitive – in the AmEx corridors, people call it “will to win.” A very senior Amex strategist said, “Inside Amex, you cannot step over people to get what you want. But if you work together, you will achieve your goals and help your colleagues achieve theirs.” This is not to say there is no politics at AmEx – there are definite political pressures, particularly higher up in the hierarchy where major decisions must be made that affect people within the company. Still, when AmEx executives from CEO Kenneth Chenault on down emphasize the importance of constantly developing and redeveloping yourself to achieve your career goals, and they invest extensive resources into employee surveys and performance reviews, employees believe in AmEx’s meritocratic philosophy and apply it to their work. This creates a strong incentive to create and market your accomplishments, and de-motivates any attempt to lie or embellish to get ahead within the company.
A good friend of mine once asked for my advice on approaching the job search after finishing his MBA. He was justifiably concerned, and did not have much faith that his prior experience would help him. He truly felt that he could not gain an edge in an extremely competitive field of MBA graduates in an area he really wanted to work in. After some discussion about how to market himself, he said, “I am going to embellish my resume and….”
I interrupted him right there. I told him that he can do what he wants with his resume, but if he believes that he can get away with not being honest with employers, then he is not being honest with himself. “If you have a skill or an accomplishment that you can hang your hat on,” I told him, “ then sell it, no matter how small the accomplishment. The employer likes hearing how good you feel about this accomplishment. It is a unique story to tell.” In other words, he needs to feel more confident about what he has done and what he plans to do in the future.
In business as in poker, bluffing and telling “white lies” are a necessary part of doing business, as long as no rules or laws are broken. These tools build respect among businessmen if they are used appropriately. When the line is crossed and outright lying occurs, respect is diminished and trust falls by the wayside. You can continue to do your job, however, once the lie is uncovered, it takes more resources, time, and energy to achieve the same career goals, which can potentially increase the feeling of “insecurity” to which Jack Grubman famously referred.