Monthly Archives: July 2012

Résumé Fraud: From the Mailroom to the Boardroom

What do former Yahoo CEO Scott Thompson, former Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Patrick Couwenberg, former Cabot Electronics CIO James DeHoniesto, and former RadioShack CEO David Edmondson have in common? They all had fraudulent information on their résumés that helped them reach their executive positions.  Thompson, DeHoniesto, and Edmondson all resigned after being found out; in Couwenberg’s case, he was removed from the bench after lengthy public hearings. Other high-level executives caught with fraudulent information on their résumés include former Etsy CEO Rob Kalin, former MIT admissions dean Marilee Jones, former Bausch & Lomb CEO Ronald Zarrella, former Notre Dame head coach George O’Leary, former Homeland Security senior director Laura Callahan, former U.S. Olympic Committee head Sandra Baldwin, former Sunbeam CEO Al Dunlap, and former CEO and President of Lotus Corporation Jeff Papows.

Are these highly publicized cases of résumé fraud the tip of the iceberg, or are they just isolated instances of high profile executives?

According to Marquet International  LTD., a firm that vets corporate executives and conducts extensive due diligence investigations of corporate directors and management teams, they see an “astonishing” amount of résumé fraud in the course of their executive vetting and investigations. “Academic résumé fraud has increased between 20 and 30 percent over the past five decades,” says Peter Levine, a background investigator. According to Marquet International CEO Christopher Marquet, “When executive lies go unchecked, an organization can be tremendously damaged and embarrassed by negative press, lost revenue, loss of reputation, and plunging stock prices.” One consulting firm in New York City reported that more than half of the high-tech résumés in their database had employment histories that were misrepresented. Executive search firm CTPartners found that 64 percent of candidates overstate their accomplishments, while 71 percent misrepresent the number of years in a particular position with an employer. Most of the time, however, people augment a title or salary figure in the hopes of negotiating a better compensation package.

Such in-depth executive vetting and background checks can be expensive—anywhere from $5,000 to $20,000 according to the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners. But many times, a simple phone call to a candidate’s alma mater can confirm a claimed degree, or to a former employer to verify a title, responsibilities, or claimed accomplishments. Too often, hiring managers or a board of directors may be so impressed with a candidate’s résumé they get “schmoozed” and fail to perform the due diligence so necessary today, particularly with candidates claiming education, degrees, and experience from overseas.

My list of common résumé “embellishments” seen over my 25 years experience is pretty much the same as what’s being reported by other companies and research. Here are Marquet International’s ten most common résumé fabrications based on their experience (which parallels my own) and both our suggestions for addressing them.

  1. Stretching employment dates to cover gaps in employment. This is easy enough to verify by calling the former employer to verify the dates.
  2. Inflating achievements, professional skills, computer software knowledge, foreign language proficiency. This claimed knowledge is sometimes more difficult to assess and verify during the screening portion of the hiring process. Testing is possible during interviews and using situational and behavioral interviewing techniques can help. However, I have never been tested about the claim on my résumé to possess “conversational” level proficiency in Spanish, which I have.
  3. Enhancing job titles and responsibilities. This too is a common résumé enhancement; again, a phone call to a former employer can validate any claimed job title and duties.
  4. Exaggerating education and bogus degrees.  Another familiar embellishment, seen often with highly publicized cases involving executives. In my experience, I mostly have encountered detailed listings of academic and professional courses as attempts to defect attention away from the fact that a candidate does not meet the education prerequisite as set by an employer. In addition, the National Student Clearinghouse (www.studentclearinghouse.org) can help with verifying education credentials.
  5. Unexplained employment gaps and periods of self-employment. There’s nothing wrong with gaps in employment so long as the gap can be explained, such as time off for raising a family or returning to school for an advanced degree; but “serving 5 to 10 in San Quentin for grand larceny” should raise a flag. Self-employment isn’t a sin—I was self-employed for several years after a layoff and it was a legitimate period of time working for myself for clients.
  6. Omitting past employment. I’ve seen a few instances whereby an employment date was extended at one employer to cover the dates from a subsequent position where the employee was fired for some offense or unwarranted behavior. When employment dates are stretched on purpose, it’s usually to conceal something.
  7. Bogus or outdated credentials. In a previous post, I touted the value of credentials and professional designations to help in career advancement. A 2001 ADP study revealed that 23 percent of applicants falsified certifications and licenses on their résumés. All it takes is a phone call to the credentialing organization to verify the candidate holds the designation and is in good standing without censure or other disciplinary actions.
  8. Phony reasons for leaving a previous position. A recent study by HireRight reports that 11 percent of applicants misrepresent the reason for leaving a previous job. A phone call to a previous employer verifies any claims for leaving the employ of that entity. If an employee is not eligible for rehire, then prudence dictates passing on the candidate.
  9. Providing fraudulent references. I have encountered applicants who provided their best friends as references—complete with bogus titles and sometimes phony company names. Rather than call the phone number provided with the reference, HR often used search engines to locate the company’s primary phone number and start the reference checking from that end.
  10. Misrepresenting military service.  Verifying military service can be difficult and time consuming. The National Personnel Records Center (http://www.archives.gov/st-louis) is the central repository of personnel-related records for both the military and civil services of the United States Government. Given the time required to obtain verification, employment offers should be made contingent upon verification of military service records.

