Liar, liar

You want your resume to stand out, but lying’s not the way to do. In spite of this, nearly half of workers know someone who’s stretched the truth about their work history. Why do we do it?

Of all the pearls of wisdom uttered by George Costanza over the years on Seinfeld, perhaps the greatest was, “Jerry, just remember — it’s not a lie if you believe it.”

The same philosophy must be running through the veins of job applicants these days, as nearly half (46%) of workers surveyed by staffing firm OfficeTeam say they know someone who included false information on a resume, a 25-point jump from a 2011 survey. Job experience (76%) and duties (55%) were cited as the areas that are most frequently embellished.

Apparently it doesn’t matter how much the applicants believe their exaggerated career stats though because hiring managers aren’t buying it. OfficeTeam’s research found that 53% of senior managers suspect candidates often stretch the truth on resumes, and 38% said their company has removed an applicant from consideration for a position after discovering he or she lied.

All of this begs the question — if applicants are knowingly lying on their resumes, and hiring managers are catching them at it, why do job searchers continue to do it?

The answer may be fairly simple, and the motivation, dare we say, honest.

Candidates may embellish their accomplishments in previous positions because they want hiring managers to think they meet the requirements for the job for which they’re applying, explains Sasha Truckenbrod, branch manager for OfficeTeam in Madison. Some professionals may stretch the truth — claiming to have managed a project team when they actually co-managed it with a colleague, for example — because they assume employers won’t bother to verify these details.

Make your resume stand out

Cut to the chase. Quantify past accomplishments and make sure these details are front and center. This allows an employer to clearly recognize how you can impact the company’s bottom line.

Tailor the content. Customize your resume so it speaks directly to a potential employer’s needs — mirror the language and keywords found in the job description.

Keep it simple. Refrain from using complicated language, graphics, or distracting fonts that can make the resume difficult to read. Use bullet points as appropriate.

Clear the clutter. Don’t muddle your message by cluttering your resume with extraneous personal information such as hobbies and interests that have little or no relevance to your professional pursuits.

Use the right terms. Since many resumes are first scanned by computer programs, help your resume rise to the top by incorporating keywords from the job ad, as long as these terms accurately describe your skills and experience.

Do the two-minute test. Ask a friend or family member to review your resume and summarize its key points for you. Make sure the most valuable information is being conveyed to readers. Also, enlist the help of someone to proofread and check for typos.

“In a competitive job market, professionals may feel like they need to do whatever it takes to help make their resumes stand out,” says Truckenbrod. “If applicants have information on their resumes that could be viewed as red flags, such as employment gaps or a record of job hopping, they may be tempted to cover up details by stretching the truth.”

Despite these concerns, Truckenbrod says it’s still never acceptable to lie on a resume.

If applicants are worried about so-called red flags, Truckenbrod says there are a lot of better options than stretching the truth.

Proactively offering an explanation for any red flags up front in the cover letter or interview can remove a hiring manager’s potential misgivings, she notes.

Here are some common sticky resume situations for job seekers and ways to handle them:

You have a gap in your work history. Consider using a combination resume that draws attention to your skills and accomplishments, rather than dates of employment. Address gaps in your cover letter or first interview and highlight how you stayed productive during breaks.

You have a record of job hopping. Emphasize the experience and insight you’ve gained from working for more than one employer. Show that you’ve taken on increasing levels of responsibility with each jump. You’ll also allay the hiring manager’s concerns by offering specific reasons for job hopping in the past and explaining why that won’t be the case this time.

You’ve only worked for one company. List each position you’ve held at the company to show career growth. Even if you have had the same title the entire time you’ve worked there, explain how the role has changed or you’ve taken on more challenging projects.

You’ve held several temporary positions but few full-time roles. Include temporary assignments just as you would full-time ones, using the name of the staffing firm that represented you as your employer and grouping all of your assignments from that company together.

Your former employer no longer operates under the same name. If the company changed names, list the current name, followed by what the firm was formerly known as in parentheses. Including both names ensures that potential employers can locate the appropriate information when verifying your work history and conducting reference checks. If your former employer has gone out of business, also note that in parentheses.



Caught in a lie

While job seekers want their resumes to be attention grabbing, the document means nothing if the content on it is false, reminds Truckenbrod.

It may be tempting to stretch the truth on a resume to stand out, but even small misrepresentations can remove an applicant from consideration for a position.

