ask a boss

‘Is It Okay to Embellish My Résumé to Stand Out?’

Illustration: The Cut

Dear Boss,

Like many people, I am desperately applying for jobs right now. I have also been frequenting job-seeker forums to get advice and tips.

One thing I keep seeing is tips on how to embellish your résumé and then “cheat” the background check. For example, imagine your actual job title was “administrative assistant,” but you put “office manager” or “administrative services manager” in your job application. Or stretching start and end dates to cover long gaps. If you are asked to complete a background check, most employers use a third-party vendor to perform the checks. That background check company sends you a form to fill out with titles, dates, company names, etc.

The “trick” is to be 100 percent honest when filling out that form. Then the background checker finds no discrepancies and gives your future employer the green light on hiring you. This is supposed to work because it is reportedly not uncommon for either party to compare the information you provided the background checkers versus what you claimed in your job application. After that, it’s easy enough to cherry-pick obliging references (assuming your future employer bothers to actually reach out in addition to the background check).

Of course, this wouldn’t work for jobs requiring security clearance, and won’t hide certain things like criminal history. But more and more people are claiming this has successfully helped them land jobs that might otherwise be out of reach.

I feel deeply uncomfortable lying this way, but at the same time, I believe I am at a disadvantage if I don’t. In a competitive job market among a sea of embellished résumés, how can an honest one stand out?

This is a terrible idea, and could easily torpedo a job offer you might otherwise have gotten.

First of all, a reference check and a background check are different things. Background checks are more formal and they do sometimes involve filling out a form with the info to be verified. But it’s not at all uncommon for what you write on your background check form to be cross-referenced with your résumé or application, or for the application itself to be what’s used for the process. So planning to submit one thing on your résumé and another on the background check isn’t a safe bet. There’s a good chance it’ll be noticed, and it’ll be obvious what you were trying to do.

You’re even more likely to be caught during a reference check. Reference checks are often less formal, and you’re not filling out a form about your work history at all. The employer simply phones your references, asks questions about your work, and verifies the information on your résumé. If I call your previous manager for a reference and find out that you made up a fake title to sound more impressive or lied about your dates of employment, that’s a deal-breaker. I will go back and talk to you to make sure there wasn’t a misunderstanding, but unless you can back up your claim with something real (many employers will ask for pay stubs or W-2s if there’s a question about employment dates), it will be clear at that point that you lied, and no one in their right mind will hire someone who begins an employment relationship by lying to get the job.

If you’re thinking you can get around that by offering up references who will lie for you, know that good reference checkers often don’t stick to the list of references you provide; they’ll ask to be put in touch with specific people (usually recent managers) who they want to talk to. And if they’re savvy, and especially if anything else seems slightly off, they’ll call the company’s main phone number and ask for the person they’re trying to reach, rather than relying on personal numbers you provide. (So “I’ll just give them my cousin’s number and he’ll pose as my manager” won’t work.)

Does this mean the advice to lie and cheat won’t ever work? No, of course not. Sometimes lying and cheating goes undetected, especially at companies that aren’t rigorous about how they hire. But those are the exact companies you don’t want to work for if you care about having good co-workers who don’t make your work life frustrating. Generally you want to screen for companies that hire well, not poorly, because (a) working somewhere poorly managed will be bad for your quality of life in all sorts of ways, and (b) you want to have competent, qualified co-workers, not ones who bluffed their way into their jobs.

And if lying on your résumé does lead to a job, it can trip you up later. A lot of companies reconfirm a person’s background info when they’re up for a promotion, and people have been fired for lies found on their résumé years after they were initially hired. You’d be signing up for a tenure at a company where you could never feel secure.

And look, I get it. The job market sucks and people are desperate. Desperate times call for desperate measures, and so forth. But these techniques are as likely to harm you as they are to help you. I’m not telling you to avoid them just because of ethics (although ethics matter), but also because they’re so likely to backfire on you in the long run.

I understand your worry about how to stand out in a sea of similarly qualified candidates. It’s unnerving to know that you’re up against a ton of other people competing for the same roles. But there’s a very effective way to stand out, which most people don’t take advantage of and which truly does work — and that’s having a résumé that highlights a strong track record of getting results and writing a compelling cover letter that explains why you’d excel at the role and adds something well beyond just summarizing your résumé.

As an advice columnist, I’m acutely aware that telling you to focus on your résumé and cover letter is awfully boring advice, but as someone who has interviewed thousands of job candidates and advised thousands more, I can tell you that it works. In fact, it works in part because so few people do it. If everyone did it, it wouldn’t be nearly as effective because it would become the new baseline — but so few people bother that the candidates who do it truly stand out from the others. Ask anyone with a lot of experience hiring; a huge portion of your competition doesn’t take the time to do this.

You don’t need to lie to stand out as a strong candidate, and lying by definition makes you a weak one. Don’t do it.

Order Alison Green’s book Ask a Manager: Clueless Colleagues, Lunch-Stealing Bosses, and the Rest of Your Life at Work here. Got a question for her? Email Her advice column appears here every Tuesday.

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