Desperate measures - The truth about resume lies

Can resume lies really help to advance self interests?

It turns out that, when we lie, it’s the perceived size of the lie that influences the way we think of ourselves. Minor indiscretions such as exceeding the speed limit, embellishing in your online dating profile or exaggerating your resume are examples of minor indiscretions that do not carry a social stigma. Researchers tell us that so long as we perceive the lie to be socially accepted it is easier to undertake without guilt.


We were interested in exploring the pressures, limits and motivation behind resume lies. The aim is to better understand the human emotions behind the act as well as to examine how small embellishments are perceived by employers.


  • Former Yahoo CEO Scott Thompson came under fire for perceived embellishments in his resume.
  • Marilee Jones, the former dean of admissions at MIT acknowledged she “misrepresented her academic degrees”.
  • Former Lotus notes CEO Jeff Papows stepped down after allegations that he had misrepresented his history.
  • Former Notre Dame football coach resigned after admitting to lying about a master’s degree and football experience in his resume.


More than ten years ago one of my previous employers asked me to review a resume for a position to be filled in my team. It was a fairly specialised role so resources were difficult to find.

The chronological history in this particular resume was unusual to say the least. Several years as a Service station operator then an instant and miraculous jump as a telecommunications specialist.

The anomaly was highlighted to management but after an interview they were suitably convinced that the claims were credible.

Once his engagement commenced, however, the reality of the situation began to surface immediately. He was too unsure to ask questions; I assume for fear of exposing himself and that made settling in very difficult. On his second day I found him pacing up and down the corridor, I offered assistance to help him settle in but he would not accept. On the third day he walked into the manager’s office and admitted his resume was false and he was way out of his depth. He was escorted out of the building.


We wanted to understand the temptation behind resume lies in the technology industry and our enquiries often led to career development gaps. How to jump between service oriented roles to technical and how to jump from technical to management.

By definition “advancing your career” means to assume duties and responsibilities beyond your current status. But a brief job search will reveal that the most common word in the technology job advertisement world is “previous experience”. Our research into 1142 technical job advertisements revealed that a whopping 90% used these keywords somewhere in the job description.

That does create somewhat of a conundrum for ambitious techs because following that logic we should all be most suitable to exactly the same roles. But if that were strictly true, how is one to advance?

On the one hand employers value previous experience but on the other hand employees are looking to expand their horizons.


Conventional wisdom dictates that career progression should be achieved as a result of a series of small but incremental steps that build on skills and experience over time.

But what happens when that experience is not available in your field of work?

The technology industry seems to break traditional career progression paths because a jump in seniority can mean the application of a COMPLETELY NEW skill set. This is particularly true in the jump between service roles and technical roles, or between technical roles and management jobs.


Case studies show that in most instances where lies got out of control they began as small indiscretions that fit comfortably within the perpetrator’s “guilt free” zone. One way or another, the web became more complicated and in time the lie had taken on a life of its own.

The moral of the story is that small lies tend to stack up one on top of another and can morph into BIG problems.


The pursuit of perfection is one of the most misunderstood concepts in career development. Employer requirements vary depending on supply/demand. When the economy is strong we find ‘mandatory requirements’ ease and when the economy is weak (and therefore more job seekers on the market) employers ‘mandatory requirements’ are more stringent.

Of all the fears listed in our job application survey, a fear related to “am I good enough” is the most prevalent. But receiving a job offer is not about being the ‘best applicant’, it’s about being the most ‘suitable applicant’. A good example is the rejection excuse “you are over qualified”.

Whilst the development of specific technical skills is well understood, soft skills and core skills (Language, literacy and numeracy) are known to make up a significant portion of the decision process in a job application. The ‘most suitable’ applicant will have a healthy balance between all these areas.

In a stunning statistic, the Australian Department of Employment reported that in 2014-15, there was an average of 13.6 qualified applicants for each skilled vacancy, of whom an average of 2.2 were considered by employers to be suitable.


The problem for employers is that everybody claims to possess the attributes of an excellent candidate. In other words, employers are challenged with the task of distinguishing the good candidates from the poor by uncovering false claims and embellishments.

Consider your journey when you’re buying a car. Doesn’t it seem that every car is on sale, mechanically perfect and difficult for the salesman to ‘release’ at that price?

It’s the same for employers conducting interviews. There are a lot of claims to perfection, expertise and other wonderful abilities. But which one is just right?


An employer once gave me this feedback; “We liked your resume because it was real and that’s why you got the interview”. I was fairly shocked by the comment because until that time I didn’t even realise that honesty was a consideration for employers. Being a little older and more experienced now I understand that credibility is in fact a significant factor in the selection process.

Put yourself in the employer’s shoes. Nobody wants to hire someone who will be a burden, semi-capable or unreliable. Nobody wants a problem so the safer options will be very attractive.

Ensure that your resume shows a clear progression in skills and experience. By all means, list the highlights and put yourself in the best possible light but follow this golden rule; “If your employer/lecturer/teacher was watching you write your resume, would they agree with your descriptions?”.

The most likely scenario is that you think you can do the job because you actually can. And if you can - you must have learned the skills somewhere. Think hard, dissect your achievements and search for the origin of your skills in practice because that will speak to your credibility.

Honesty is a powerful weapon in your credibility and likeability. And what you may (potentially) lose in perceived skills by not embellishing you may gain in amiability.

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