A thorough background check for potential hires involves more than searching on Google for any negative information. Due diligence for high-dollar executive-level positions demands reviewing criminal records, regulatory measures, civil lawsuits, bankruptcy filings, and media coverage to avoid costly discovery after the fact that your CEO was once involved with smuggling weapons into a foreign country.

Is "Expert Knowledge" an Endangered Functional Expertise?

The recent mystery illness in Cambodia that was killing young children and making many more very ill was a mystery to virus and bacteria researchers around the world. They theorized new or mutated strains of known pathegens were the culprit, but little progress was being made on finding the source of the illness. It took several doctors along with CNN’s medical correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, to step back from the microscopes for a larger view of the problem. They noted that whenever steriods were administered to the sick children, their conditions worsened, with many of the children dying. The correlation seemed obvious. A bold decision was made to withhold treatment using steriods (which suppressed the immune system), the children began to improve, and death rates dropped.

As society clamors for more professionals with “domain expertise,” an article in the Harvard Business Review by Vikram Mansharamani issues a warning that “the future may belong to the generalist.” The author claims that the oversupply of niche experts has left us with professionals who fail to see the big picture or how several smaller pictures work together. The narrow niche focus is seen mostly in finance, law, medicine, and academia and is perceived as a hindrance to a highly integrated global economy where seemingly disparate developments can echo in surprisingly novel ways. Zooming out for a wider perspective helps determine developing connections or the potential for the unique combinations. Mansharamani cites how efficient-market proponents like Alan Greenspan and others were so focused on the hypothesis before 2008 that they missed the pre-recession credit bubble. Evidently, laser-tuned expertise can create a myopic view that blinds one to developments that may demand an adjustment in perspective, based on a study of 284 professional forecasters whose predictions were more accurate outside their specialized field of expertise than within it.

Mansharamani concludes that forward-looking companies are starting to encourage employees to obtain “a diversity of geographic and functional experiences” for an environment that demands breadth of knowledge more so than depth of knowledge. As I detail in Confessions of a Hiring Manager Rev. 2.0 (Second Edition), workers in all professions and fields must be able to understand how day-to-day skillsets contribute toward core competencies (we all have more than one core competency). Several core competencies contribute to a functional expertise that can lead to competitive advantages not only for the individual, but for the company as well. Competitive advantages can also create for a company a market dominance when sustained over time.

While domain expertise contributes to the solutions of many problems and answers to many questions, the ability to pull back and question assumptions–and look for the other right answers oftentimes is the more prudent path to pursue.

Making the Career Jump from the Public Sector to the Private Sector

When I left the employ of the Federal government in 1980 after three years with the U.S. Department of Commerce-NOAA, I had no problem getting interviews and many job offers from major oil companies who were desperate for experienced geologists.

It’s a different environment today for public sector employees who want to transition to the private sector. In many areas, how government works is different from how businesses work, and the cultural shift necessary for that transition to be successful can be a stumbling block for some. This paradigm change requires the necessary time and commitment to grasp how business processes are integrated both vertically and horizontally and how they all work together to generate revenue and profit (˝meeting the numbers˝).

