Here’s the situation: You’re ready to move on from your job and find another (or perhaps your first) CFO role. But the economy is tough, it seems impossible to get a job interview, and you start revamping your résumé. Maybe if you change a few words around, play up your experience with buzzwords and even fudge a few dates to cover that one termination, you’ll have a better chance of getting to the next round. That’s not really lying, and it’s likely no one (especially at a small company) will find out, right?
Wrong, executive recruiters say. Indeed, in a competitive job market, it may be even more important to be straightforward on your résumé, says Carolyn Leadbeater, executive recruiter at Canadian-based recruiting firm Quantum Management Services. “In this economy, you don’t have the luxury to take chances,” Leadbeater says. “If you have three candidates going into a job, as the hiring manager, you’re going to look for any reason to make your decision easier,” she says. “One person lied? Easy enough, drop him or her.”
And omissions, fudging and flat-out lies on résumés may be taken even more seriously at the senior level. “At the end of the day, lying is lying,” says Leadbeater. “But if you are a CFO, you’re supposed to be this figure of knowledge, power and importance — someone who is going to be making strategic decisions about money and the way the company works. And it’s like, if you thought it was OK to lie about this, what else do you think it’s OK to lie about?”
Even if you get through the interview process, you can still be fired later if someone finds out you lied on your résumé. Scott Thompson, the former CEO of Yahoo, was fired in 2012 once activist shareholders revealed that he had lied about receiving a computer science degree in college.
The problem is that many candidates don’t identify their own behavior as lying. Some think résumé fraud means making up a job or a title out of thin air, not, for example, saying you know how to use a software program that you haven’t touched in 25 years. In that way, aspiring CFOs may actually be sinking their chances of getting a job without knowing it. How can they avoid committing résumé fraud?
Don’t try too hard to be “buzzy.” One way candidates destroy their chances: they try too hard to be buzzy and they end up overselling themselves. Recently, for instance, recruiter Sandy Charet received a résumé that sent up some red flags. “I really had the feeling that [the candidate] went to the Internet to search ‘what are the good buzzwords to use in a résumé’ and just plugged them in,” Charet, who is president of her eponymous recruiting firm,says. For instance, the candidate said she “drove” company initiatives at one of her early jobs. “Maybe I’m being very picky, but what does that mean really?” she asks. “When I hear ‘drove,’ that means to me you were the leader and you made it happen. But it was the first job this person had after college. I doubt that she drove things.”
Often when using buzzwords, candidates exaggerate their role in a key initiative. One candidate took full credit for an accomplishment, but Charet later discovered that she worked on that project with a team. At the end of the day, every industry is small, and everyone knows each other, Charet says. Just as candidates should not burn bridges within the industry, they should not take credit for someone else’s work.
On the contrary, sharing the spotlight might gain a candidate some brownie points, she adds. “There’s nothing wrong with saying you ‘collaborated on’ something. I think people like that kind of attitude more than ‘I did this’ or ‘I did that,’” Charet says. “I’ve actually had clients say this person is not a team player, everything is ‘I, I, I.’ Some companies really like that you worked with a team.” Indeed, if you “helped,” “facilitated” or “co-captained” a project, don’t be afraid to say so. “Those little modifiers make all the difference in the world, and there’s no negative to using them,” Charet says.
Don’t make lies of omission. Other candidates will make seemingly subtle misstatements that come back to bite them. One of Charet’s senior-level recruits got through several rounds of interviews and to the offer stage before the company checked his college grade point average. His résumé overstated his GPA by a few tenths, and that discrepancy lost him the job. “My client said to me, ‘How could I in good conscience hire a person when I know he didn’t tell the truth or was careless with that number?”
“Someone might say they’re the CFO of a Fortune 500 company and it turns out they’re the CFO of a division of a Fortune 500 company,” says Jay Meschke, president at CBIZ Human Capital Services, an executive search firm. Since those are very different roles, a company would likely not hire that candidate, he says.
And sometimes, candidates will forget to take skills off their résumés that used to be true or they will add competencies that they think they have but don’t. For instance, some candidates will list social media as a skill, when they actually only know how to post photos of their cat on Facebook. “Social media is its own profession now, and sometimes people may not understand the difference,” Leadbeater says.
Don’t fudge job start and end dates. Leadbeater sometimes sees senior-level candidates who were laid off lie about when they left their jobs. “If you want to present your résumé as being better, maybe you fudge the months that you were laid off so it doesn’t look like as big of a gap,” Leadbeater says.
But eventually, people give themselves away, she says. “I’ve also seen people put the correct dates on their LinkedIn profile and the wrong dates on their résumé. That was a rookie mistake by a senior-level candidate.” And there are ways to find out whether someone still works at a company without alerting their boss, Leadbeater says. Some recruiters will call the company’s main desk and ask for a candidate without identifying themselves. In that way, they can find out discreetly whether the person still works there.
Mistakes like that will follow you around your entire career, Leadbeater says. “Let’s say that you fudged something 10 years ago. People don’t forget that sort of thing,” she says. “I had a very senior candidate and I sent him to one of my best clients. He lied to them about something on his résumé 15 years ago and they said they would absolutely not consider him at all. Your reputation is everything. If you lie, you’re just setting yourself up to fail.”
Leadbeater says candidates don’t necessarily make these omissions or false statements on purpose. “But at the end of the day, this is a representation of you to a certain company,” she says. “If you’re a CFO, you should know better. And if you’re looking to climb to that next level, you don’t get there by lying about what you’re capable of.”