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Falsifying credentials to get ahead

J Lo movie highlights the dangers of lying on your resumé
Cast members Jennifer Lopez (L) and Leah Remini pose at a photo call for the film "Second Act" in Los Angeles, Calif., on Dec. 9, 2018. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

By Brian Kreissl

For my first post of 2019, I thought I would discuss a movie I went to see over the Holidays. Second Act, starring Jennifer Lopez, is about a supermarket assistant manager, Maya Vargas, who is passed over for a promotion due to her lack of college degree.

When her friend’s son creates a fake social media profile and resumé for her (complete with an Ivy League education and MBA degree) and applies, without her knowledge, for a job on her behalf as a consultant with a cosmetics company, Maya is called in for an interview for a consultant position.

She goes on the interview anyway, despite the deception. When Maya actually lands the job, she decides against coming clean and admitting to her new boss that her application was all a lie.

We are obviously supposed to feel empathy for Maya because she wasn’t the author of the deception (although she doesn’t admit to it either and continues with the lie). She also seems to have sufficient knowledge to do the job and comes up with several good ideas, including an idea for a new organic skincare product.

After she is hired on full-time when she wins a new product development competition against the boss’s daughter, Maya eventually admits to the deception. We also find out that the boss’s daughter (Vanessa Hudgens) is Maya’s long-lost daughter she gave up for adoption as a teenage mother, thus adding to the deception. Around the same time, Maya’s boyfriend breaks up with her largely because she wasn’t honest with him about her daughter.

While the film isn’t likely to win any Oscars, it was cute and funny, and it deals with at least three issues that are relevant to HR professionals. The most obvious issue is falsified credentials, but the film also deals with issues surrounding unreasonable degree requirements and barriers relating to social class in the workplace.

Falsified qualifications and experience

As most employment lawyers will tell you, including falsified educational qualifications or non-existent jobs on your resumé is often grounds for termination with cause, even if discovered years after the fact. According to some estimates, over 50 per cent of people lie on their resumés.

That figure seems astounding, although some of that “dishonesty” is likely just self-promotion, but HR practitioners should be wary of this issue and conduct proper reference, background and educational verification checks before extending an unconditional offer to candidates.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, there is a fine line between self-promotion and creative licence on one hand and actually lying in an application on the other.

While we are supposed to feel a certain amount of empathy for Maya due to her situation and the fact she wasn’t the one who actually submitted the application — and she does eventually come clean about the deception — in the end, the film doesn’t completely sugarcoat the seriousness of lying on your resumé. Maya does do the right thing in resigning her position (very publicly during a new product launch celebration), but she ends up landing on her feet at the end of the movie by starting her own business.

Despite the fact Maya is a sympathetic and likeable character who eventually does the right thing, I worry about the message films like this send out to the general public. Do people think this sort of dishonesty is acceptable? Do they believe dishonesty can be excused due to employers’ increasingly strict job requirements?

Degree requirements and social class distinctions

While outright dishonesty is never acceptable, there is no doubt some employers’ degree requirements for certain positions are overkill. Other than in licensed professions where a specific degree is an absolute requirement, I believe extensive experience, accomplishments and learning and development on the job should often make up for a candidate’s lack of formal education.

I also believe it’s often possible for employers to provide targeted training and development to promising candidates without a degree. This can even take the form of executive presence training where social class may be a barrier to advancement.

One of the comments Maya makes in the film relates to people with “fancy degrees” who climb Mount Kilimanjaro and name their children after fruit. Insisting on hiring only those types of people for leadership roles is classist, doesn’t value diversity and inclusion and artificially narrows the pool of talent.

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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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