To avoid hiring mistakes, employers are being more thorough when assessing job candidates, and it’s become easier than ever for hiring managers to catch those who provide false information on their resumes.

“Many employers are performing online searches in an attempt to learn more about prospective hires, including their interests, hobbies, and industry involvement,” says Truckenbrod. “They also may be looking for red flags, like inconsistencies with representations made on an applicant’s resume, that would deter them from hiring the candidate.”

Those kinds of inconsistencies often aren’t hard to find with information on a person’s tenure with a company often easily found via a basic Google search. Your LinkedIn profile can also give you away if it doesn’t jive with your resume.

Truckenbrod notes the most common resume lies involve job experience, job duties, education, and employment dates. She says there are five clear signs that an applicant may be lying, and an equal number of ways for hiring managers to quickly verify information.

  1. Skills have vague descriptions. Using ambiguous phrases like “familiar with” or “involved in” could mean the candidate is trying to cover up a lack of direct experience. To assess a worker’s abilities, conduct skills testing or hire the person on a temporary basis before making a full-time offer.
  2. There are questionable or missing dates. Having large gaps between positions or listing stints by year without months can be red flags. Inquire about the applicant’s employment history during initial discussions and ask references to validate timelines.
  3. You get negative cues during the interview. A lack of eye contact or constant fidgeting may suggest dishonesty, but don’t eliminate a promising candidate by making a judgment based solely on body language. Consider the individual’s responses to your questions and feedback from other staff members who met him or her.
  4. References offer conflicting details. Ask initial contacts about additional people you can speak to about the prospective hire. Also check if there are connections in your network that can provide insight about the candidate.
  5. Online information doesn’t match. Don’t always take what you find on the internet at face value. There may be multiple professionals with the same name or legal issues with how the information can be used. Verify facts during the interview and reference check processes.

While finding out information about a candidate online may be easier than ever, Truckenbrod says getting references about job candidates from a former employer is the opposite.

“Because managers know that saying too much or too little can have legal consequences, they are increasingly wary of being specific about past employees and their work histories when you try to check references. Some companies have been sued for not disclosing enough information about former workers, while others have paid enormous settlements because they provided a negative job reference check — whether true or false. Reference checks aren’t quite as simple as they once were.”

Because of these difficulties, Truckenbrod says rushing through the process of checking references — or bypassing it altogether — in order to make a quick hire may be tempting to small businesses, especially those in danger of losing candidates to another firm in today’s competitive hiring environment. Even so, getting reliable information from a former supervisor is an important step to take before bringing someone on board.

When seeking feedback from your top candidates’ former employers, Truckenbrod advises hiring managers to be on high alert for the following warning signs:

Negative feedback. It should go without saying that if a reference doesn’t provide a glowing assessment of a candidate, you should consider that a red flag. But don’t stop there. Ask probing questions to discover why. You may come to suspect, for example, that a former colleague or boss is giving a bad reference that isn’t really deserved, perhaps due to past personal conflict. In that type of situation, your best bet is to conduct several more  reference checks with different contacts to confirm or refute the feedback.

“Don't call this one.” If a candidate submits references and then hints that you should not get in touch with certain people on the list, that’s not a good sign. Likewise, if you try to connect with references only to discover you’ve been given a wrong telephone number, the writing may be on the wall that something is amiss. Resist the urge to jump to conclusions, though. Give the candidate a chance to supply new, correct contact information. The person’s reference may have moved, or it could have been a typo.

Just-the-facts references. Some employers may supply factual references only — that is, just confirming the name, job title, and dates of employment. This could indicate a less-than-satisfactory work history, or you may simply be dealing with an employer whose policies don’t allow further elaboration. To determine which is the case during your reference checks, replace open-ended questions (“In which areas did she excel on the job?”) with more straightforward queries (“Would you rehire her if you had the chance?”). Sometimes, a more direct question can get silent references to open up.

Inconsistencies. If at any point during the reference checks a former employer tells you something that doesn’t align with what the candidate indicated in the resume or during the interview, that should set off warning bells. Ask the reference a few more direct questions to make sure you aren’t misinterpreting the response. Depending on the extent of the discrepancies, you may want to give the candidate a chance to explain.

Overly positive references. If the feedback you receive sounds a little too good to be true, it probably is. Honest references will candidly share the strengths  and  weaknesses of their former employee or colleague, especially if you  ask the right questions. If the reference can’t identify a single thing the candidate can do better, he or she may not be giving you a complete picture.

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