Companies & Industries

The Ethics of Resume Writing


It's never okay to lie on a resume. But what about stretching the truth?

Posted on Conversation Starter: May 19, 2008 4:00 PM

You are an up and coming leader and have just found the perfect stretch job opportunity. How much can you "dress up" your resume to make yourself as strong a candidate as possible without crossing the ethical line of deception?

Consider a few conflicting thoughts:

Over 50% of people lie on their resume.

A Monster.com blog about the dangers of lying on your resume elicited 60 comments from job seekers recommending lying and only 46 discouraging it. Recommenders justified lying by claiming: everyone else is doing it, companies lie about job requirements, and it's hard to get a good job.

Executives caught lying on their resumes often lose their jobs. Consider the high profile exits at Radio Shack, MIT, Notre Dame, and Herbalife.

If you are reading this blog, you probably are not tempted by outright fabrication. But what about the following:

Claiming a degree that was not earned because you did most of the work and were only a few credits short.

Creating a more impressive job title because you were already doing all of the work of that position.

Claiming a team's contributions as your own, because other members did not carry their weight.

Inflating the number of people or range of functions for which you had direct responsibility because you really did have a great deal of influence over them

These are called rationalizations—constructing a justification for a decision you suspect is really flawed. By devising specious but self-satisfying reasons for acting you purposefully blur right and wrong. You create a story that is seemingly legitimate, but upon any close examination doesn't hold up. Rationalizations are insidious because you begin to fool yourself. You develop habits of distorted thinking.

So where is the line? You need to decide that for yourself. Here are some tests to keep your thinking clear:

Other-shoe test. How would you feel if the shoe were on the other foot and you were the hiring manager looking at this resume? What assumptions would you draw and would they be accurate?

Front-page test. Would you think the same way if your accomplishment in question were reported on the front page of the Wall Street Journal? Or your prior employer's internal newsletter?

But wait, you say. My resume doesn't quite pass these tests, but there is something real underneath my claims, and I do not want to sell myself short.

When in doubt, ask an old boss. While asking an old boss may be difficult, it has many benefits. Precisely because it is difficult, it forces you to think clearly and sometimes creatively. Asking also verifies the accuracy of your claims, trains your prior boss in how to represent you during reference checks, and sometimes your old boss may give you better ways to represent yourself.

A former VP of Engineering from one of my startups recently asked me if he could call himself a co-founder even though he joined nine months after the company started. Given his months without salary and his co-founder like commitment to the company, I enthusiastically agreed. I now think and talk about his employment differently. But if he had joined a few months later or had been on salary a few months sooner, I would have said "no."

What do you think? Is there ever a time when it is ok to lie on a resume? How have you resolved questions of how to tell the best story possible without crossing the line?

Provided by Harvard Business—Where Leaders Get Their Edge

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