Lying like a rug

Exaggeration, embellishment, overstating reality, selective omission, little white lie; call it what you will, but the fact remains that legions of job applicants twist the truth on their resumes in some form or another -- and thanks to the fears inspired by suit-happy applicants, more and more folks are getting away with it.

Even I cannot declare innocence on this issue. Fresh out of college and desperate for a job, I took a position selling advertising for a small weekly newspaper in Texas. I hated that job, and apparently it showed. After several months, my manager was less than discreetly interviewing for my position. I needed a new job, fast.

Out of desperation and self-preservation, I fortified my impotent work history with all sorts of flagrant falsehoods. My new resume stated that I held a degree in marketing, when I had actually majored in journalism. It showed that I had been employed in my current position for two years, where in truth I had worked for just 10 months. According to my resume, I had surpassed my sales goal every month and had performed well above company expectations. In reality, I had missed my sales goal all but once.

My new-and-improved resume scored me an interview for a sales position with a newspaper consulting firm. I aced my first two interviews, and by the third one, my interviewer was ready to offer me the job. Just one final step: She wanted to call my current employer for a reference. My heart rate suddenly shot sky-high and my palms began to sweat; I knew that I was in trouble. But, quickly regaining my composure, I smiled calmly and advised her that my boss had no idea that I was seeking another job, and could she please, out of courtesy, wait until I had submitted my two-weeks notice. She agreed. She never called. I got the job, and was happily employed for more than two years.

Any pangs of guilt that I have suffered over my chicanery have been somewhat eased by the knowledge that I am not alone. A 1996 study reported in USA Today estimated that one-third of all resumes contained falsehoods, and that 15 percent of top corporate executives lied about their education on their resumes.

Moreover, a 1995 study published in The Wall Street Journal revealed that 20 percent of doctors applying for a University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine fellowship lied on their resumes, while 5 percent of doctors applying to managed-care organizations fabricated their credentials.

There is little doubt that the temptation to lie on one's resume is greatly increased by the common belief that a clean getaway is inevitable. And in fact, numerous deceitful resume falsifiers escape undetected because former employers are so terrified of being sued, they find it beneficial to say as little as possible, or nothing at all.

"A lot of employers are scared off from giving references as a matter of avoiding the possibility of being sued," says Michael Stamp, an attorney who handles many cases involving employees and employment. "Lawsuits can result if employers give out information which is not accurate."

That means former employers can safely answer specific questions about information offered on an applicant's resume, explains Stamp, if provided with a signed release. "On the back of most job applications," he says, "there is a clause that the applicant signs that allows that employer to check up on the information given."

However, many employers overestimate their legal limitations -- and, fearing lawsuits, prefer to play it safe by shying away from answering specific questions. Most employers, says Stamp, have adopted policies of offering only basic information, such as dates of employment, position held and salary.

"Public information includes the salary range, period of employment and the position held by a former employee," explains Renee Mayne, deputy administrative officer of human resources for Monterey County in California. "As far as a specific reference check on job performance, the county will give a reference if provided with a full written release signed by the former employee. We will provide information regarding work performance only insofar as what is documented and is in the employee's file, of which employees are aware, and they have access to that information. We will only give specific answers to specific questions asked about job performance."

"We have a pretty solid practice of checking references," says Ed Mares, director of human resources for Dole Fresh Vegetables. "I've had some experiences in which college degrees were falsified on resumes."

College degrees, says Mares, are one of the easiest credentials to check. "It takes five minutes," he says. "All you have to do is pick up the phone and call the registrar of the particular college or university, with an applicant's Social Security number, they'll usually verify a degree right over the phone."

But when it comes to job performance, it gets tougher. Mares says he regularly runs into tight-lipped employers, in which case he has to ask the applicant for additional references to call. "We'll usually put the responsibility onto the applicant. We'll ask for three former immediate supervisors and their day-time phone numbers. It's sometimes time-consuming, but it's still a good process to ensure a proper fit for a position."

And when the shoe is on the other foot? When it comes to furnishing references, Mares says, "Like most employers, we're very brief. We'll only verify position and dates of employment without commenting on job performance. I know it's a double-standard. It's difficult for all employers because of liability."

"When checking references, we can only obtain information that is documented," says Mayne. "However, there are some former employers that will not provide any reference at all except under court order. If we cannot get a reference, the determination of the hire goes back to the department. Obviously, the more responsibility the position carries, the more important the reference."

To circumvent the civil-suit circuit, employers have invented a sort of esoteric language to alert would-be bosses to deadbeats. For instance, some employers will simply state that a disfavored former worker is not eligible for re-hire. Also, words such as "sufficient" and "satisfactory" are tell-tale signs that an employee's performance was less than stellar.

And -- fortunately for those on the faux resume circuit -- there are still many employers who choose to alleviate the hassle: They simply do not check references. Perhaps this failure is due to time restraints, desperation to fill a position or just pure laziness. Or, maybe, after grueling interviews with loser after loser, some employers just cannot face the possibility that the articulate whiz-kid with the killer smile sitting across the desk might be a dog-faced liar. Whatever the reason, many employers, particularly small companies, hire without checking references.

"Most companies, particularly smaller ones, don't have the equipment or the knowledge to do thorough background checks," says Dave Henderson of Central Coast Investigations, which performs background checks on job applicants for employers. "Prospective employees know that most employers won't checkup on them."

In an effort to counterbalance reticent referrals, Stamp says many employers will hire for a position, but give a 30 to 90 day probation period in which the employee is closely monitored. If job performance is substandard, then employment is terminated. Otherwise, you're in like Flynn.

Asked how often people lie on their resumes, Henderson laughs. "All the time," he chuckles."`My clients` were going to hire this guy for a key management position," he recalls. "His resume said he had a masters' degree in agribusiness and extensive experience, and that he was vice-president at his former company." After some investigation, Henderson discovered that this presumably perfect job candidate had been in prison during his supposed stint as a corporate VP, and he did not even possess a high-school diploma.

"You'd be surprised what people will do," he says. "They show up to an interview with a good resume in hand, an expensive suit that is rented, a nice rental car, and it's all a facade. I've seen stuff that is so outrageous, you wouldn't even believe someone was crazy enough to lie about it. Most people will believe what they see."

Nevertheless, most fallacies are not bald-faced lies, but a gentle bending of the truth. According to the USA Today report, the most common lies include exaggerating education, job responsibilities and compensation; stretching employment dates to fill in resume holes; and friends listed as references that were passed off as former bosses.

"Lie is a strong word, but people tend to embellish," says Henderson. "They will embellish their experience or their title, only for the prospective employer to find out later that the guy who said he was a sanitation engineer was really a janitor."

Understandably, most people are reluctant to own up to it. Steve, a hotel concierge, adamantly insists that he has never lied to get a job. But when pressed, he says slowly, "Well, you know how you kind of stretch the truth sometimes?" According to his resume, Steve has worked for the same company for more than a decade. Yet within that time, he has quit several times to travel or to take other jobs, then returned to his current employer. Conveniently, he omits those holes, allowing prospective employers to assume a stable work history.

Likewise, a sales representative stretches the dates of her prior employment to fill in holes left by her travels around Europe. And a computer programmer lists his prior position as head programmer on his resume, when, in fact, he was the only programmer. Another common resume sophism is listing a college or university that was briefly attended in hopes that employers will assume that graduation was achieved.

But by the same token, employers do not want to believe that an applicant is lying to them. "`The county` deals with over 8,000 employees," says Mayne, "and lying on a resume or job application is very rare. More likely, employees downplay themselves, they are too humble about their achievements."

Sure, me too.

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