Resume Lies Can Haunt You

By: Randy Dotinga

It’s certainly tempting. Why not change that five-year-old award on your resume from honorable mention to first place? Or make it something entirely new. It did come from the state press association instead of the local women’s club, didn’t it? Oh, heck. Maybe it was a Pulitzer.

Few journalists would be brave enough to venture that far into the land of fibbing. But the people who sift through resumes for a living know that lies — both small and large — come with the territory. And most are quick tickets to the door if they’re discovered, as one hapless candidate at the Detroit Free Press learned.

The applicant didn’t bother to mention on his resume that he had held a job at another Knight Ridder paper. “Yet he brought it up in the interview,” recalled Recruitment and Development Editor Joe Grimm. “We noted the omission, found out he had been fired, and ended the interview immediately.”

Grimm has come across other signs of active imaginations. “Some people imply they have a degree when they don’t. Some suggest they held leadership positions when they didn’t. Some overstate the size of the role they had in the organization. These claims fall apart when they are checked.”

Not every untruth is so big. While he never came across an outright lie while working as a recruiter, The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Assistant New Jersey Editor Paul Jablow said he did encounter what he calls “creative exaggerations.” Some reporters, for example, would inflate their role in a major story. “I can live with that,” Jablow said.

But editors know that many lies are anything but minor and could spell trouble down the line. The infamous reporter who faked her way to a Pulitzer Prize, after all, started out with a creatively enhanced resume. Among other things, former reporter Janet Cooke claimed that she was Phi Beta Kappa graduate from Vassar and fluent in French and other languages. The Post’s investigation found that the claims were false.

Lois Henry, assistant managing editor at The Bakersfield Californian, goes the extra mile in her background checks to avoid such a disastrous hire. “If I’m interested in hiring someone, I call all their references and then some, including people they don’t have listed,” she said. “There’s a good chance I’ll find out if a candidate makes something up. I actually did find out about a candidate who was fired for plagiarism by calling around beyond the candidate’s listed references.”

But while editors can reel off the times they’ve caught applicants in a lie, no one knows how many candidates avoid the truth and never get caught. And who really has time to double-check everything on a resume, from previous jobs to college degrees?

“Newspapers are not thorough about this. We don’t check every line on every resume — not even close,” Grimm acknowledged.

To make matters worse, many newspapers are so afraid of lawsuits that they’ve told bosses not to give out any information about former employees other than their dates of employment.

But undiscovered lies may return to haunt employees. “Candidates ought to remember that lying on a resume or on an application could cause them to lose a job, even if the dishonesty is not discovered until after they have been hired,” Grimm said.

Resume enhancement can spell trouble in other ways too. Let’s say you fake your resume, get a job based on that information, and then get fired. Your case for wrongful termination may unravel on the spot if your bosses check their files and discover your dishonesty. “If the resume fraud is severe enough and you confront the plaintiff’s attorney about it, it will invariably result in a quick dismissal of the case,” said Lisa Klerman, an employment law attorney with Morrison and Foerster in Los Angeles.

In one recent case, Klerman said, her office was able to help a defendant turn back a wrongful termination suit when it turned out that the employee had faked not only his bachelor’s degree but also his master’s and Ph.D.

So what are job candidates to do if they have skeletons in their closet, like a job that didn’t end happily? Editors say you don’t necessarily need to disclose that you were fired on your resume, but you must tell the truth if someone asks.

“If there’s a gap or other glitch in your resume, be honest about what happened,” Henry said. “We may be editors, but we are human. If there’s a good reason for the glitch, we’ll mostly likely listen. Lying, however, is unforgivable.

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