The Temptation to Lie on Your Resume

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.

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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.

Reader Comments

Connie English

June 17, 2009 1:54 AM

Let us not forget that telling the truth is also the RIGHT thing to do. I am apalled (although I am not naive to reality) that we need to discuss why one should not lie on his/her resume!

Peter Thirkell

June 17, 2009 3:47 AM

For the most part an excellent piece that advocates well for an honest and upright approach to representing our accomplishments and skills - even at the expense (arguably) of short term gain. It is a pity therefore that the writer concludes with a view that "bluffing and white lies" are not only an acceptable but in fact admired part of doing business. I beg to differ! Advocating for a continuation of used car sales tactics and deceit in however innocent a form simply perpetuates the view that businesspeople, at heart, simply cannot be trusted. Let's aim higher and strive for an honest approach in all of our dealings.

Tahir Khan

June 17, 2009 7:37 AM

Absolutely agree. A lie will never help in the longer run. If you have the substance and will, go sell your accomplishments. But to do that you have to first 'accomplish'. Nice article, a reminder to all A-level executives, especially now when tides are tough, truth alone will work.

CM

June 17, 2009 10:54 AM

Please define "white lie", the line between what is and is not acceptable by your standards. Try to use clear examples. Thank you.

Michael Janger

June 19, 2009 9:41 PM

Thank you for all your interesting responses. There are many definitions for what constitutes a “white lie.” The one I used is “an unimportant lie (especially one told to be tactful or polite).” In business, there is naturally a lot of competition for limited resources, and many companies are very protective of their proprietary information. They don’t want to show their hands which could give their competitors an edge. It’s like poker — you may have a bad hand, but bluff and fool the competitor, and win the pot.

As long as no laws are broken, no money is stolen, etc., this kind of activity is common in business, and builds respect among people in the business community, and trust is not damaged in this case. It’s called being savvy. You fight for your share, you compete fairly and honestly, you win — as long as you don’t deliberately hurt someone financially or legally, or be underhanded in your dealings.

The comparison with an used car dealer is different. Much of the popular negativism against used car dealers has more to do with their behavior than with outright trickery. For the most part, they pressure, cajole, sometimes demean, and try everything to hook you into a deal. That to me is very unethical, but it has little to do with lying, white or not. However, some have tried to use false facts to mislead me. My best story is a guy who claimed that his final offer could only net him a 6% profit to Blue Book and could not go any lower. He didn’t know he was dealing with a finance guy — I quickly calculated it in my head and realized it was a 20% profit. I played dumb, keeping this fact to myself until we sat down at the table and negotiated. Almost an hour later, when we came close to agreeing on the price (close to his claimed 6% profit because he was not budging much), I dropped the bombshell by first asking him, “You said this is only 6% profit to book?” He said, “Yes, absolutely.” I innocently pulled out the calculator I had in my pocket, punched in the numbers, and feigning surprise, showed him the 20% figure. (That’s where a “white lie” comes into good use here!) He went red in the face as I glared at him, told him that I cannot accept his offered price if he misled me this way, and then walked off. He stumbled out of his desk, pulled me back and bumped the price down to 12% of book. I said 6% or nothing. He said, “I really cannot possibly do that.” The deal was off, so I left, and never went back to this dealership again. I wasn’t going to close a deal with someone who deliberately lied to me in order to gain an edge. In his case, it was not a tactful, professional way to make a sale.

What constitutes a “white lie”? A perfect example is the rollout of a product that is cloaked in secrecy, such as the iPhone. Apple, always known to be tight-lipped in its details, leaked out very little information about the device, because it wanted to protect itself against foreign companies that have were capable in the past of quickly cloning Apple’s prior products. When it contracted with AT&T as its exclusive carrier for the iPhone, Apple executives were clear and honest with AT&T that they didn’t want any meddling from the wireless carrier, and AT&T decided to let “Apple be Apple” and stayed out of much of the details of iPhone development. As the launch neared, Apple even kept information from AT&T, by developing “bogus handset prototypes to show not just to [AT&T] executives, but also to Apple's own workers.”(Fortune, 1/2007) It worked out well for both Apple and AT&T, and Apple’s actions prior to the iPhone launch in hindsight were brilliant, as demand shot up for the device and many customers were happy with what they got.

In response to Peter Thirkell: working in business is a messy affair, and in my dealings I am always going to come across some shady characters. My first priority is to be measured in what and how I share my information, and the end goal is always to arrive at a deal fairly and honestly. If I am in any way unethical or totally misleading in what I do, it would endanger my business relationships, and that is never an option for me.

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