Lying On a Resume–Justified or Not?

Dear Dr. Hurd: I have been unemployed for four years as a result of a combination of abnormal circumstance (a health problem in conjunction with the depressed economy). As the length of time that I’ve been unemployed increases, my odds of finding a job seem to decrease, trapping me in a death spiral of chronic unemployment. A relative who is a small business owner has offered to compose a fake resume and provide a fake reference stating that I’ve been working for her during all the years that I’ve been unemployed. I do not believe that I can accept this offer since I would be lying to prospective employers to trick them into giving me a job that they would not give me otherwise. Do you agree? Is there any circumstance under which I can justify taking such an offer?

Dr. Hurd’s reply: Let’s walk through what would happen, if you took such an offer.

You lie on your resume. And then you’re hired, based on those lies. Immediately, you have a double burden in the new job. One, you have to prove yourself in the new job, as would be the case in any new job. Two, you have to maintain the lie. You have to remember that there are, in a sense, “two realities.” One is the truth, and the other is the truth as you presented it. You must never slip up and forget both of these. In addition to doing the job well, you have to do a good job of preserving the fraud.

Depending on what you lied about, you’ll have to go out of your way to avoid situations in which the lie might be exposed. For example, if you said you had a college or Master’s degree when in fact you don’t, you’d have to avoid all discussions about your college years. If such discussion was unavoidable, you’d have to be prepared to make things up. Did you live in a dorm or off campus, for example? If off campus, then what town? Did you have a good or bad roommate experience? What did you think of your professors and classes? And, once you uttered all these lies, you’d have to remember them. It’s much harder to remember lies than it is the truth. The same goes with a phony reference. How do you know this person? When and where did you meet? What do you think of him or her? All of these fictions must be filed away for future use (or misuse).

Then there’s the question of your pride and self-respect. It seems reasonable to assume that these are good and healthy things. It also seems reasonable to assert that people with pride and self-respect perform better, and are happier, than people lacking these qualities. What does it do to your pride and self-respect to know that you got your job, at least in part, because of factors which are not the truth? You could rationalize, “Well, I’m good at what I do and they’ll see this once I do it for awhile. Yes, I told them I have a Master’s degree when I don’t. But my work is credible either way.” That may be true, but if your work is the only factor that matters, then why lie? Isn’t it up to your employer to make this decision? You wouldn’t like it if your employer said he’d pay you a certain salary, and then once you took the job you ended up with 10 percent less than the promised salary. This would be a breach of trust. How is it any better when you decide, for your employer and without his consent, that the credential you’re lying about does not matter? How is this any better than a similar breach of trust in the opposite direction?

And then there’s the question of respect for your employer. When you lie to someone, you’re not showing them respect. The fact that they don’t know about the lie — indeed, might never learn of it — does not help matters. The fact that you got away with a lie will lead you to respect your employer less. And if your employer later finds out, but doesn’t fire you over it, you’ll respect him still less.

You’re saying that you desperately need a job. It may be true that desperate situations sometimes call for desperate measures. The implication is that the desperate measure is effective. How effective is lying? It undermines your relationship with your employer from the beginning, and it imposes burdens on yourself that only make the desperate situation worse. You might be able to claim, “I lied and got the job. I now have a paycheck whereas last week I didn’t. It worked.” But what did you actually accomplish? You traded off one high-risk and difficult situation — unemployment — for another. At most, lying will buy you time. But what you get for that purchase is a level of risk and self-contempt that will stay with you forever, and will lead you into further lies because one lie always leads to the necessity of another, and another and another. You’ve heard that phrase, “What a tangled web we weave when we set out to deceive.” It’s actually true.

Lies are usually exposed. Sophisticated liars can get away with it for longer than people who don’t habitually lie. You don’t sound like a sophisticated or habitual liar. If you were, why would you hesitate or ask the question, “Should I lie?” You’re particularly at risk for getting caught, since you’re divided on the subject in the first place. Commitment to a difficult course of action requires firm and unwavering commitment. If there is such a thing as a moral lie that you can feel good about, is this such a lie? You’d better be committed to your course of action if you’re going to embark on it. Otherwise, you’re going to create new problems rather than alleviate old ones.

If you’re in a business where reputation is important, then word will get around that you’re a liar, once you’re found out as you probably will be. How practical is this? You might even get informally “blacklisted.” It’s true that times change, but some things are universal. Nobody likes being lied to — not even liars. Not everyone gets angry about the same types of things, or to the same degree. But everyone gets angry at being lied to; even liars themselves! Nobody will ever trust you again. More than that, you will appear weak and even silly. Even if it’s true that your work is good, this begs the question: Why lie if you’re secure about your work?

Don’t underestimate the power of the truth, either. You always have the option to say, “Look. I don’t have that credential. But here’s what I do have to offer. Will you hear me out?” If nothing else, you’ll be liked and respected for being straightforward and honest. These qualities are always in short supply. You’ve already shown an asset by demonstrating these qualities from the get-go. Does it guarantee you’ll get the job? No. But it does give you an opportunity to show a virtuous and practical trait that many people place a high value on, from their employees and co-workers. It also shows security and strength, qualities which matter to a lot of people hiring.

Most of us are taught, “Don’t lie. It’s wrong. Do the right thing.” And then there’s a simultaneous “wink-wink” which implies, “Do what you have to do.” What passes for morality is nothing more than a combination of dogmatic commands, hypocrisy and contradiction. What I’m giving you here are reasons. It sounds like you’re already convinced that you should not lie. But you’ve got to have reasons for it. Otherwise, you’ll never feel good about your course of action and you’ll never stick to it.

Other options and solutions are available. If you haven’t yet found one, then keep trying. Don’t pour gasoline on a fire. Don’t use a toxic solution to cure a disease.