David Edmondson, chief executive officer at RadioShack for less than a year, resigned in shame after a newspaper revealed he had lied on his resume about having two college degrees when in fact he had none.
It was a doozy of a lie, to be sure, but one that is told more often than you might think.
Estimates vary widely, but some experts say that up to 50 percent of resumes contain false information – everything from white lies, such as embellishing job responsibilities, to whoppers like Edmondson’s.
Other high-profile figures stung by resume fraud in include Ronald Zarrella, CEO at Bausch & Lomb, and Ken Lonchar, chief financial officer at Veritas Software (now Symantec), who were caught lying about having MBAs. Lonchar was forced out; Zarrella is still there.
There also was George O’Leary. Just days into his dream job as head football coach at Notre Dame, he was let go when it was learned he fabricated a master’s degree and his accomplishments as a college player.
Why does anyone – not to mention a seemingly successful executive – risk a career by telling such lies?
It’s really no mystery, said Don Moore, associate professor of organizational behavior at Carnegie Mellon University.
“People at all levels of our society do things they hope will advance their cause, get them the things they want, the job they want, get people to like them, get them more money,” he said.
Most often, the fabrications start early in a career when the person has the most to gain and the least to lose if caught, experts say. Once the lies become part of someone’s employment record, they are tough to erase.
Studies show the reason people most often give for lying is that everyone is doing it, Moore said.
Justifying the Lie
One common way people justify unethical decisions is to comfort themselves by saying no one is being harmed by the action, said Brad Agle, associate professor and director of the Center for Ethics and Leadership at the University of Pittsburgh.
“They say, ‘Maybe I am lying. However, the company will be better off hiring me because I really am the best person. It will be better for me and the company, so that justifies my indiscretion.’ ”
Lying also may be an attempt to right a perceived injustice, Agle said.
For example, someone who just missed getting a college degree may claim to have one because he feels he deserved one but was cheated in some way.
“We see the same thing with job titles,” said John Challenger, chief executive officer at the Chicago-based outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas.
“People feel like the company didn’t appreciate them or the job they did deserved a higher title, so they change the title.”
Others justify being deceitful by avoiding outright lies, but still offering less than full disclosure.
One personnel manager remembered a job applicant whose work history included 18 months of manual labor. As the manager would later discover, the manual labor had been performed at Leavenworth prison in Kansas.
Challenger believes that resume fraud is becoming more prevalent because of heightened competition for jobs and the stigma that comes with not having a college education.
“We’ve all gone through periods of terror when we’ve been out of work and don’t know if we will have to move our family or what money there will be,” he said. “It happens with much greater frequency than it did a generation ago,” when it was more common to spend an entire career at one company.
“People who don’t have a college degree often feel they have to hide that fact – even successful people,” Challenger said.
Still, Challenger estimates that only 15 percent of resumes receive a thorough check.
“To really check them in-depth is something most companies don’t have the resources to do,” he said.
Others contend the percentage of companies scrutinizing resumes is higher, and growing quickly, because of advances in technology that make background checks easier.
RadioShack said it didn’t validate academic credentials when Edmondson joined the electronics retailer as vice president of marketing in 1994, but that it does today.
Grounds for Dismissal
When companies catch employees lying about their credentials, they are faced with deciding whether the offense is grounds for dismissal.
One of the biggest reasons in favor of firing is that it sends a strong message to the rest of the company that such lies won’t be tolerated, said Ray Jones, assistant professor and coordinator of the certificate program in leadership and ethics at the University of Pittsburgh.
When the infraction involves a top executive, it’s even harder to overlook, Jones said.
At RadioShack, Edmondson had a number of strikes against him besides the phantom degrees.
In addition to his company being in financial trouble, he was about to stand trial on his third drunken-driving charge, a revelation that prompted his hometown newspaper to snoop into his background in the first place.
When he was caught lying about his education, he didn’t come clean right away.
Instead, he used the equivalent of “the dog ate my homework” excuse, suggesting that the college lost his paperwork and claiming that his diplomas had been destroyed in a garage fire at his Texas home.
Within the week, Edmondson confessed. But the board said it had no choice but to fire him to restore the company’s credibility.
For employees, the risks of resume fraud have ballooned in recent years as companies have cracked down on unethical behavior in the wake of high-profile corporate corruption cases such as Enron and WorldCom, said Agle.
“Certainly the level of awareness of ethical issues and the corporate response to those kinds of things is greater,” he said.
Albert H. Zinkand
Employee Selection and Development, Inc.
For information on how we can help you hire more top performing employees, please contact us at 800-947-5678.