Executives: Making It by Faking It

Wisconsin headhunter Jude Werra's "Liars Index" of faked résumé claims hit a five-year high in the first half of 2007

At least once or twice a year, business people the world over are reminded of the high cost of a little exaggeration, a material omission, or an outright lie on a résumé and how a tangled web concerning one's background can lead to career catastrophe.

Consider the case of the MIT dean whose career track was halted when her employer realized that she hadn't graduated from a single one of the three institutions from which she had claimed to have earned degrees. Or any one of a string of business executives who learned the hard way that faking their way is no way of making their way into executive management.

Just ask headhunter Jude Werra. The president of Brookfield (Wis.)-based Jude M. Werra & Associates has spent the better part of 25 years documenting executive résumé fraud, credentials inflation, and the misrepresentation of executive educational credentials. It's something that has kept Werra pretty busy over the years, given the prevalence of such management-level chicanery and the fact that so many ambitious and transition-minded individuals have convinced themselves that it's their credentials—real or otherwise—that matter most.

Stopping at Nothing to Get to the Top

Werra's semiannual barometer of executive résumé deception—his very own "Liars Index"—hit a five-year high, based on his review of résumés he received during the first half of 2007. He figures that about 16% of executive résumés contain false academic claims and/or material omissions relating to educational experience. That was up five percentage points from the levels he witnessed between July and December of last year.

And when you account for the fudging of claims of experience unrelated to academic degrees earned, it's easy to see why executive headhunters generally acknowledge that as many as one-third of management-level résumés contain errors, exaggerations, material omissions, and/or blatant falsehoods.

Some people will stop at almost nothing to get to where they want in their career. Still, Werra wonders why otherwise experienced executives would inflate their credentials or otherwise mislead with their résumé, in light of the potential career-ending consequences.

Checking References Isn't Enough

Given the alarming levels to which they do attempt to mislead, he constantly reminds hiring organizations that it's critical that they verify what they read on résumés, even at the executive level. What's even more alarming—and more prevalent than people falsifying their backgrounds and qualifications—is the number of hiring organizations who fail to conduct a rigorous background check on their new management recruits. Far too many organizations figure that checking a few references is enough.

And even the most thorough reference checks won't uncover false claims that predate those references' own professional interactions with the individual executive. It's quite possible that a fabrication of one's education, certifications, and experience is what got the executive his first management job many years ago, leaving the trail cold unless it's reopened during the course of a diligent background check.

When it comes to executive-level hiring that's going to cost the organization into the high six figures, at minimum, when you factor in headhunting fees, the new executive's salary, and benefits, it becomes a matter of caveat emptor.

Let the Hiring Company Beware

And while it may be tempting to believe that an executive recruiter will uncover any issues during the courtship process, it's ultimately up to the hiring organization to know exactly who it is that's being hired. Sure, misrepresentation will cost the unscrupulous executive, but it can also wreak havoc on a company's brand, workforce, and external relations teams.

Beyond the boundaries of checking claims made by an individual on his or her résumé, the hiring organization can trust that engaging the services of a professional background-screening consultant will pay off. These consultants often come with significant experience in law enforcement, and they can help uncover such things as criminal convictions, unpaid child support, and other hidden issues that should influence the hiring decision.

A thorough background check is an important insurance policy for the recruiting process, and headhunters will tell you that your organization risks getting burned if an executive it hires has, at any time in his or her past, decided to assume the risks of playing with fire.

Given the high cost of a bad executive hire, today's organizations simply can't afford not to do their homework.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.