It’s a fundamental tension that pops up when you’re trying to paint your experience in the best light possible, but can’t truly claim much more than your basic experience with (for example) coding, French or copywriting.
But, there’s a clear line between self-promotion and falsehood as well as plenty of reasons why you should stay on the self-promotion side of the line.
As millennial job seekers, we have to tread carefully when we are writing descriptions of our experience.
Once upon a time, expounding upon the amazing professional experience you gained while managing a team at a company that doesn’t actually exist could have worked.
Today we have Google (and companies that outsource security and background checks). Keep the storytelling in check and just be straight up on your resume but also be conscious that you don’t undersell yourself just because you are worried about lying.
Resume writing is an art – you have to find a way to hit that sweet spot of marketing yourself, being unique, and staying truthful.
I’ll dig into this line between self-promotion and falsehood throughout this article.
Avoid the worst possible outcome
I should probably say “outcomes” because there are so many ways lying on your resume can go south. It can happen quickly or it can happen decades after your decision to lie, which leaves you answering for childish mistakes as an adult.
1. You are fired.
A quick Google search reveals some crazy horror stories about executives who have lost lucrative positions after they’d been discovered to have lied about their college experience.
That means someone who is miles away from the person when they were 21 years old has a horrible, life-ruining experience due to something they might not have thought through as a young professional.
2. You lose job potential opportunities.
Emily Yoffe, author of the “Dear Prudence” published a column titled “B.S.” a few years ago that perfectly exemplifies why you should color within the lines of the truth on a professional resume.
She responds to a mid-40s professional who has lied about her college degree on her resume for years. The professional is now exploring new opportunities. After a series of great interviews with a highly regarded company, she is met with radio silence.
Upon inquiry, she received an email from the company’s human resources department containing a link to an article about the importance of checking references.
The now mortified middle-aged professional asks, “Should I go to my employer and confess my false education history? I can’t afford to lose my job.”
The response from the author of the article is to “keep quiet and simply join the ranks of people with inflated résumés whose eyes pop open from guilt at 3 a.m. some nights.”
Yikes. No thank you!
What do you really accomplish by lying on your resume anyways?
Putting some over-embellishments and minor falsehoods on your professional documents won’t land you in the slammer or come back to haunt you when you are a 55 year old executive.
So why should you care if you have customized your resume?
3. Your reputation is ruined.
Your professional reputation is something that should be cherished. Once tarnished, you’ll be hard pressed to find a company that will want you. These days, unlike in decades (even just years) before, all potential hires are run through a security screening and resume crosscheck.
If you don’t pass, then the consequences can be minor (you just don’t get the job) to immense (the recruiter is so disgusted by your behavior, or the lie you told was so egregious that you are blacklisted. Perhaps the recruiter knows another recruiter (not a crazy thought) and you are royally screwed.
4. You make a fool out of yourself.
You’ve told potential employers that you have a business certification in French and Spanish. In reality, you have high school Spanish and a couple years of college in French.
What happens when you are in a Skype interview and killing it, then the last person is brought in to test your language skills?
This actually happened to me, and while I hadn’t lied about my French proficiency, I got so nervous that I bombed the simple question and the hiring managers were probably convinced I lied to get the interview. Due to this, I didn’t get the job.
5. You’ll waste time trying to cover up your lie.
You’ll end up spending time covering up your tracks or having to backtrack and explain why there is a discrepancy or flat out lie on your professional resume.
The same goes for a lie about your previous work experience. If you don’t have any leadership experience, you won’t gain much by making up an entirely new position or trying to fold in leadership experience where it doesn’t genuinely exist.
You’ll have to come up with unique anecdotes and stories to show interviewers of your skill set and chances are, it’ll be easy for the interviewer to spot your flimsy attempts at explaining how letting Meghan (or any colleagues you have) shadow you for one day last quarter counts as a formative leadership experience.
6. You’ll have to live with a career founded on a lie.
Forbes.com reported that the majority of resume lies have to do with education and credentials.
