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The fine line between self-promotion and lying

Many resumés not factually accurate

By Brian Kreissl

There have been a number of stories in recent years about people who have been fired for lying on their résumés. Most employment lawyers and HR practitioners agree this is a definite no-no and will frequently amount to just cause for dismissal.

The employment relationship requires trust, fidelity and good faith on the part of the employee. For that reason, a major misrepresentation of an individual’s background or experience can often support summary dismissal – sometimes even where the misrepresentation is discovered years later.

On the other hand, what about minor errors, omissions, oversights or slightly padding one’s accomplishments? Is that just cause for dismissal or some type of disciplinary sanction short of termination?

Depending on the situation, I would argue such minor peccadilloes are unlikely to be problematic and in many cases are to be expected. While including a non-existent master’s degree, falsified professional qualifications or a completely bogus job on one’s résumé are major misrepresentations and should not be tolerated, I believe employers realize there is a certain amount of “creative license” involved in crafting one’s résumé.

However, there is a fine line between exaggeration and lying, and in some situations stretching the truth could be considered misleading and unethical. But where do you draw the line?

The résumé as a marketing document

As most career counsellors will tell you, a résumé is a marketing document. Therefore, people use it to promote themselves, and they tend to leave out unflattering or irrelevant information that doesn’t support their candidacy for the job they’re applying for. After all, the word “résumé” is French for “summary,” and it isn’t supposed to be a complete biography of the individual.

It’s also true that employers these days generally look for extremely focused candidates who are excited about the role and the organization in question. Because of that, including details about an irrelevant job or educational qualification is likely to turn many recruiters and hiring managers off. Therefore, people will often create multiple versions of their résumés for applying to different types of vacancies.

For example, without lying or even stretching the truth I could quite legitimately create different versions of my résumé that position me as an HR practitioner, product manager, writer, editor, marketing professional, business analyst or general manager. I don’t think there is anything unethical about having different versions of the truth that highlight different aspects of one’s background and accomplishments (although people who do this can sometimes run into problems if their résumé doesn’t match their LinkedIn profile, for example).

Many résumés not completely accurate

Aside from challenges faced by those with multiple résumés and career interests, many résumés aren’t 100 per cent factually accurate, and some include minor exaggerations, half-truths or omissions. Some examples of this type of thing are as follows:

  • Leaving off an irrelevant educational qualification or one that makes the candidate appear overqualified.
  • Excluding a job the candidate held for a very short period of time – particularly where things didn’t work out.
  • Changing a job title to something more traditional or recognizable.
  • Removing graduation dates to avoid giving away the candidate’s age.
  • Using a functional résumé as opposed to the more traditional chronological format.
  • Exaggerating job accomplishments or one’s own role on a project team.
  • Entering inexact names of educational qualifications using a drop-down menu in an applicant tracking system.

While I personally believe honesty is always the best policy – and a résumé should tell a story and explain a candidate’s journey to her current or most recent position – I believe the above minor transgressions can be excused in at least some situations. However, it remains a question of degree, and someone who leaves important information off of their résumé should be prepared to answer questions about such omissions in an interview.

Employers can help protect themselves by conducting proper background and reference checks and verifying educational and professional qualifications. They should be prepared to ask probing questions during interviews to ascertain if candidates are telling the truth or leaving anything out.

It’s also a good idea to have a statement in job application forms and policies stipulating that knowingly misrepresenting one’s education or experience will give rise to disciplinary sanctions, up to and including termination of employment. However, employers also need to be reasonable and understand that résumés generally include a certain amount of "puffery."

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Brian Kreissl

Brian Kreissl is the product development manager for Thomson Reuters Legal Canada's human resources, OH&S, payroll and records retention products and solutions.
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