The job candidate sitting across the table from you is attractive, young, bright, well-groomed and surprisingly well-experienced in your company's field. And her resume reads like a dream, an almost ideal combination of academic achievement, community service, employment responsibility and impeccable character references. It seems too good to be true.
And just maybe it is.
We now know that resume padding happens in the highest echelons. Take, for example, Michael Brown, the former head of U.S. Homeland Security's Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Before Hurricane Katrina exposed his management and leadership failings, few outside the White House were aware that he previously had no meaningful emergency management experience.
Less well known is the statistic noted recently by the U.S.-based Professional Ethics Report that up to 25% of all resumes have some degree of padding. And it seems the exaggerations come from every quarter. "It's not limited to certain areas or certain levels or positions," says Michael Palmer, who leads the talent acquisition practice for Ceridian Canada, a human resource consultancy. "We see it across all [business] areas and across all lines - gender, race, creed."
As someone who teaches recruiting techniques to corporate clients as well as interviewing in the field, Palmer has come across his share of resume whoppers. One of his favourites was the individual who claimed to have an undergraduate degree, a masters and a Ph.D., all from the same non-existent U.S. university. More often, he's run into people who claimed to have managed multimillion dollar projects for previous employers when, in fact, they were comparatively low-level managers with no real financial responsibility at all.
Most often, Palmer says, job candidates don't lie blatantly on their resumes. Rather, they stretch the truth or omit pertinent facts. "We see resume enhancements - that's probably a nicer way to say it - where, say, a person worked at a company for three years, had one successful project that ran for maybe three weeks in those three years. That's what shows up on their resume, not the two years, 11 months and one week where they had nothing but failures."
And some things are never revealed. As Palmer says, out of a thousand potential hires, perhaps 10 or 15 will have criminal records, but you'll never find a reference to one in a CV.
Weeding out even petty resume exaggerations can be a particular problem for small businesses, he says. Small, entrepreneurial firms very often make hiring decisions on gut instincts, worrying more about how a person will fit into a tight-knit family atmosphere rather than zeroing in on the personal characteristics and skills that may actually be needed for the job.
So what are the most likely ways job candidates will embellish their resumes? Here are the top five:
1. Education enhancement
This is the most common fudging mechanism and it can be anything from blatant to subtle. At the extreme end is the long-ago case of the Toronto Stock Exchange vice-president who claimed a degree from the London School of Economics. More commonly, resume writers will let you fill in the blanks. They'll mention they attended a certain school in search of a particular degree and allow you to assume that they actually graduated. Similar tactics can be used for various professional courses given by associations or other professional bodies.
2. Data manipulation
The second most popular offense and, like assumed university degrees, is another variation on the sin of omission. If someone has a blot on their employment record - say, an inconveniently long period between previous jobs, they may cover it up by only giving the years they worked in particular locations rather than providing specific months of employment.
3. Work responsibilities
As Palmer noted earlier, job candidates like to accentuate past successes, no matter how fleeting they may have been, while slipping over long periods where they either accomplished little or may even have fouled up. Therefore, they may structure the resume to read in a way that suggests projects or assignments were much more significant than they actually were or went on much longer than they actually did.
By definition, no one is going to provide you with the name of someone who will trash them outright or cast even the slightest aspersions on their abilities. Even so, candidates may try to impress by securing references from persons of note -- and who may therefore be difficult to contact -- rather than providing names of people who can more accurately attest to their demonstrated ability.
5. Interview style
Job candidates should present a confident exterior when discussing their resume, but some may take it to unreasonable extremes, presenting themselves as having deep knowledge and experience when it's actually superficial. Depending on the presentation skills of the individual, however, blarney isn't always easy to spot.
Luckily for you as a recruiter, there are ways to avoid being taken in by resume enhancement. Point one is to try, within your financial and time constraints, to act like larger corporations when hiring new help. This may mean buying some of the training you may need. Palmer, for example, says few smaller companies have any professional interviewing skills, or use outside providers to help in the selection process. The key thing you should do, Palmer says, is to have a pre-employment background check done on any planned hire. They need only cost about $200 each, a small investment to avoid hiring someone who could cost your company much more if they perform poorly or behave badly in the future.
You can also hire outside human resources consultants to run the hiring process. That way, you'll be sure candidates will be subjected to detailed questioning that drills down into the details of their resumes. They'll also be required to pass rigorous background checks and maybe, depending on the applicable laws, even credit checks.
If you don't think you can afford hired expertise, at least employ Palmer's three common-sense rules of engagement:
- 1. Step one is to write a detailed job description before you interview anyone, focusing clearly on the precise skills and experience you require.
- 2. Step two is to be deeply curious, to refuse to take a candidate's resume at face value. This means asking detailed questions about a candidate's past experience, making them go into considerable detail about the projects and responsibilities they had with former employers. Make them talk in detail about their educational attainments. Ask them for specifics about their customer service experiences.
- 3. Step three is to focus the job interview. One way to do this is to conduct what's long been called the "one-question interview." Simply, you zero in on one aspect of a person's resume - say a major project they may have been involved with - and make them go through it in minute detail. "It's a simplistic view of how to interview, but it might be useful for a small business," Palmer says.
Finally, you can take heart at the prospect that resume fakery may be in decline. The reason? "Corporations and even smaller companies are spending more time on due diligence than they ever did before," Palmer says. "People are starting to realize that we check backgrounds, education and verify where they worked and when they worked."