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January 4, 2002

Resume Embellishment is on the Rise — But it Never Helps A Career

By Jim Leverette

People often compare the executive search process to a marriage. Many times, however, it resembles the slightly more uncertain encounters common in clubs and taverns — the kind where each party builds themselves up, obscures some part of their past, and charges ahead on little more than bravado.

As I am sure most of you remain innocent of my meaning, I shall endeavor to explain further.

Simply put, many people — as many as one-third in some surveys — lie on their resumes. Up to 10 percent of all applicants seriously misrepresent some aspect of their background or work history. They enhance their academic qualifications, stretch employment dates to cover holes, exaggerate accomplishments, and twist chronologies. Over the past year, as the economy spilled more and more people into unemployment lines, resume embellishment jumped 30 percent. And as with pick-up lines in local bars, it’s up to the other party to determine fact from fiction.

Sometimes the misrepresentations are difficult to uncover. For example, one of our clients expressed an interest in an executive with several years of experience running mid-sized companies. On paper, the candidate looked great — but that was the problem. We could not locate a diploma or any solid evidence of academic training. When we approached the candidate about this, he calmly explained that the administrative offices at his alma mater burnt to the ground many years ago, turning his records into mere ashes. Now, that particular college had lost most of it’s graduate information in a fire several years after this particular candidate claimed to have completed his coursework, so the story seemed plausible. However, in this case, the candidate simply read about the catastrophe and used it to his advantage. He never actually attended that school, although it took us dozens of phone calls to discover the truth.

Most candidates do not stretch things that far. Typically, the ones who misrepresent their past fudge simple things — number of years at a company or in a particular position, compensation level, number of people managed, and so forth.

Unfortunately, hiring companies often willingly overlook minor bits of misinformation. One time while conducting a search for a Fortune 100 firm, we determined that their leading candidate had omitted a job from his resume and stretched the dates of other jobs to cover the gap. This sort of thing tends to go undetected because companies fail to check deep into a resume. Often, too, company closings or mergers allow candidates to falsify jobs or stretch dates, making the misrepresentation difficult to discern. In addition, almost 60 percent of all resume embellishment occurs on jobs 10 to 15 years deep in the chronology. In this particular case, the Fortune 100 firm hired the executive, despite our recommendation that they move on to the next qualified candidate.

Expect the Unexpected

In my experience, almost 100 percent of candidates hired, despite evidence of resume embellishment, are dismissed within a year of their hire date. Hence our hesitancy to recommend someone guilty of even the most minor infraction.

To counter incidence of resume embellishment, companies should adopt a TAL policy — in other words, They All Lie — and develop qualifying questions to root out simple obfuscation. For example, because many candidates exaggerate past responsibilities, we always find out whom they reported to while in that position, as well as others in the chain of command. A brief phone call will then confirm (or not) the candidate’s story. More often, however, it takes hours on the phone to verify information — particularly with those adept at hiding their true past. When someone uses a clever dodge, as in the burnt records case, it may take luck (or stellar detective work) to discover the truth. In fact, several companies bought the candidate’s tale, leading him through several companies and an above mediocre track record.

Still, if you talk to enough people in the channel — that is, people in the same or connected industries operating on the same hierarchical horizon as the candidate, you will eventually pick up enough information to piece together facts and reputation. Thus a smart company emphasizes verification. A wise candidate networks constantly and maintains fair and competent relationships with everyone he or she meets in their particular field.

For candidates, my advice is simple. Good recruiters are in the business of finding out what’s real and what’s not. Anything — from that temporary job you worked a decade ago to your current company’s 40 percent boost in sales—that you omit, misrepresent, or take undue credit for, will raise a red flag. It’s better, then, to explain job-hopping, poor academic credentials, and any other problem areas in an initial interview, rather than allow them to destroy the entire process. After all, everyone has some mark on their record, including the person on the other side of the table.

So explain it. Tell what you learned from it. Detail your progress since, and what you can do for the hiring company. But don’t hide it.

Jim Leverette is senior vice president of The Broadmoor Group, an executive search firm located in Dallas, Texas. Contact them at