Wednesday, April 28, 2010

In Job Hunting, Honesty Is Still the Best Policy

What's the harm in a little white lie on your résumé, especially if it will help you finally nab that full-time position?

Just ask George O'Leary, the Notre Dame football coach who was forced to resign five days after being hired when lies about his academic and athletic background came to light. Or Marilee Jones, an MIT dean who fudged on her credentials and quit when she was found out.

Sure, these are high-profile examples, but rank-and-file workers also fall into the trap -- and get caught.

Yet with all the uncertainty and anxiety these days over landing a job with a steady paycheck, more job seekers are finding it harder to resist fudging on a résumé or job application in order to paint themselves in the best light.

After all, while the unemployment rate remained at a steady 9.7% in March, more than 6.5 million people are still facing long-term unemployment, according to the Department of Labor Statistics. It will be a slog to make a big dent in the nation's unemployment numbers.

"It's such a tough spot that many people find themselves in right now with the number of long-term unemployed at historic highs," says John Challenger, chief executive officer of global outplacement consultancy Challenger, Gray & Christmas. "It's easy to falsify or embellish beyond a point that would be an ethical representation of your accomplishments."

According to the 2009 Screening Index released by ADP, a human-resources and payroll provider, 46% of employment, education or credential reference checks conducted in 2008 revealed discrepancies. That's up from 41% in 2006.

And the current job climate is even riper for résumé fraud, says Jenifer DeLoach, a senior vice president at Kroll, a New York-based global risk consultancy.

Crossing the Line

The art of résumé writing does allow you to push skills to the limit of an imaginary line, says Wendy S. Enelow, an executive career consultant in Coleman Falls, Va. "It's about merchandising and selling a product. You do want to highlight the benefits and value of that product, but only within the realm of reality."

The hard part, of course, is to avoid crossing that line.

Say you're an accountant and spend 80% of your time focusing on accounting and 20% on IT-related work, says Ms. Enelow. If you now want to pursue an IT job, you should highlight your skills and qualifications on a résumé in a way that places more emphasis on the IT. "This way someone sees a qualified IT professional who happened to be an accountant as opposed to the other way around," she says.

Crossing the line would be stating that you "single-handedly spearheaded the effort to switch from system A to system B" or some other claim to leadership in the IT department, Ms. Enelow adds.

Résumé Rules

Walking that line between promoting yourself and being untruthful can be difficult. Here are some ways to do so.

  • If you haven't earned a degree, disclose how far you've gotten. For example, "completed 50% of requirements for Bachelor of Science in Business Administration" or "Bachelor of Arts Candidate, anticipate completion in 2011."
  • If you were fired from your last job, leave that detail out. But be prepared to discuss it during an interview if asked.
  • If you're over age 45, focus on the relevant experience, achievements, skills and qualifications that position you for your next role. It's OK to omit specific dates.
  • If you've never held a leadership position, state the activities and achievements that convey leadership skills and experience.
  • If you're looking for a salary boost, don't state salary requirements or inflate your most recent salary.

Steven Lurie, the author of "Handbook for Early Career Success," says he worked with a woman who exaggerated her responsibilities and previous salary when applying for an administrative job at a law firm last year. She got the job. But her exaggerations were discovered during a background check soon after and she was fired.

"A lot of companies have zero-tolerance policies if they catch you" lying, says Mr. Challenger.

People who didn't complete a degree program can still list the school on a résumé, but they should indicate the "strongest possible presentation that is truthful," such as "completed 50% of requirements for Bachelor of Science in Business Administration" or "Bachelor of Arts candidate, anticipate completion in 2011," says Louise Kursmark, an executive résumé writer and career consultant. Crossing the line would be saying you graduated with that degree.

Older job seekers can leave off the years they went to school. Changing the years is lying.

Also a no-no: stating that you were part of a mass downsizing when you were actually fired, says Mr. Challenger. But do leave off the reason for leaving a previous job, says Ms. Kursmark.

In fact, you want to avoid filling a résumé with too many details, especially personal ones. If you have a black mark -- a stint in jail, a trip to rehab or you've been fired from a previous job -- "that's something that should be dealt with during an interview," says Meg Montford, an executive career coach in Kansas City, Mo. If you're asked or it looks like a job offer is imminent, "you have to be honest," she says, especially since more companies are doing reference and background checks.

ADP says the number of background checks it performed for companies rose 24% in the first quarter from a year earlier.

You should be upfront and briefly explain why you parted on negative terms with a former employer, or why you were arrested. "Don't blame anyone but yourself," says Ms. Montford. "And end your story about your situation with what you learned and how that impacts how you work going forward."

Damage Control
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