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.

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