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CVs - when does spin become exaggeration become a lie?

I noticed a story on Sky News earlier this week about telling untruths in CVs and interestingly only the day before I added a story to our recruitment site about CV fraud (Patrick Imbardelli, head of Asia Pacific operations at the InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG), resigned after he was confronted about misleading claims he had made about his academic qualifications) and a poll on the forum about telling the truth on CVs.

Deliberate, intentional fraud – false qualifications, false work experience etc – has always been evident in industry. It is the nature of humankind that some people have different perceptions about fair play than others. Some of it is quite bizarre and seemingly serves no particular aim (for example, we once fired someone who had put a false date of birth on their application which was somewhat easy to spot since they also submitted a copy of their drivers license and the only reason seemed to be that they wanted us to think they were a child prodigy who graduated from college at a very young age).

One of the challenges of lying on your CV is that you have to keep to the lie forever which had one of two consequences – either you come to believe it (so it ceases to appear a lie to you – there are some high profile examples of this, including the media coverage of Jeffery Archer) or else you start to live a dual life which can be very damaging to self worth and ultimately get in the way of your progression far more than if you had not used a lie to get ahead in the first place.

There has been increased media coverage of this topic and I believe that one of the primary reasons for this is the recent upsurge in companies that sell pre-employment checking services. Many of these have carried out opinion surveys, or shared aspects of their ‘success’ as part of feeding the business case for using their services. Thus what previously would have been discrete agreements to leave have become either more public (such as the InterContinental Hotels Group example) or myths and stories that are added to as new and more interesting examples arise.

For me the interesting phenomenon is not so much in the ‘big lie’ but in the small one. The exaggeration of accountability, the massaging of achievements, a suggestion of responsibilities that are just a tad more important in your CV than in real life. This is a continuum – and one where the black and the white may be clear but in the shades of grey different people draw different lines in the sand. And there is undoubtedly a huge amount of collusion going on here. Helping a candidate phrase something better, rewriting the CV to enhance the selling points and blur the gaps, making a pitch that focuses only on the positives, the list goes on. Finding a job and finding a candidate is big business, big business with a lot of competing interests all of which increases the temptation to ‘paint a good picture’ – and the issue is how far do the facts continue to count, how much of this is reasonable spin and when does it become unacceptable. The big lie is clear – it is a deliberate act and one that will either work or not; the small one is much more insidious and much easier to not take responsibility for, indeed to hardly be aware of it. This is the one which favours the better spin artist rather than the better performer and the one that is so hard to spot at interview.

The increase in online applications also contributes. Software scans CVs and looks for key words. CV writing consultants and CV writing software help you find those key words. I run a forum and much of the advice on it, and other related forums that I visit, is about which words to add to your CV, how to get your CV spotted and so on. I am an HR professional and consistently advise people to steer clear of both the big lie and the small one but I do have some sympathy with the urge to ‘pop the right word’ into the CV to please the robot. After all it is just a robot (and whilst few would steal a bar of chocolate from the counter at a newsagent, even less would post back a bar than popped out for free from a chocolate machine on a train platform). Thus it becomes a game in itself – how do I write this to get past the first hurdle and get to a human (a natural quest of all applicants) – and when something becomes a game, the essence of reality, and truth becomes blurred.

So back to the story:

  • Blatant fraud has always been around but has become increasingly discovered and reported due to increased vigilance in CV vetting (which in turn makes the less vigilant look worse)
  • Spin has always been with us and is to a lesser or greater extent condoned by the industry
  • The use of technology for screening purposes has created an equally automaton response of simply putting in the right key word or phrase
  • The question is therefore, when does spin become an exaggeration and exaggeration, become a lie?

Published by: Lisette on 06/09/2009 - Add a comment

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