The good news is that since 9/11, many Federal government agencies have embraced the idea of horizontal integration, getting further away from rigid ˝silo˝ mentalities and segmented (in serial fashion rather than in parallel) responses to changing conditions. Dynamic exchanges and collaborative processes between agencies fosters cooperation that mitigates risk and threats, and can take advantage of opportunity more quickly. Such a shift in how government operates closes the gap that has made the public-sector-to-private-sector transition more problematic in the past.

OK, let’s hone in on some practical advice for making the jump to the private sector. First on the agenda: your résumé. To be clear, unless you’re applying for a fellowship or large grant, or an academic, research, or scientific position at the Ph.D. level–all of which demand a curriculum vitae (CV)–you use a résumé.  A résumé is a one- or two-page summary of your skills, experience, accomplishments, and education, and is short on duties and responsibilities. While a résumé is brief and concise–no more than a page or two, a curriculum vitae is a longer (at least two pages and usually many more) with additional detailed information. Too many online job banks and job web sites confuse the two documents and their purposes, so beware.

I’ve seen some of the forms the government forces upon workers to document every event of their professional work lives, and to be honest, that level of detail just won’t get the attention of a hiring manager. You have to boil it down to the major accomplishments, skills, and experience and leave the details for another time (such as the interview and the post-interview ˝Continuous Promotion Approach˝ I detail in Confessions of a Hiring Manager Rev. 2.0). You have to understand and be comfortable with the idea that the hiring process is a staged release of information that provides more detail as you move forward in the process; it’s not a document dump at your first opportunity.

Next in your approach is to determine which skills, knowledge, and expertise can transfer from the public sector to the private sector. All of that can be dropped into five different buckets:

  • Technical abilities/problem solving
  • Leadership/Relationship building
  • Communication clarity
  • Ability to influence people and projects
  • Business knowledge

Depending on your present position, duties, and responsibilities, some of these transferable skills categories may already be in good shape. For individuals exiting the military and seeking jobs in the private sector, communication clarity is typically one that needs much work. With the possible exception of the high-technology field, most business and interpersonal communication in a business environment does not revolve around obscure acronyms, abbreviations, initialisms, or phraseology (˝that’s a five by five˝). The language style in your cover letter and on your résumé must reflect that of the private sector hiring manager. Why risk losing his or her interest and attention with arcane terminology?

Another big problem for people transitioning from the public sector to the private sector (especially the military) is with relating job functions and accomplishments. Too many of those résumés list duties and responsibilities. What a hiring manager is interested in are accomplishments. You can see the bigger picture of a duty or responsibility by asking: ˝…and this duty resulted in…what? ˝ Your résumé must rise above the daily task list and enter the realm of accomplishments. For example, ˝Maintained several Abrams M1A1 tanks˝ then becomes ˝Maintained three of state-of-the-art Abrams M1A1 armored vehicles valued at $13M with XXX hours MTBF (mean time between failure) for a 92% uptime efficiency rating. ˝ Now THAT’s an accomplishment.

Another way to speak the language of the private sector hiring manager is to see how a particular skill set involves several individual skills. Several skills sets contribute to what is called a ˝core competency˝ (which is a combination of skill, knowledge, and expertise) which fulfills three important criteria:

  1. It is difficult for a competitor to imitate (unique skills, knowledge, experience)
  2. It can be repurposed for other products or markets (multiple application)
  3. It contributes to end user’s experienced benefits (it adds value to product/service)

Several core competencies contribute to what is called a ˝functional expertise˝ which is simply a higher level of integrated skills, knowledge, and expertise that work together. A functional expertise also reflects a career-long exposure to a particular job or functional area. Employees with high levels of functional expertise can create a competitive advantage or market dominance for an individual or company in the private sector. See the figure below for an illustration of this concept.

How skill sets make up a core competency; how core competencies make up a functional expertise, and how they all contribute to competitive advantage

To sum up:

  1. Lose the jargon and unfamiliar terminology in your cover letter and résumé.
  2. Categorize your transferable skills using the 5 buckets (quantify accomplishments whenever possible to speak to the hiring manager’s needs).
  3. Think transferable Skill Set –>Core Competency –>Functional Expertise.
  4. Think résumé, not CV; the hiring process involves a staged release of information; extend it past the interview stage by using the ˝Continuous Promotion Approach.˝