Resume Fabrications Are on the Rise

A competitive market may lead to more fabrications by candidates. What can recruiters do?
By: | July 30, 2018 • 4 min read

A senior White House staffer made headlines earlier this year when he resigned after reporters discovered his actual work experience and education didn’t match what he’d listed on multiple resumes.

The case is just another reminder that candidates—even those applying for jobs at the highest levels of government—regularly misrepresent themselves on resumes, and those exaggerations can fall through the cracks during the hiring process.

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In fact, these fibs are on the rise. In the 2018 HireRight Employment Screening Benchmark Report, 84 percent of respondents said they’ve found a lie or misrepresentation on a resume or job application, up from 66 percent in six years before. That’s an increase of nearly 30 percent.

Most often, job seekers are lying about employment gaps, scrubbing breaks between jobs. Other common distortions include boosting their salary history to earn a higher paycheck, listing degrees that they haven’t earned because they’ve left fees unpaid or coursework uncompleted, and exaggerating their previous job titles and responsibilities.

These fabrications are easy to uncover during a thorough background screening. In 2017, HireRight’s Benchmark report found that 83 percent of employers said screenings revealed issues about a candidate that wouldn’t have been caught otherwise. Employers, however, still are skipping this essential step, leading to unqualified new hires and other risks.

Desperation In a Competitive Market

Why candidates lie about their skills or their experience depends on the job seeker and job market. A 2015 study in the Academy of Management Journal found that envy is one motivator, showing that job seekers were more likely to embellish a resume after comparing their job search to that of their peers, and to a greater extent when the job market is strong.

Low unemployment, which is hovering around 4.1 percent, could be another. Job hunters in today’s competitive job market know what busy hiring managers want to see and are looking for ways to rise to the top of the pile. They also often assume that employers aren’t verifying every detail in the dozens and even hundreds of resumes that they’re sorting through.

That’s one reason why diploma mills are thriving. Job hunters, desperate to boost their credentials, are listing bogus degrees from these fake institutions.

And many candidates who have grappled with unemployment sometimes try to hide job gaps that they think might turn employers off. In reality, employers understand that potential employees have faced job losses during their careers and, in general, accept breaks in employment. Even if the job gap isn’t a major concern, lying about the issue instead of proactively addressing the period of unemployment can reflect negatively on a candidate’s values and trustworthiness.

Room to Improve

Though employers face plenty of risk when they don’t properly vet job candidates, not all employers complete this critical task in the hiring process, leading to countless headlines and plenty of bad PR.

Executive-level scandals that have made headlines include a technology CEO, who was fired for lying about a computer science degree, and the chairman of a defense manufacturer, who resigned after it was revealed that he’d been in prison for an armed-robbery spree and attempted prison escape.

According to HireRight’s Benchmark report, only 51 percent of employers verify a job candidate’s education, 66 percent confirm a candidate’s identity and 73 percent corroborate their previous employment or references.

Bad PR, however, is just the beginning of the downsides for skipping a background check. Without thorough screenings, employers could be hiring job candidates who are unqualified and can’t do the job, potentially leading to higher rates of turnover.

Employees who’ve gotten away with lying on their resumes could feel emboldened to commit other types of fraud on the job. The lack of a consistent hiring process also could open up employers to claims of discriminatory hiring practices.

To uncover the rising number of resume fibs, hiring managers must take action, building robust background screening policies. Here are four best practices to uncover resume fabrications:

Start with their name and address: Always check an applicant’s identity. After all, if they’re fibbing about this very basic part of their application, there’s a good chance there could be misrepresentations elsewhere. A solid identity check can be completed by confirming a Social Security number, global passport or government-issued identification card.

Follow up on all education claims: Not all jobs require a degree, but many do. Yet, less than half of employers—51 percent, according to the Benchmark Report—check a candidate’s education credentials. So, even if a job seeker has worked for 20 years in an industry that requires a certain level of education, it’s a good idea to verify that they have actually earned the degrees listed on their resume. There’s a good chance that past employers never confirmed the person’s education history.

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Verify their employment history: A thorough employment history screening includes checking with past and current employers to authenticate a candidate’s work experience, work titles, salary and start and end dates.

Hire an expert: For busy hiring managers, conducting a comprehensive background check can be time consuming as they wait for call backs from university registrars about degrees or from previous employers about work history. Small companies without large HR departments, especially, are at risk because they have fewer people on staff. Background-screening experts do this work daily, using time-tested methodologies and long-time contacts to quickly determine if candidates are who they say they are.

There’s some good news on the horizon for candidates. Pay equity laws, which are becoming more prevalent across the United States, ban employers from asking job candidates about their prior salary. Job candidates simply won’t have the opportunity to lie about their past paychecks.

But there are still plenty of other fibs they could fit onto their resumes. It’s up to talent-acquisition managers to be on the lookout for them—and catch them—with thorough background screenings before a job offer is ever extended.

Catherine Aldrich is vice president of operations at background-screening company HireRight.