Job Hunting

To Tell the Truth

For finance executives, the price of lying and making errors on résumés or in interviews is higher than it is for others. Experts offer tips on how...
Roy HarrisNovember 21, 2007

The shock of the five-year-old Kenneth Lonchar résumé scandal reverberated again a few months ago, when the once-celebrated former Veritas Software CFO and four other ex-executives were charged with filing false financial statements for Veritas — the Latin word, of course, for truth.

In that more-recent case, the Securities and Exchange Commission alleged that Lonchar and the others were responsible for filing false and misleading financial statements from 2000 to 2002. (Lonchar’s attorney maintained at the time that her client had acted in good faith, and objected that the SEC’s charges “lack foundation.”)

But among recruiters and career counselors who specialize in finance executives, Lonchar is remembered more for his boldness in trying to slip a phony Stanford University MBA credential past the system — and getting away with it, at least for a time.

“With most finance executives, you find high ethics, terrific integrity. They’re good people,” says Seattle-based career adviser Robin Ryan, who has worked with CPA societies for years and counts finance executives as about a third of her current client base. “But when you get the bad apple, they’re the bad apple in a big way.”

Ryan, who was stunned by an HR Magazine report showing that 44 percent and 41 percent of applicants lie about their work history or education, respectively, with 23 percent falsifying a credential, doesn’t think the numbers are nearly as high among finance employees. Indeed, she says, “the biggest mistake I see for CFOs is that their résumés sound like a job description; like they’ve accomplished nothing on their own. Most of them are not very good at selling themselves.”

Still, she’s seen more than a few instances of finance executives whose curricula vitae show CPA credentials that aren’t valid, a long-ago stint with an accounting firm that didn’t really employ them, or perhaps an executive MBA certificate that’s being passed off as a full-time MBA degree. “I’m sure that there are CFOs out there that if we said, ‘We’re going to examine your résumé,’ would want to go back and make some changes.”

And any mistake, even an innocent one, “is certainly a heavier burden for CFOs and controllers when it comes to a job interview,” says Walter Williams, a partner at the executive-recruitment firm Battalia Winston International. “They’re expected to tell it like it is.”

With that caution in mind, Williams and Ryan offer some thoughts on how to prepare a clean résumé — and how to spot finance executives who might be trying to pull a fast one when they apply for a job.

The Return of the Long-Ago Lie

When there is deceit in finance employees’ claims, “it’s almost always a lie that people fabricated early in their career, and they never fixed it,” says Ryan. “They ‘improved’ the college that they went to, or the degree that they got.” In competing with other strong candidates, these executives might have found that a CPA was a valuable commodity — and claimed that certification when they didn’t have it. Or, if an older applicant says he worked for “Ernst & Whinney 30 years ago,” Ryan notes, he might figure that the current prospective employer might not check.

But more and more, as lying on credentials becomes a hot topic in business, companies are checking. “They’re going to try to validate what they can. They’ll check with the CPA society, or with past employers,” says Ryan. “There’s a lot more scrutiny, and a lot less acceptance.”

“It’s seldom outright lies that we see; it’s more a case of omissions,” adds Williams. “The omissions often relate to the periods of time they worked at a place. There often are gaps that show up. People don’t want to explain what they were doing for the nine months in between jobs,” so they either change the dates or leave a hole.

In addition to being deceptive, leaving out experience “between jobs” can keep you from exploiting something that can set you apart in a positive way, notes Williams. “Usually, there’s a good story there” that may show an applicant’s diverse interests, “and it can be a great enhancement to their career.”

It’s become more common for older executives, especially, to exclude the degree year in a résumé as a way of withholding their age. That gives Williams great pause. “Age is a big omission, and one that a candidate simply shouldn’t do. The reality is we’re going to figure out your age sooner or later,” he notes.

What missing dates also suggest to interviewers is that there may not be a degree, even though it is claimed or implied in the application. “Typically, if I get a résumé that says there’s an MBA, but without a school or a year, I get suspicious,” the recruiter says. “Often it turns out to be an executive MBA rather than a regular MBA. We want to know if you were full-time, and if there’s a degree rather than a certificate, along with where it came from.” Sometimes, he adds, the absence of a date hides an incompletion. “He’ll end up finally saying that he completed 90 percent of the courses, but never finished his thesis,” for example.

Signs a Candidate Is Deceiving You

For the CFO who’s doing the interviewing, beware the candidate who doesn’t remember a degree date when you ask for it. “Inconsistencies in an application are tip-offs, but so are hesitations. If they say right away they graduated in 1975, you’re probably okay. But when they have trouble remembering when they got the degree, that raises red flags,” says Williams.

Ryan thinks many CFOs are too confident about their ability to detect deceptions. “They think they can spot a liar miles away. That’s incorrect,” she says. “Most liars are very accomplished, and they’ve learned to imbed the deception in their résumés. That’s one reason why you’re seeing more questions being asked by HR people, going back to previous employers and schools, to make sure they have correct dates.”

Williams compares fraud in job applications to the padding of numbers that corporate departments sometimes do. “You put as many controls in place as you can, but if someone creates false invoices, that’s hard to catch,” he says. In interviews, too, “it’s hard to protect yourself against outright fraud. If someone says they worked at XYZ Corp. from 1982 to 1984, when they were really back heliskiing in Montana for a year-and-a-half, can you detect it? No.”

But fortunately, taking a broader look at the applicant and the application can help you spot lies. “There are usually other inconsistencies: holes in a résumé, years left off. You begin to see a pattern that things are not all that they appear to be.”

Coming Clean

For the unfortunate finance executive living with his or her own lie — an inaccuracy in an old résumé, for example — Ryan and Williams agree that the choice is clear: fess up.

“Change the résumé, no question,” says Williams. It may be embarrassing, “but in the case of the fellow from Veritas, when he saw it in a press release, he should have contacted the PR office immediately and said, ‘No, I attended Stanford but didn’t complete my MBA.’ If you proactively go back and correct an error,” says Williams, “that goes a long way to mitigating it.”

“Every time you start to job hunt,” adds Ryan, “you have an opportunity to correct the lies.”