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For many job seekers the first—and maybe the only—chance they get to impress a potential employer is a résumé. What are the ethics of presenting your qualifications on a sheet of paper?
Robert Irvine is a muscled chef from England who you may have seen hosting the Food Network’s popular Dinner: Impossible. It’s a good job. The TV show generates free publicity for his cookbook Mission: Cook! and affords him the kitchen credibility to open his own restaurants. That was the idea he brought to St. Petersburg, Florida, in 2008. His concept for south Florida, actually, was two restaurants: Ooze and Schmooze. Ooze was going to be the accessible, entry-level place and Schmooze the highbrow complement. His biography—the summary of his professional life and experiences that he presented to potential investors—was impressive. According to the St. Petersburg Times, he advertised his résumé as including:
Everything came to an end, though, at least temporarily, when Food Network fired him for résumé lies. Here’s the truth about the listed items:
Certainly, Robert Irvine isn’t the first guy to stretch his résumé, but he does an excellent job of exploring the many ways people can misrepresent themselves when trying to get a job. Generally, there are two kinds of résumé abuses. Positive résumé misrepresentationsInvented items inserted into a résumé. are those items on a résumé that simply aren’t true. Examples include:
Negative résumé misrepresentationsParts of one’s professional experience deleted from the résumé. are those items that would appear on a complete résumé, one listing all your working experience, but that conveniently get left out of the one you submit to a potential employer. If you were fired from your first job at McDonald’s years ago because you kept forgetting to take the fries out of the oil pit, no one’s going to object when you drop those months off your work history. On the other hand, if, up until two months ago, you were in charge of the vehicle fleet for a hotel, and you were fired for taking your girlfriend out in the company limo after hours, leaving that off your résumé is misleading new prospective employers.
In the case of Irvine, things worked out for him in the end. After he publicly recognized the truth and cleaned up the most outrageous resume claims, he got his TV show back.
It’s hard to define all the ethical lines dividing what should and shouldn’t be included in a job applicant’s résumé, but steps can be taken to control the situation. If you’re sitting at your desk trying to figure out whether there should be any deleting, fudging, or exaggerating, two questions can help get a hold of the situation:
The first person affected by your decision is you, and everyone’s closest ethical responsibility is the one they hold to themselves, the responsibility to respect their own dignity and abilities. One way of taking that responsibility seriously is to look back at the jobs you’ve held and ask what kinds of tasks they entailed and how those experiences and the skills taken from them might be stated in a broad and appealing way. Probably, Irvine went overboard when he translated the fact that he’d chosen fruit included in a royal wedding cake into the claim that he participated in assembling and cooking it. But it also seems like it’d be a mistake to say that he’d been a simple “fruit picker” on a wedding cake job. In the culinary world, his was important fruit picking. Irvine’s mistake, in other words, wasn’t that he tried to make himself look good, it’s that he couldn’t find a way to do it without essentially lying about his experience.
The duty to present yourself positively to potential employers may also justify the decision to leave certain, let’s say, unfortunate aspects of your professional life off the résumé. Irvine doesn’t talk much about how his endeavor to create restaurants in St. Petersburg fell apart in a sorry mess. If tomorrow he goes out and tries to stir up investors for a new pair of restaurants somewhere else, he has an obligation to be honest with them about what happened last time. But if he’s looking for a job as a TV cook, or just as a cook in a restaurant, then he may be able to justify leaving that bad episode unmentioned. The reasoning? The fact that he’s bad at mounting restaurants doesn’t mean he’s a bad TV personality or an error-prone cook. The one job has little in common with the others. So if he’s applying to be a cook, he could possibly leave the negative information about his other business ventures out based on the idea that it’s simply not applicable to the employment being sought.
The duty to yourself, finally, points toward a résumé presentation that sets your accomplishments and skills in boldface while not dwelling on extraneous shortcomings.
Another person affected by your résumé decisions—the choice about how much truth to tell and hide—is the person doing the hiring. If you claim experience you don’t really have and skills you don’t possess, the supervisor who oversaw your contracting won’t just be disappointed and angry as he watches you stumble and trip over tasks that should be easy. The botched hiring will also reflect negatively on him when superiors evaluate his performance and make decisions about pay raises and promotions. He’s going to suffer because you lied. There is, in other words, a loser when you scam to get a job that you’re not really qualified for. More, that harm accrues to the company as a whole. Maybe costs will increase because more training than expected will be necessary. Maybe an account will be lost when you fumble an assignment that should be automatic.
Your potential future workmates also have a stake in your application for a job. If you claim, as Irvine did, to have worked on the Charles and Diana wedding cake, it seems fair for your boss to assume you’ll be able to manage producing first-rate cakes for ordinary people. If you can’t, if you have no idea how to serve up even a simple layer cake, someone else on the team is going to have to step in and do your work for you. They probably won’t get your paycheck at the end of the month, however.
Other applicants for a job also have a stake in your own application. It’s a competitive world, and while you’re the one who can best make the case for your ability, making false claims doesn’t just give you an opportunity you may not otherwise receive: it takes an opportunity away from someone else.
