Growing exaggeration on resumes is leading to increased scrutiny

June 13, 1994|By Sandra Crockett | Sandra Crockett,Sun Staff Writer

A fortysomething man interviewed at a Baltimore-area insurance company for his $75,000 per year dream job.

"They loved him," Ken R. Davis says of the man's prospective employers. "They thought he was wonderful."

But then the company did a little checking and discovered the man lied about having a college degree. The dream never became a reality.

"He was in his 40s and never thought they would check his education," says Mr. Davis, who runs Management Recruiters, an executive-search firm in Timonium. The funny thing is, had the man been truthful about not having a degree, the company would have hired him anyway.

"His references from old employers were excellent," Mr. Davis says. "But when they found out he lied about having a college degree, they wondered what else he may have lied about."

When it comes to resumes, an unofficial poll of career counselors and executive-search recruiters found there's exaggeration, inflation, misrepresention or just out-and-out lying going on. "It's becoming a big problem," Mr. Davis says.

Recently, in one extreme case, a young man apparently misrepresented himself as a biophysics graduate of Johns Hopkins University. Deboul Jayson Kim, who wants to be in the Maryland House of Delegates, falsely claimed to be pursuing a medical degree at the university.

He obtained another student's Social Security number to back up his claim. That Social Security number belongs to a student with the same last name as a man who is a medical student in good standing at the university.

Mr. Kim admitted that he made up the information. It all began when he issued a news release claiming to be on leave from medical school at Hopkins. In his attempt to cover up that untrue statement, things spun out of control.

In other cases, politicians (such as Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware, a former presidential candidate) and journalists (former Washington Post reporter Janet Cooke) both lied about their education and achievements on their resumes. They cited career stress combined with the pressure of being in the public eye to excuse their behavior.

But public figures aren't the only ones fibbing about their pasts. From mid- and senior-level executives to clerks, employment seekers fabricate facts, too, assuming employers won't go to the trouble of checking their backgrounds. Sometimes they are wrong.

"I am going to check someone out thoroughly before I present him to an employer," says Joe Haberman, vice president at A.T. Kearney Inc., an international executive-search firm.

Mr. Haberman will "go back decades" to verify dates and degrees on a resume -- even for people in very senior-level positions.

Education is one of two areas people are most likely to "exaggerate" or lie about on their resumes, career consultants say. "The biggest problem we have is people sometimes give false degrees," Mr. Davis says. They lie because many positions require certain credentials or because of the prestige.

Usually, Mr. Haberman says, people weave a bit of truth around the lie. "They may say they have an MBA, when, in fact, they went to school for an MBA but never finished," Mr. Haberman says.

The second most frequent transgression by employment seekers is changing the beginning and ending dates of a job -- to cover up a job that didn't work out.

For instance, a person leaves one job on good terms, briefly works another job that does not work out and then finds a third job that does. The person puts on his resume that he worked the first job longer than he did and started the third job sooner.

"People are trying to fill in the blank," says Andrew J. Bowie, an executive-search consultant. "And I've seen them try to fill in as much as a year," he says.

It's not as benign a lie as some may think. "I would let the person know that this was not acceptable," says E. J. Alexander, president of Alex and Co. Inc. in Baltimore. "That it is dishonest. I have seen people who were terminated from companies for that." Ms. Alexander has seen "exaggerations" but no bald-faced lies. "By and large, I have never had a bad resume."

The news about resume honesty isn't all dismal, though.

"People are getting smarter," says Betsy Cerulo, chief executive officer of Ad Net Inc. in Baltimore. "They know when they go through an agency that their references will be checked out," she says.

And, for the most part, people are just trying to be their own spin doctors and have no conscious intent to be fraudulent.

"They are obviously putting themselves in the best light," Mr. Haberman says. "But generally, they are honest."

For example, sometimes people give themselves more highfalutin titles than they actually had. "People will change their job title to accountant, when they were a bookkeeper," Ms. Cerulo says.

The best advice, says Mr. Bowie, is to stick to the truth. "People should be honest," he says. "Or they are cutting their own throats."

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