A little GPA padding. A slight fib on a job title. A clerical error on dates.
What might seem like innocuous tweaks or typos on a resume can compound themselves, creating a mess for the individual and company.
"As tempting as those things are to do, it will always come back to haunt you," said David Hoffmann, chairman and chief executive of Chicago-based executive search firm DHR International. "There is no room for embellishment."
Even high-level executives aren't immune. RadioShack CEO Dave Edmondson resigned in 2006 after acknowledging that he lied about academic degrees listed on his resume and on the company's website. Notre Dame football coach George O'Leary resigned in late 2001 after five days on the job when it came to light that he had falsified academic and athletic credentials. And on May 13, Scott Thompson, former chief executive of Yahoo Inc., stepped down after an activist shareholder flagged a discrepancy in Thompson's resume.
Recent Yahoo filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission said Thompson received undergraduate degrees in accounting and computer science from Stonehill College in Massachusetts. Turned out, he never took home a computer science degree, a claim that Yahoo called an "inadvertent error."
"The consequences are unbelievably significant." Hoffmann said, noting that companies often allow candidates to explain discrepancies. "If any of these [explanations] are a red flag, their candidacy goes away immediately because the available talent pool is pretty significant today. If they're not going to tell the truth about that, what else will they lie about?'
Hoffman's firm comes across about two embellished resumes a year, and places about 1,000 candidates annually.
"If we have to rescind an offer, it's mostly because of the education," said Marissa Martin, DHR International's vice president of global research, adding that it is more difficult for recruiters to check degrees overseas than in the United States. "They lie about completing their undergraduate degree. At the entry level, people lie about their GPAs all the time, but most places don't care about that stuff."
Mary Haskins has seen a similar trend. The regional vice president and career management practice leader at ManPower Group's Right Management said education, more specifically, completing a degree, is the most lied-about thing on resumes and yet "it's the easiest thing to verify." The next most prevalent resume embellishment is lying about years of service.
Catching fibbers has gotten easier in recent years, thanks to social media tools such as LinkedIn or Facebook that can be tapped to double-check information. Many employers today also use third-party vendors to conduct background checks.
Jay Colker, an organizational development consultant and professor at the Adler School of Professional Psychology in Chicago, said the added stress of searching for a job in a bad economy "challenges our value system or our way of thinking and brings the person more into crisis."
"There's a gray area where a job seeker can stretch and make an experience sound slightly broader," Colker said. "Within certain boundaries, we all try to put our best foot forward. If we have an ethics or value system that is more fluid, we are probably more likely in tough economic times to let situations justify our behavior."
Colker said those who embellish often believe that what they bring to the table is not good enough, that they have to make themselves be better. "Even someone who is quite accomplished might feel it's not enough."
Job seekers also might embellish their resume to become a better match for the organization, Colker said. But Scot Marcotte, managing director of talent and HR solutions for Buck Consultants in Chicago, advises that job seekers "showcase the unique."
"Too often we're guided by a cookie-cutter expectation of what we expect employers to want, and in reality, employers are looking for unique and different," Marcotte said. "But it presents that dilemma where you can't go over that line of dishonesty."
Resume padding probably starts early on in someone's career because they feel like they are in challenging situation to get a job, said Rob Pickell, chief marketing officer at HireRight, an Irvine, Calif.-based employment screening firm.
The embellishment sticks with them from job to job, and becomes reality, until someone uncovers it, he said. "The more substantial your experience, the less likely someone will question what degree you had 22 years ago," he said.