The Résumé Bluff: Why Honesty Is Always the Best Policy

Job seekers face a tough challenge: how to make their résumés stand out from the crowd without resorting to dishonesty. 

In a recent survey, over half of US workers admitted to lying on their résumé at least once. But is stretching the truth really worth it? In this article, we’ll explore the dangers of résumé bluffing and provide some tips for how to make your honest hard work shine. We’ll also share the story of a lawyer who learned the hard way that honesty is indeed the best policy. So sit tight and get ready to learn how to play the job hunting game with integrity!

Job seekers may be tempted to stretch—or even fabricate—details about their education and employment history, and it turns out that many actually do. In a recent survey of US workers, 55% admitted to lying on their résumé at least once.

Bending the truth about your career—including omitting information you don’t want a prospective employer to know—is never a good idea. It can cost you the job you’re seeking and damage your reputation, says Hannah Mason, an executive résumé writer and job search strategist based in Cardiff, Wales. “The lies will come back to bite you, so think long term about what you want to accomplish,” she says.

The proclivity to lie or exaggerate stems in large part from a feeling of insecurity on the part of job seekers, Mason says. Applicants might also be under the false impression that “everything is decided by an algorithm, so they decide to cheat and beat the system.” In many cases, a human still reads a résumé.

Here are some better ways to make your honest hard work and all those aced business school exams stand out: 

Frame your wins correctly.

When it comes to sharing your achievements and making them impressive, choose the right metric to make them stand out.

“I had a client, and one of his biggest achievements was that he on-boarded 48 clients at his bank,” says Mason. “That didn’t sound particularly impressive, so I asked him, ‘What was the impact?’ It turns out those 48 clients accounted for 70% of the bank’s revenue.”

Framing it in that context had the intended effect: Mason’s client got the job.

Hire a great editor.

You want someone who can craft a newspaper-style headline to grab a reader’s attention. Mason says this feature increasingly is being added to résumés, immediately under one’s name and details. A lot of recruiters or hiring managers are on the go, she says, opening résumés on their devices. “We all can be pretty lazy with reading through lengthy paragraphs, so a headline and subhead that stand out matter.”

Beyond the headline, include the job title of the role you’re applying for in a subheadline and include your most relevant skills and accomplishments. “This shouldn’t be confused with stating career objectives. Those are pretty generic and not very impactful,” Mason says.

Give the editor the freedom to rework your copy as needed: Omit details that are irrelevant; better describe more interesting jobs/tasks; declutter the document. Especially if you struggle to tell your story in a compelling way (for instance, if you’re shy and don’t like to brag), there’s lots of help out there. The impression your résumé makes is determined mostly by how you present the information.

No coverups.

Mason once represented a candidate for a job with a top UK law firm. The job seeker had a strong résumé, including a top-notch education and substantial work experience. He made it through the first round of interviews and résumé review, through the office interview and wound up with an offer. Then background and reference checks revealed he’d misrepresented the dates of prior jobs. The lawyer had left his last employer under unfavorable circumstances and misrepresented his last date of employment, in the hopes this wouldn’t be discovered. Ultimately, the offer was withdrawn, and the recruitment company Mason worked with at that time dropped the lawyer as a client.

“Had he been honest, we may well have been able to find him a position because he had a good background and a lot of experience,” she says. 

Mason’s parting advice: “Having a less perfect résumé but coming across as a more genuine person, that’s preferable any day.”

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