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Honesty and Resumes

Updated: Jul 3

A magnifying glass laying on a resume.

Lying on applicants' resumes covers a wide spectrum, ranging from stretching the truth just a little to telling blatant whoppers. In between, human resources managers deal with a broad gray area, ranging from fibbing to fudging to padding. How seriously do HR managers treat inaccurate details on resumes and cover letters? Should they dismiss those jobhunters outright or overlook a modest exaggeration?

Dishonest Resumes: Risks and consequences

For candidates eager to land a good job, lying is often a calculated risk. Potential candidates are all too aware that their chances of beating the odds are high. According to a 2020 ResumeLab survey of 1,051 Americans, only 30% of job liars got caught. The actual percentage is likely even lower, as HR departments typically take no action when they discover falsehoods or reject a suspicious resume — it goes into the trash and the episode ends there.

The same study shows that even among those who make it through the hiring process, only 30% are fired for their lies, whereas 22% escape lightly, with only a reprimand. Companies usually ignore the matter until a tangible problem arises. At worst, a candidate can withdraw or update their resume.

Since lying on resumes is relatively easy to get away with, what would make liars hesitate other than a basic sense of morality? Those already hired obviously risk losing their job. The ripples can spread wider, though, tainting the liar's reputation (news travels fast these days) or even occasionally leading to legal action. They may also find it harder to gain other employment if a termination for cause in their work history sets off alarms. Lying is seen as a character defect.

A guilty conscience is not the only worry to keep them up at night. Although most liars do escape detection, some will eventually be exposed. Language fluency is a common resume lie. It may seem safe enough to claim proficiency in French, but what happens when a native speaker unexpectedly shows up at the office and starts chatting away? Or in a tightly knit industry, a co-worker from a former job might reveal that a previous title claimed by the employee has been grossly inflated.

In the doghouse

There are intentional lies and there are unintentional lies. The former are flat-out falsehoods; the latter are closer to shading, such as leaving out a material fact.

Some reported resume lies are jaw dropping. One imaginative applicant claimed that he had worked in a jail when he had in fact served time there himself. Sometimes, candidates create nonexistent institutions for their backgrounds, too. For instance, one allegedly attended a nonexistent college, while another described himself as assistant to a prime minister in a foreign country that had no such leader. In another case, where father and son shared an identical name differentiated only by "Sr." and "Jr." titles, the son misappropriated his father's work experience. Still another candidate pretended to be an Olympic medalist.

A particularly comic example came from a wannabe who termed himself a construction supervisor. In reality, his sole construction experience was the completion of a doghouse, and that had been accomplished many years before.

Beyond these outlandish illustrations, most resume lies fall into fairly standard categories:

  • Skill sets.

  • Academic degrees.

  • Awards.

  • Employment dates.

  • Job responsibilities.

Dishonesty varies across industries. Per the ResumeLab survey, retail and hospitality employees are less truthful, while education and health care workers tend to be more exacting. Men score above women for telling whoppers.

Guarding against liars

Recruiters and HR spend little time reviewing resumes or checking previous employment and references. They focus on dates rather than titles and duties. It is up to managers to perform better due diligence. Aside from Google searches and formal background investigations, employers can always call colleges directly or use services like the National Student Clearinghouse.

Be wary of candidates who provide dates that are inconsistent, details they can't remember, or vague descriptions of skills and experience, or those who exhibit uncomfortable body language. Does the interviewee fidget and avoid eye contact? Proceed with caution and do the research.


Contact our Nuance Workforce Solutions team for help with your recruiting needs.

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