Résumés: Beware of Getting "Creative"

Employers step up efforts to root out dishonesty

He looked great on paper. But the performance of the newly hired division chief at a large Midwestern energy company didn't measure up to his résumé. His employer--just then weighing a major investment in his division--wanted to check him out. So it called Kroll, a New York investigative firm that does background checks on executives.

Kroll uncovered this executive's secret in no time. Calling the small private company that provided one of the most glowing recommendations, the Kroll investigator was stunned by the voice on the other end of the line, says Ernie Brod, Kroll's executive managing director. "It was his own cell number," says Brod. "He made up the company."

OMISSION O.K. For anyone contemplating such a "creative" solution, this story should serve as a cautionary tale. While padding your résumé has never been a good idea, these days it's a particularly bad one. Companies will check; you will in all likelihood get caught; and the damage to your career will be inestimable. "Your name becomes mud," says Kathi Vanyo, a Phoenix-based managing consultant with Drake Beam Morin. "It can seriously impact your ability to be employed and advance your career."

But there is hope for the résumé-challenged. While utter fabrications--such as phony academic degrees and made-up jobs--are big no-nos, you can commit some sins of omission with virtual impunity. Few employers care about the number of jobs held, bankruptcies, or misdemeanors, such as shoplifting, that date back more than 15 years.

With a little advance planning, you can clear your public record by paying tax liens, settling lawsuits, and having court records sealed for divorces and business disputes. A far better strategy, though, is to disclose the most damaging information about yourself immediately. Guilty with an explanation, especially one that puts you in a favorable light, is almost always better than guilt compounded by a cover-up.

The problem is more pervasive than you think. Roughly one in four résumés has a lie in it, according to an analysis of more than 1.8 million background checks conducted last year by Avert, a Fort Collins (Colo.) investigative company. Several high-profile executives exposed in the media have focused attention on the issue. Consider Al Dunlap, the former Sunbeam chief executive accused by federal regulators of accounting fraud who deleted two job dismissals from his career history--including one where he was subsequently accused of cooking the books.

As a result of widespread infractions, companies have become a lot more serious about rooting out fabricators. And the investigators they hire--helped by improved databases--have become more adept at getting the job done. Middle managers now routinely get the same kind of scrutiny once reserved for CEOs, with investigators examining court records, academic credentials, previous employers, even former associates. "There are things you might have been able to get away with a few years ago that you'd be well advised to disclose now," says James Mintz, a New York investigator.

Jobs conveniently left unreported represent the most common type of résumé tampering, occurring in about 30% of all career histories, according to Mintz. Often, the applicant simply stretches the dates for the jobs that came before and after the omitted position--a tactic easily uncovered during a background check. Other misrepresentations include exaggerated accomplishments and salaries.

SPIN PATROL. Both Mintz and Kroll's Brod say most of the red flags they uncover don't automatically disqualify an applicant. That depends almost entirely on how he or she "spins" the story. Left your last job after six months? Call it a desire to pursue new challenges. Best you could do was State U.? No problem--if you passed up the Ivy League because you couldn't afford it. Forced to declare bankruptcy? Not your fault--if the company you owned got stiffed by a big customer.

A major challenge for job seekers these days is explaining their participation in the dot-com bust. Many are struggling to describe--in not so many words--how they blew through a thick wad of venture-capital cash on schemes that never earned a nickel in profit and drove their companies into the ground. John Challenger, CEO of the Chicago outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas, says dot-commers can skirt responsibility for the wreckage by narrowly defining their role at the company and emphasizing their successes, such as creating innovative content for the Web site. Top executives can emphasize the lessons they learned from the debacle. "Many people went to work for dot-coms and gained invaluable experience and know-how, even if it was a losing cause," Challenger says.

For those few executive job hunters with a serious criminal offense or other damaging episode on their record, Challenger suggests a four-pronged strategy. Focus a job search on smaller companies that are less likely to inquire about criminal history or do thorough background checks. If you're asked about the events, answer truthfully, but without elaborating--limiting your answer to "yes," for example, when asked on a job application if you've ever been convicted of a felony. And if you're forced to elaborate, frame the events in a way that does the least damage to your candidacy, taking pains to explain any special circumstances and to elaborate on the lessons learned.

Job hunting means executives are forced to confront their past, and for some it isn't pretty. Many employers expect perfection, so every flaw is magnified. Knowing that such scrutiny awaits them has made many people overzealous about sanitizing their pasts--when, for all but a few, the best strategy is to be up-front about their mistakes. Getting caught in a lie, after all, is a sure-fire way to add another mistake to the list.

By Louis Lavelle

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