If you've ever been tempted to stretch the truth a bit on your resume, reconsider. A lie on your resume is like a time bomb waiting to explode, according to Betty Lehan Harragan, a writer and authority on workplace issues.
"It'll come back to haunt you," warns Harragan, who is the author of "Games Mother Never Taught You" and "Knowing the Score," books about corporate politics. Claiming degrees or experience you don't have may make you look impressive on paper but can do permanent damage to your career if the deception is revealed.
Many companies will summarily dismiss employees who have lied about their qualifications, and finding another job can be extremely difficult in those circumstances.
Even if your employer doesn't check initially, a co-worker may later expose you, especially if both of you are vying for the same promotion, Harragan says. And if someone decides to check, a quick telephone call to your supposed alma mater or former employer is all it takes to ascertain whether you really have a Ph.D. from Harvard and were a vice president at IBM.
"People are naive if they think it's not going to be checked or that they'll have an explanation," says John Rahiya, vice president of marketing for Equifax Services Inc., an Atlanta firm that performs background checks for other companies. "If you said you had an MBA and you never attended the school, it's pretty hard to talk your way out of that."
What if you have already made the mistake of lying about your background? Harragan says throw out all your old resumes and start over. Also, be ready to explain why you felt it was necessary to embellish the truth, in case you are confronted about your made-up past.
Companies are more likely to check backgrounds of prospective employees these days in the wake of well-publicized incidents where unqualified people were hired as doctors, lawyers and professors. And personnel departments are familiar with common methods of shoring up weak points in a resume.
One popular bit of resume-tampering is to stretch the length of service at one company to cover a period of unemployment or a job that didn't work out. The trouble with this idea, say personnel experts, is that it's very easy to check how long you worked at a particular company, since most firms will release that information.
Another ploy to cover up joblessness is to call yourself a consultant or state that you were self-employed. "It's one of the most common things that people do," says Philip Ash, a retired personnel specialist from West Virginia who still lectures frequently on labor matters. The ruse has been used so frequently that it arouses suspicion unless you have actual evidence of consulting jobs done or personal business activities, Ash says.
Interviewers will usually ask specific questions about job assignments listed on resumes, so be prepared to discuss anything you mention there. Ronald Pilenzo, president of the American Society for Personnel Administration, says that frequently an applicant claims to have held a certain position but isn't able to demonstrate knowledge of the field during an interview.
"If someone says he was the manager of marketing research but can't tell you much about it, he may not have been a manager, or he may not have had the responsibility he said he did," Pilenzo says. Once an interviewer becomes suspicious, he is likely to do a more thorough background check than he would have otherwise.
But being truthful doesn't mean going into exhaustive detail about every aspect of your background, says author Harragan. Stick to relevant experience for the position you are seeking, and try to emphasize increasing areas of responsibility, so that career progress is evident.
Lying is only one of the mistakes you can make on your resume. Harragan says she considers it a fatal flaw to have a resume that is more than one page.
"People want to know where did you work and what did you do, and they want it in 30 seconds flat," Harragan says. Nobody who looks at resumes has time for a lengthy statement of someone's personal philosophy, "or that you are looking for a challenging position or any of that drivel," Harragan says.
She prefers the chronological resume, which lists the last job held at the top of the page and includes specifics like names of employers, dates of employment, and job titles and responsibilities.
Functional or narrative resumes, which emphasize certain types of experience or personal qualities over job history, can work to your disadvantage. Because such formats are often recommended for job-seekers with gaps in their background, many employers regard these types of resumes as cover-ups for a checkered work record.