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Desperate Measures: Why People Fake Their Resumes

The next time you see a resume that’s too good to be true, add envy and immorality to the “abilities” segment.

The next time you come across a resume that's too good to be true, add a couple of extra items to the "abilities" segment: envy and immorality.

Experts say people who lie on their CVs are likely to have been unemployed for a long time and appear to be motivated by jealousy for other people who have landed jobs when they haven't.

"Envy was one of the things we found that really mattered," said Michelle Duffy, a professor of work and organizations at the University of Minnesota, and the co-author of a paper on resume fraud.

Resume fakers are also worth catching, because the researchers found that those who are comfortable exaggerating their skills also are more comfortable being immoral in other ways.

"Envy was one of the things we found that really mattered."

Take the case of ex-trader Mathew Martoma (pictured above), the former SAC Capital Advisers employee who was convicted Thursday of conspiracy and securities fraud charges. Years before the trading scandal, court transcripts revealed that he had been expelled from Harvard Law School after forging a transcript to submit for a clerkship.

"If you hire somebody who's misrepresented their resume, not only might you get somebody who has lesser qualifications but you might get somebody who's likely to steal from the organization or commit other types of fraud," said Brian Dineen, an associate professor management at Purdue University who also co-wrote the paper on fraud.

The researchers found that people who lied on their resumes didn’t necessarily start out intending to embellish or fake their credentials. But the longer they were unemployed with no job in sight, the more tempting it became.

Dineen likens it to sticking to that New Year’s resolution: During the first week of January it was probably pretty easy to get to the gym and avoid the chocolate box, but by mid-February it’s harder to be so virtuous.“Jobseekers will channel their envy toward greater effort early on,” Dineen said. “But then later on they will channel their envy toward resume fraud.”

It’s not clear how often people embellish or fabricate parts of their resumes. A survey of hiring mangers released by CareerBuilder in 2008 found that nearly half of the hiring managers surveyed had caught someone lying on a resume at some point. Less than 10 percent of workers surveyed admitted to lying.

Another CareerBuilder survey, from 2012, found that nearly three in 10 of hiring managers surveyed had caught someone using a fake reference.

Sherry Dixon, senior vice president with the staffing firm Adecco, said she’s seen an increase in the number of people intentionally lying on a resume in the past three to five years, but it’s still a small minority.

She said people seem more likely to embellish some aspect of their resume – such as exaggerating their contribution to a particular project – than actually fake a credential, such as a diploma.

Technology has made it easier to check people’s credentials, but Dixon also said it also has made it easier to fake a resume credential. That’s because it’s allowed people to create fake company websites and buy credentials from Internet-based “diploma mills.”

Dixon said candidates have often been telling the lie for so long that it can be tough to catch until the company starts verifying education, checking references and running a background check.“They’re good,” Dixon said.

There are plenty of high-profile cases of people who have paid a price for resume fraud.

Image: Frank W. Abagnale
Frank W. AbagnaleDario Cantatore / Getty Images, file

Perhaps the most famous case is that of Frank Abagnale, who pretended to be everything from a pilot to a pediatrician. His life story was made famous by the book and film “Catch Me If You Can.”

More recently, many people were outraged when the sign language interpreter for Nelson Mandela’s memorial turned out to be a fake who made unintelligible gestures.

Despite all those high-profile cases, Duffy said people who embellished their resumes seemed to think it was OK, reasoning that people do it all the time and assuming there was a low likelihood of getting caught.

They may not feel too bad about it, either. Duffy said her previous research has found that people feel alright about bad behavior at work, as long as they don’t get caught.

“People tend not to feel guilty if they get away with it and are successful,” she said.