This was absolutely stunning to me… why would you lie about things that are easily crosschecked?
My parents raised me with a strict set of morals. I had a clear compass for what was “right” and “wrong”. As I grew up, as most kids do, I realized that there was subjectivity in the way my parents interpreted the world for me. But, by and large, right is right and wrong is wrong.
Yes, there is some wiggle room. Somebody who is destitute gets caught shoplifting bread and peanut butter? I have no right to judge that person.
But an entry level candicate gets caught lying on his resume about his qualifications and gets denied a position? Zero sympathy.
Your word means something. If you start out a career based on a lie and never get discovered, that is still a burden for you to bear morally.
If you aren’t bothered, you’ll still be left wondering when and how your secret might be discovered. Don’t put yourself in that position and don’t put your future employers into the position of having to dismiss you or potentially gain a bad rap from your decision to lie.
It’s one of the first lessons our parents teach us. Listen to them.
7. You WILL be background checked
We are in a different time than our parents. Employers will be doing their due diligence on you (with at least a basic background check) before any contracts are finalized.
That means that places you have worked, references you list, and your public social media profiles will be combed through, sometimes very thoroughly.
The world is huge, yes, but communities become much smaller as you delve into the professional world (and smaller yet with social media and the decreased cost of investigating candidates).
Having worked at a language services company, I quickly saw how small and incestuous the community of translation experts is. Everybody knows everybody.
Your resume is a document that is marketing you as a professional human being. Treat it like a business – your marketing can be great, but when the product is below the line, it won’t be long before your reputation precedes you.
8. You can ruin a company’s reputation
Companies do not want to risk to ridicule or damage their reputation that can be done by today’s click bait way of news delivery. That means human resources departments are being more careful than ever about who passes through a company’s front doors.
Now outside of the reputation risk, Companies typically hire HR people to make sure they are avoiding it. These people, make sure that applicant don’t bring in potential risk when they enter the company.
9. Everyone has failures or “less than perfect” experiences they want to cover up.
Just own it, a perfect score can also be a warning sign to hiring managers.
Being honest isn’t always the path of least resistance. It’ll take strength of character and bravery sometimes.
By the time we reach the age of offices and morning commutes, we all have a laundry list of “stuff” we’ve done. I mean mistakes and learning experiences that we feel make us less marketable than other candidates.
Let’s get a little heavy… maybe you took a year to recover from an eating disorder in your third year of college. Maybe you left school to try your hand at a career in music producing, but then returned when you realized that it wasn’t for you. Maybe you joined a sports team in college, participated in a few races, and then quit.
Don’t gloss over these things – perhaps not all of them will show up on a professional resume, but when you are explaining the gap in your experiences, be truthful.
When you are listing that sports experience, don’t make yourself out to be captain of the team when you really sat in the back the whole season or drove the van with all the bikes.
10. If you need to lie, you are probably not qualified for the job.
That isn’t always a bad thing! If I lied about having a law degree and was, by some miracle, able to B.S. my way through an interview, I could probably get a job as an investment banker.
Not only would that be bad for whatever law firm I end up working for, it would likely be miserable for me as well.
How to not lie on a resume…*HINT* it’s not hard
According to HireRight.com, a provider of on-demand employment background screening, approximately 34 percent of job applicants lie on resumes. That means if you have fudged the truth a bit already, you aren’t alone and you can (likely) still fix your mistakes from your resume without ruining your career.
Let’s get into how you can sell yourself and fully lean into your accomplishments and unique skills without lying on your resume about your history to gain traction in resume reviews.
Get help writing your resume
If you aren’t sure how to craft your professional resume without crossing a line, get help!
Go to your career center and chat with a career adviser. If you are out of college, hire a freelance career consultant or look into other options to work with a private consulting firm. If you can’t still afford those things, read some tips on how to write a resume to learn more about the basics.
Gain more experience
Another simple way to not put yourself in the position of having to lie about having a required certification or degree is to go back to school, study up, and gain the experience.
Put in the hard work and reap the benefits.