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Are job applicants making you play “truth or dare”?

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I hate to lie. And it’s not because I’m overly virtuous; it’s because I always get caught. So that’s why, when I read in a December 1998 survey that no less than one-third of IT executives lie on their resumes, I was appalled, if not a little dubious.

The survey, conducted by Taylor/Rodgers & Associates, a recruiting firm in Stamford, Conn., found IT candidates embellishing the truth about previous jobs, education, job responsibilities, and more. Conducted over the past five years, the survey included about 1,000 job candidates who make $150,000 and higher.

Wanted: Programmers
Must be able to write code

According to Richard Taylor, president of the firm, the highest number of falsehoods — 40% — were in education. That is, candidates either said they got a degree that they didn’t get or took courses they didn’t take. Another 35% centered on accomplishments, and 25% involved job responsibilities. “They might claim they grew revenues in a certain number of years, but other people or entire groups were actually responsible,” Taylor says. “Or they might say they were in charge of things that they never were.”

If someone says they completed a two-year program, you might ask, “Does this mean you graduated, and on what date? How would your name appear in the transcripts?” He or she might admit that they just attended the program for a year and a half.

Sometimes, the lies verged on the weird. “I had one individual who claimed he was a football star at the University of Michigan. I checked it, and it turns out he never set foot in the gym,” Taylor says.

Taylor’s numbers seem high to me. But a bit of calling around revealed that, for the most part, people in the IT hiring business don’t blanche at the findings. “There have been a number of studies showing that one-quarter of resumes contain falsehoods,” says Gordon Stein, vice president of marketing for CNC Global, a recruiting firm based in Toronto. The most common instance, Stein says, involves candidates skating around the truth. “The resume may say, ‘1992, BA, psychology.’ And when you check on it, you might find they attended but didn’t graduate,” he says. Also common is conveniently neglecting to list months on the resume. Over a span of 1997 to 1998, for instance, the candidate could have worked two days or one year. “Months are important to pin down,” Stein says.

And, it seems it’s not just high-level folk who tell fibs–the falsehoods occur at all levels. That’s what Sue Simonett discovered recently when trying to hire programmers with Visual Basic competency. “We had people outright lying about what they were able to do,” says Simonett, a director of IT at General Mills Inc., a $6 billion packaged-foods company in Minneapolis. “It was very, very frustrating. With a couple of people, we brought them in for an interview and asked them to write code, and they didn’t know how to do it.”

The real McCoy

You have to wonder why IT candidates would resort to lying during supposedly the biggest skills squeeze this industry has seen. It turns out that one problem can be traced to career sites on the World Wide Web. “Many of them give people options, like ‘what technical skills do you have?’ So they’ll check all of them,” says Tracey Claybrooke, president of Claybrooke & Associates, an Internet recruitment consulting firm in Tampa, Fla. “They see it as, ‘I’m going to get myself in front of as many recruiters as I can.'”

And, ironically, high demand is part of the problem. “There is more demand today, but the bar is so high,” CNC Global’s Stein says. “There might be a lot of qualified people in their 50s, but in the next generation you’re more likely to see a university degree” or even an MBA. For some older workers, with or without a degree, that creates the temptation to embellish the education portion of their resumes.

High demand also means high rewards, adds Richard Taylor from Taylor/Rodgers & Associates: “the salaries are higher, and the rewards are greater. That brings out the character flaw.”

Exaggeration or lie?

But it’s important to note that there are degrees of dishonesty. Exaggerating an accomplishment is different from listing a nonexistent job. After all, isn’t that the point of resumes–to advertise a side of you that’s maybe just a little slicker and shinier than reality? “We’ve all drafted resumes that put the right spin on things,” says Mark Polansky, managing director of the New York-based information technology practice at recruiter Korn/Ferry International. “If we’re going to call people guilty because they put things in the best light–well, everyone does that.”

For instance, if somebody says he saved the company 50% and in actuality the real figure wasn’t even close to that, that’s a misrepresentation. But if he says he was a critical member of a team and a few phone calls reveals he wasn’t so critical, that gets into some really gray areas.



In terms of outright dishonesty, Polansky is doubtful of Taylor/Rodgers’ 33% finding. “We do a degree check on every candidate, and we have a problem with far less than 1%,” he says. However, if you count shaving the truth and painting the best picture, “that’s probably half of all resumes.” The most common thing is neglecting to list short-term jobs because the applicant would rather not divulge job failures. “I’d consider that dishonest,” he says.

So whether it’s through out-and-out falsehoods or little white lies, IT job candidates can’t be counted on for truthfulness. That means it’s up to each individual corporation to determine its stance on dishonesty. What will be tolerated? How do you determine whether a person is simply trying to get his foot in the door or is seriously misrepresenting himself?

After all, if candidates are fearless enough to lie on their resumes, aren’t they capable of continuing to lie once they’re hired? From someone who couldn’t tell a lie if she wanted to, I’d say it’s an issue you’ll want to keep your eyes on. //

Mary Brandel is a freelance writer in Norfolk, Mass., specializing in business applications of technology. She can be reached at

Tipping your hand

Whether white lies or dark secrets, here are some tips to uncover the less-than-truths on job candidates’ resumes:

Conduct a “peripheral screen.” That is, talk to peers, former subordinates, and former bosses, even from three jobs ago, says Richard Taylor, president of Taylor/Rodgers & Associates, a recruiting firm in Stamford, Conn. Ask the supplied references for additional names, but be sure to ask permission from the candidate before making these calls. “If they don’t give permission, a red flag goes up, and you might be able to get the candidate to talk about the issue, at least their own version of it,” he says.

Be thorough in your background checking. According to Taylor, verification tools are far more effective than they were five to six years ago, thanks to the Web. “Today you can get a full background check, a credit check, and criminal check off the Web,” he says.

Be up-front. Tell them that you intend to verify all data, or ask candidates to sign a form attesting to their honesty, suggests Gordon Stein, vice president of marketing for CNC Global Co., a recruiting firm in Toronto. “If you take a pointed approach, people will come clean. If someone says they completed a psychology program, you might ask, ‘does this mean you graduated, and on what date? How would your name appear in the transcripts?’ They might admit that they just attended the program for a year and a half,” he says.

It’s very difficult to determine the significance of a candidate’s role in a particular accomplishment, especially when it’s a team effort. One way is to get the person to walk you through the steps of the actual process. “If they say they were responsible for taking the company public, have them walk you through those steps,” Stein says.

Involve a technical person in the actual interview. “Make sure there’s a person in the room who can ask detailed questions in particular areas,” says Sue Simonett, a director of IT at Minneapolis-based General Mills Inc.

If you get deluged with resumes, it’s a good idea to prescreen candidates on the phone. This doesn’t always work, of course. “One guy did great on the phone screen, and it was almost like someone was there helping him,” Simonett says. But when he came in for an interview, “he couldn’t do in front of us what he could do on the phone. That was bizarre, a very tough situation.”

For high-level positions, consider pre-employment testing. “People will tell me they’re a consensus builder and team-oriented, and testing might show them to be autocratic and domineering,” says Jed Friend, an industrial psychologist and president of Jed Friend, Phd Inc., in Tampa, Fla.

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