But job seekers who stretch the truth are playing an ever riskier game, according to Dennis Nason, CEO of the recruiting firm Nason & Nason. "Background checks are much easier now," he says. "It's all pretty open on the Internet." And many companies and recruiters now employ background-check providers who specialize in sniffing out untruths.
The gray area between
fact and fiction
Almost all career experts advise job seekers to customize their resumes to individual jobs they apply for. So where's the line between self-promotion and falsehood? Some experts say it can be hard to define. Tim McIntyre, president and CEO of The Executive Search Group explains, "The dictionary says that 'embellish' means 'to make beautiful,' which is when a candidate is great at self-promotion. The difference between that and a damaging lie varies by industry and profession."
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For instance, financial executives are subject to more-intense scrutiny than many people going into entry-level positions that don't involve money.
But at any point in your career, stretching the truth is risky--especially on official job applications. Brad Karsh, president and founder of JobBound, doesn't see a gray area at all: "Any uncovered fib is liable to severely damage your reputation in the workplace."
Just the facts
According to Forbes.com, some of the most common resume lies are about education, employment dates, job titles, and technical skills. And these are the same resume areas that, if you fudge them, can cause problems--the Internet has made it much easier to verify a person's claims about education, for instance.
And Nason notes that firms like his are sleuthing far beyond a candidate's given references to corroborate his or her claims--for instance, finding and contacting the candidate's former colleagues via LinkedIn.
Career expert Liz Ryan says, "People think that they can make up and embellish details about companies that have been sold or gone out of business. But LinkedIn, Facebook, and our wide-ranging networks will put a quick stop to most efforts to change history in our favor."
Truth or consequences
And even if false credentials get you the job, those untruths may come back to haunt you.
"You're subject to immediate dismissal if it turns out you misrepresented something," says Nason.
If your company is acquired, for instance, the acquirer's HR department may perform an audit of its new employees. Or your background may be checked when you apply for a promotion. Former Notre Dame football coach George O'Leary and celebrity chef Robert Irvine are just two of the people who've made news in recent years when false background information cost them high-profile jobs.
Keeping it real
Career experts have practical advice on how to truthfully deal with some of the problems that may cause people to lie--follow it, and you'll be able to sleep more easily at night.
1. Gaps of unemployment: Just because you weren't getting paid for something doesn't mean you weren't being productive and gaining skills. If you volunteered or worked on your own projects, say, you should speak to those things on your resume, in a cover letter, or in an interview.
2. Misrepresentative titles: "Job seekers need to lay claim to projects and results that may not have been in their formal job descriptions," says Ryan. "Here's an example. An office manager I know took on HR in her company after the HR coordinator left. The office manager's title was never changed, but she took on responsibility for payroll, benefits, and so on. She put all of that on her resume, and changed her title to 'Office Manager (with HR responsibilities).' That's a perfectly good way for her to brand herself, because she hasn't changed the title to something her old employer wouldn't recognize or support."
3. Past salaries: Ryan also has advice on how to deal with discussing a past salary you feel was too low--for more on handling salary-history questions, see her column "Passing the 'Salary History' Test."
4. Skills: If you're tempted to lie about having a technical skill, for instance, the right thing to do is clear: gain that skill by enrolling in a class (or committing to learning it on your own). Then you'll be able to truthfully explain to potential employers that you're working on getting up-to-speed in that area.
Want to read some real-life resume lies--some resume whoppers, in fact? Check out "Outrageous Job-Seeker Lies."