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Doctored R?sum?s, Poisoned Applicants

In the wake of the corporate scandals of the past year, there should be little doubt in business circles that honesty is the best policy. But apparently, some would-be executives haven't gotten the message. The University of California at Berkeley's Haas School of Business has rejected 5% of about 100 candidates it had slated for admission into its fall 2003 MBA class, after background checks revealed inaccuracies on their r?sum?s. Most commonly, applicants fabricated work dates to hide the fact that they had been laid off. In every case, it was a pointless fib: Admissions director Jett Pihakis says all would have been admitted had they not lied.

Pihakis initiated a policy of reviewing all admitted candidates for Haas's incoming class because of rumors that, in the past, untruthful students had slipped through admissions screenings at Berkeley and other B-schools. After reading the first round of applications, he and his admissions staff contacted human-resources departments to double-check the employment histories of all of the first 100 or so people deemed worthy of admission.

Pihakis stresses that the lies his staff uncovered were bold enough to rule out any chance of simple misunderstandings. "We're talking about people who have been out of work since May [2002] and who applied in November" -- at which time they claimed they were still on the job. He adds that Berkeley's admissions committee was careful not to penalize applicants who may have lost a job after submitting an application.

SPOT CHECKS. Apparently, the key to finding cheaters is not emphasizing ahead of time that résumés will be checked. The University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, for example, announced with some fanfare last fall that it would do exhaustive background audits of every candidate (see BW Online, 9/30/02, "Wharton Aims for a Wider Target"). ADP Screening & Selection Services, to which Wharton outsources the job, hasn't found any discrepancies yet, says Rosemaria Martinelli, the B-school's admissions director.

In the past, most schools have routinely done spot checks of applicants -- especially when something on a résumé or transcript looks suspicious. At Columbia University's Graduate School of Business, Admissions Director Linda Meehan says her staff has done spot checks for all 11 years she has been in charge. Those have yielded anywhere from none to "a few" rescindments each year. "We catch what we need to catch," Meehan says, though she doesn't rule out the possibility of universal background checks in the future.

In fact, many B-schools say they've recently contemplated doing wholesale, comprehensive background checks on their admitted students. The findings at Haas could very well spur more admissions directors to action, if only because chances are good that the students who were bounced from Berkeley have applied elsewhere: According to BusinessWeek's latest survey of MBA grads, the average student applied to 3.8 programs.

HOLD THE FUDGE. The miserable job market MBAs are now facing no doubt has contributed to the temptation to fudge the facts. Most B-schools are attracting unprecedented numbers of applicants, and the competition to get in has never been more fierce. Moreover, the weak labor market has made applicants with strong job skills the most desirable at many schools -- which figure that they'll have a better chance of placing such people when they graduate (see BW, 3/17/03, "What B-Schools Want Now"). Unemployed applicants thus see their lack of a job as one strike against them.

Which, in fact, it may not be. "Applicants don't need to fudge this," Columbia's Meehan says. "We recognize that this isn't [a good job market]." Pihakis adds that having been laid off "isn't a reflection of you so much as of the economy." Except, of course, in the case of applicants who doctor their résumés. Because for those who are caught, being laid off and then lying about it is three strikes -- and out. By Brian Hindo in New York

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