To Tell the Truth: Tales on Catching Tall Tales on Résumés

Talk about a foot-in-the-door fault.

For one recruiter, the worst fib he ever heard during an interview was that a job candidate had been pursuing a professional tennis career during an extended period of unemployment. While that claim might have gone unquestioned by some recruiters, it didn’t get past Daryl Pigat, a recruiter for Robert Half International Inc., who happens to know his tennis.

Game. Set. Match.

Pigat, who has been recruiting for 10 years, said that he hears a lot of heartfelt explanations for extended periods of unemployment, but that applicants are often unable to back their claims up with references or basic facts from their experience.

Social media accounts, Googling and background checks are common ways to check out someone’s story, but what about the red flags that aren’t so easy to check? Pigat and many other recruiters often turn to references as a valuable resource for double-checking applicants’ claims.

“If someone misses a year of employment and says that they were taking care of a family member, see if their references corroborate it or at least doesn’t refute it, and that’s half the battle,” Pigat said.

A bad hire is extremely costly especially for executives and other high-level professionals, said Witt/Kieffer President and CEO Charles Wardell III. It really pays for companies to seek out and speak with various professional and personal references.

Why are double-checking and even triple-checking résumés so important? Fifty-eight percent of employers have caught job applicants embellishing their résumés, according to a recent CareerBuilder survey. In addition, the recent economic downtown has reportedly led to an increase in embellishments.

Job recruiters are responding by staying on top of their game and taking more time to review résumés. The survey estimates that the time spent on résumés is up 33 percent from last December.

Too Good To Be True?

So what are some of the biggest red flags that recruiters check?

First of all, the adage “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is” applies. Wardell believes that search consultants eventually develop a sixth sense about candidates during the interview process and know which embellishments to probe deeper.

“These aren’t always outright lies, but embellishing one’s qualifications beyond what is reasonable speaks to one’s character and is a red flag for recruiters,” Wardell said.

Pigat said vague claims about past experience are common. “They might talk about ‘exponential growth’ or being a ‘top producer,’ so we ask how were these numbers measured? What were their growth figures over a year?” said Pigat, offering examples of the kinds of questions that recruiters use to look more closely into applicants’ claims.

Recruiters also pay close attention to any dates that seem off or gaps in employment.

“When we ask about a gap in unemployment, for the most part, they’re fine with letting us know that somebody became ill in their family or maybe they just lost their previous position and haven’t really found a job since then,” said Zappos.com recruiter Christina Bates.

Many companies also seem to think that it’s a lot easier to write fiction in a résumé or cover letter than it is to speak it. Zappos.com, for example, has a lengthy process to ensure that candidates aren’t just putting their best faces forward for one Skype or phone interview. The last step of the online retailer’s interview process is to invite finalists for a few days of on-site interviews where recruiters can truly assess candidates’ characters.

Wardell said that one of the strangest things to come out about a job candidate was that the candidate who was about to be announced as the CEO of a major corporation was discovered to have a wife and two children in California and a wife and two children in Connecticut.

For Educational Purposes

It’s also not uncommon for job candidates to try to fake educational degrees.

A candidate for the board of a major U.S. corporation claimed to have undergraduate, master’s and Ph.D. degrees from a well-known university, Wardell said. “After a rather cantankerous correspondence back and forth with the university claiming that was not true, the candidate brought in his degrees to our office to show us, claiming that there was a big mistake. It was later discovered, however, that all those degrees were in fact forgeries.”

That’s why recruiters like Bates encourage employees to have an honest and open conversation about experience and employment gaps with would-be employers, especially as résumés and cover letters are often first impressions. “Given that we’ve been through the economic downturn and everyone sees things a little differently, the honesty and integrity factor is paramount,” Pigat said, echoing the point. Employers are oftentimes understanding about gaps in employment and are open to meeting clients who have been out of a job for a while.

On the other hand, a little more than half of employers surveyed by CareerBuilder said they would dismiss a candidate who is found to be dishonest. 

Wardell said that, in one case, an embellishment cost an applicant a job.

“We had placed a very senior person in a very senior job in a major American corporation,” Wardell said. “The candidate had not gone to the one specific prestigious school he stated that he did go to, but had gone to another quality school, just one less prestigious. He actually would have been hired anyway, but it was the fact that he lied that he wasn’t.”

Employers recruiting for new talent should ask about and double-check statements not directly backed up by facts as well as any claims that seem dubious. It’s a win-win. The way that job hopefuls respond to these extra questions can either give recruiters some valuable concrete examples about applicants’ past experiences or alert them to the fact that there was fact-fudging involved.

In other words: The ball's in their court.

This story originally appeared in Talent Management's sister publication, Workforce.