By Liz Ryan Fans of the late, beloved children's author Dr. Seuss will recall Marco, the protagonist in And to Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street. Marco is an embellisher: In his imagination, a horse-drawn wagon becomes a full-out circus parade. The wagon becomes a sleigh, then a chariot. The horses turn into elephants, all products of Marco's invention.
Someone like Marco would find instant trouble in today's job market, where embellishing details about job history and experience can lose you an opportunity -- or get you fired.
FUDGE FACTOR. Which raises a question: How much poetic license can you use to market your talents when preparing your resume and cover letter? The answer is some, but tread carefully.
Here's a guide to where you can use some license, where you must not, and how to put your best foot forward without crossing the line between reasonable puffery and the dreaded realm of resume falsification.
You don't mess around in this department. Simply list each degree you've earned, which school granted it, and when you graduated. If you've completed every graduation requirement except one class, and you'll be taking it this summer, you don't have a degree.
Or let's say you're all done with school, but you've got some outstanding library fees and so haven't received your diploma. Ditto -- that school won't confirm you as a graduate if asked by a prospective employer.
If you interviewed brilliantly with my company and I background-check you, and your diplomas don't check out, your "thanks anyway" letter is in the mail.
Also, don't list executive education courses or company training in the education section of your resume. Those are training programs, not degree courses. However, if you attended three colleges before graduating from State U., you don't need to list those schools on your resume.
The bottom line is that you earned your sheepskin. The fact that you transferred credits from other institutions is immaterial and unlikely to help you. So leave it out.
Can you enhance your job history? Not much, but maybe a little. If you did temp or contract work at a company before coming on full-time, you can add those roles when calculating your tenure at that outfit -- though you must specify that you went from contract work to full-time employment, and also list the dates for each assignment (otherwise, your former employer's dates won't match yours).
You can minimally alter a job title only if the title you held is confusing or silly. For instance, if you were called "wizard of influential services" in a dot-com startup, I give you license to make that "channel marketing manager" or some other well-understood designation. You cannot promote yourself after the fact or move your job to a more attractive department.
You cannot, of course, mess with your employment dates. However, you need not include every job you've ever held, especially short-term assignments you would just as soon forget. If you don't mind being held accountable for the gap in your employment dates, there's no law (statutory or ethical) that says you have to include the in-and-out assignment.
If the topic comes up in an interview or after you have been hired, say: "I leave that job off my resume. It was such a short assignment, and it takes longer than an interview schedule allows to explain what the job was, why I went there, and why it didn't work out."
This is the tricky one: In your eloquent cover letter, can you mention skills you sort of possess, or the ones that you are working on? And what to say about the functional areas you've been exposed to? Just that: You can say you have been exposed to X, Y, and Z. Anything you say about yourself will have to be backed up in a job interview (or two, or three, or four). What good will it do you to get in the door on the strength of your fictional trade-show management expertise if you can't walk the talk when face to face with the vice-president of marketing?
Here's an example of one paragraph of a cover letter that touches on areas of strength, areas of some exposure, and some potentially appealing areas that you've just barely touched:
In my position as Supply Chain Manager with XYZ Corp., I had extensive experience negotiating large ($100-million-plus) contracts with suppliers on four continents; worked closely with our engineering and production teams on next-generation JIT inventory processes; and was beginning to work on the implementation of a multiplant GPS-aided inventory management system. I am very comfortable in both the human and technical aspects of supply chain and inventory management.
Management and Budget
Now, what can you say about the teams you managed and the dollars for which you were accountable? Here's another area where maximum accuracy is key: Don't claim to have managed dollars or people you didn't. You would feel like a fool if you blew a great opportunity because a past employer wouldn't verify the management responsibilities and/or dollar accountability you claim.
Still, you can say a lot -- even when you didn't hold formal responsibility for people or budgets. You can say that you served as a team leader of 15 inside sales reps who worked for your boss. You can say that your bonus was based on your adherence to the quarterly marketing budget, for which your boss or someone else had overall accountability.
Modern organizations are complex, and management assignments come with many levels of responsibility. Call attention to what you were asked to do, and to what you did -- even if the teams led or dollars spent and saved formally resided in someone else's spreadsheet.
Reason for Leaving
Finally, the $64,000 question: What can you say about the circumstances surrounding your departure? This won't go on your resume -- you can include why-I-left information on a cover letter if you want, though you certainly aren't required to -- but you're bound to be asked the question sooner or later. You must have a ready answer, like one of these:
"It was a great time for me to move on and try something new."
"I had learned about all I could in that assignment, and I was eager to advance."
"It was not the best environment for me, for this reason...."
Must you say that you hated your boss, or that your boss hated you? Not at all. If you cannot use your former boss as a reference, say something like, "My manager is not the person from that job I've provided as a reference. We did not have a great relationship. I've given you Amy, a peer; John, a customer; and Suzanne, a subordinate. Unfortunately, that difficult relationship with my manager was one of the principal reasons for my leaving."
Many, many people have been in this situation. Interviewers have heard it a million times. Obviously, if this is your explanation for leaving not one but two, three, or more jobs, you might want to consider the overall pattern.
But you are not duty-bound to say that the layoff that got you bounced was limited to just one person. Nor are you required to say that your boss provided you a nice package in exchange for your agreement that the fit between you and the job was pretty awful.
The key to accuracy in resumes and cover letters is your conviction that you won't be embarrassed or feel less than truthful about any aspect of your personal "marketing materials." One of the most frustrating things about corporate HR jobs is not being able to tell a great candidate: "Dude, why did you say you were a vice-president at that startup? We have three people working here in our company who knew you there, and all three reported independently that you were the marketing manager. Bad move on your part, fudging the truth. We can't even consider you for a job, now or in the future."
HR folks won't share that kind of information with an applicant: For the employer, there's no advantage in doing so, and there are potential disadvantages. So the candidate doesn't learn his or her lesson, and may go on to puff away job after job.
Still, the fear of being caught shouldn't be the primary motivator for your personal truth-in-advertising campaign. It's your good name, as they say. Isn't that worth a bunch more than an extra flourish or two on your already impressive resume? Do you have any great business leadership tips to share with BusinessWeek Online's readers? Send them to Liz Ryan, an at-work expert, speaker, and writer, and CEO of online networking organization WorldWIT