The first step in getting control of your résumé’s relation with the hard truth is working through how any particular decision affects those involved. The second step is determining whether it matters what everyone else is doing. The question is important because applying for jobs doesn’t happen in a vacuum. If everyone stretches their qualifications to the extent Irvine demonstrated, then obviously you may want to consider whether you need to do the same just to get a fair shake.
A web page with a very truthful URL, Fakeresume.com, takes up the question about how much fibbing is going on out there. Under the heading “The UGLY Truth About How People Are Outsmarting You!” they assert,
Over 53% of job seekers lie on their résumés. Over 70% of college graduates admit to lying on their résumés to get hired. Can you afford not to know the techniques, tricks and methods they use?Fakeresume.com, accessed May 17, 2011, http://fakeresume.com.
Fair question. Of course no one knows exactly how much cheating goes on, but as Irvine attests, there’s definitely some out there. So should you get in on it? The argument in favor roughly corresponds with the web page’s pitch. If everyone’s doing it—if exaggeration is expected—then employing the same misrepresentations that guide everyone else isn’t really lying. Like driving sixty down a fifty-five-miles-per-hour highway when all the other cars are going that fast too, your exaggerations are following the rules as everyone seems to understand them. From this point of view, you may even have a duty to exaggerate because not doing so, as the web page claims, isn’t being an ethical hero, it’s just being outsmarted. And in a competitive environment, you at least have the moral obligation to not let yourself be snookered.
On the other side, where do these percentages—53 percent, over 70 percent—come from? The web page doesn’t say, and if they’re not true, then doesn’t the whole argument—do it because everyone else is doing it—reduce to an excuse to lie?
In the case of Fakeresume.com, it couldn’t be more obvious what’s going on. The site is offering you a way to not tell the truth and not feel bad about it. Instead of offering moral guidance, it’s inventing a way for you to justify taking the easy path, to justify padding the résumé without having to consider whether that’s the right thing to do.
Conclusion. In the midst of résumé-stretching dilemmas, what other people are doing matters. Hiring is relative; there’s hardly anyone who’s perfect for any job, recruiters take the applicant who’s best suited. Your obligation—to yourself and to the recruiter—is to show why you may be the best suited of the applicants. That may mean (using the language of Fakeresume.com) using the résumé-enhancing techniques commonly employed. It doesn’t mean, however, just imagining that everyone else is lying their pants off and then using that as an excuse to lie yourself.
One problem Robert Irvine faced was his very public personality. To stir up interest in the restaurants he planned for St. Petersburg, he had to stir up interest in himself. All the commotion drew the attention of a local newspaper reporter who ended up blowing the whistle on the résumé exaggerations and concoctions.
More ordinarily, job applicants don’t need to worry about reporters prying into their claims. Most medium and larger companies do, however, pass résumés through human resources departments and they typically confirm the significant, objective claims of job seekers. Items like degrees obtained can typically be verified. So too dates of previous employment and job titles. Every company will follow its own internal guidelines, of course, so it’s impossible to make a table listing the misrepresentations that will and won’t slip through, but it’s certain that objectively false information may come to light sooner or later.
If false information does come to light, are there legal complications? Probably not. Because résumés aren’t binding, signed agreements between the applicant and employer, they’re generally protected by free-speech guidelines. In the case of Irvine, if he claimed he was Superman, there’s nothing the police could do about it. That said, efforts have been made to take some action against the most extreme cases of résumé misrepresentations. A number of legislative measures have been proposed to punish those who lie about a military record and honors received. Also, in Washington State in 2006, legislation was advanced to fine and briefly imprison applicants found guilty of claiming advanced degrees they didn’t actually earn. The measure ultimately failed.Candace Heckman, “Lying on Résumé Could Land You in Jail,” SeattlePI, March 3, 2006, accessed May 17, 2011, http://www.seattlepi.com/local/261747_diplomamill04.html.
Conclusion. Most résumé misrepresentations don’t cross into illegality. This is one of those areas in the business world where legal right and wrong diverges clearly from ethical right and wrong.
Ethical egoism means your moral responsibility is to act in your own interest no matter what that may require. This provides a license for outright résumé invention (a false BS degree and imaginary knighthood for Irvine). But, as is always the case with egoism, the question must be asked whether job seekers really serve their own interests when they claim things that may later be revealed to be false or when they land jobs they later won’t be able to perform because their qualifications were fake.
One specific warning for the egoist comes from the admissions department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. One of the world’s elite universities, the task of selecting each year’s freshman class is as daunting as it is important for a school dedicated to preserving its reputation. The head of that office in 2007 was Marilee Jones. One of her central skills was the ability to distinguish high schoolers who’d truly excelled from those who got great grades by taking easy classes. Her widely admired skill, in other words, was filtering out grade sheets (which are students’ résumés) that misleadingly stretched the students’ classroom accomplishments. She went on using that skill until it was discovered that twenty-eight years earlier, when she’d first applied to work at the school, she’d invented a few degrees for herself. She was fired on the spot.Marcella Bombardieri and Andrew Ryan, “MIT Dean of Admissions Resigns for Falsifying Resume,” Boston Globe, April 26, 2007, accessed May 17, 2011, http://www.boston.com/news/globe/city_region/breaking_news/2007/04/mit_dean_of_adm.html.