With today’s job market still highly competitive, it can be tempting for job seekers to pad their resumes. Saying you are fluent in a Spanish because you can hold a basic-level conversation or adding a higher-level when you took a few classes might seem like harmless enhancers, but they can have career-ending consequences.
And experts say these augmentations always find their way to the surface. Just this week, Elizabeth O’Bagy, a so-called expert on Syria, lost her job as an analyst at The Institute for the Study of War for lying about having a PhD., a few days after being cited by Secretary of State John Kerry and Sen. John McCain. (O’Bagy has also appeared on several TV networks, including FOX Business and FOX News.)
Career coach Kathy Caprino says lying on a resume is common among job applicants looking to fill in gaps or boost their titles and experience level.
“People always want to embellish the truth because they don’t know how to effectively explain what the real situation is, or don’t have a compelling story around it,” she says. “But there’s nothing to be ashamed or embarrassed about [for example] taking five years off to raise your children. People feel that limits opportunities for them, but it’s all about confidence.”
Why Honesty is the Best Policy
Career coach Roy Cohen author of The Wall Street Professional's Survival Guide, says that telling the truth is always better than embellishing the resume.
“Anthony Weiner is a good example of this,” he says. “He and others think, ‘If I position a lie in a way I can talk my way through it,’ but at some point you can’t because the magnitude of the decision [to lie] is greater than the technicality.”
He adds that people are physically more comfortable telling the truth. “It takes the energy out of you, to maintain the lie,” she says. “And when you are focusing on maintaining a lie, you get weaker. You don’t look as powerful, or as confident as you do when you are speaking the truth.”
Also, it’s possible to get your entire organization in hot water if you choose to lie, Cohen says.
“If you misrepresent yourself, you can misrepresent or discredit an entire organization,” he says. “And if that organization is sued, you put your colleagues at risk for falsely representing yourself.”
How to Effectively Fill in the Gaps
Caprino says that candidates tend to start embellish their expertise or experience when they feel like that don’t deserve an opportunity or aren’t qualified for a role. Instead, they should focus on their strengths.
“Say you are proactively addressing closing that gap,” Caprino says. “If you need a master’s in IT to do your job, sign up for an online course. And when you are signed up, you can speak powerfully about it.”
Or be sure to explain why a gap in skills or employment exists, rather than just glossing over it.
“Maybe you didn’t graduate from college or you have an incomplete degree,” Cohen says. “Say you are in the process of completing it, rather than saying you dropped out of it. It’s just as good because it shows you are still in the program.”
What to Do if You Get Caught
Again, Cohen says let honesty lead the way. Own up to the mistakes and do work to fix the situation.
“Thanks to reality TV, there is a belief that we can all live out loud, but that doesn’t apply to the rest of us,” he says. “On TV, that is entertainment—it gives people permission to think they can make things up. Remember, it takes years to build up a reputation and a moment to destroy it.”