When Ben submitted his resume for a new job, the HR department was short-handed and under pressure to fill several new jobs immediately. The personnel staff had little time to waste. And Ben seemed to be the perfect candidate for one of the company's most important new positions.
But despite Ben's clean-cut appearance, charming demeanor and perfect pre-employment test scores, Ms. Bradley, the HR manager, thought it wise to investigate Ben's background. During the following week, HR contacted every reference on Ben's resume, all of which checked out. "It seems too good to be true," Ms. Bradley said. "But I guess we're in luck."
Ben was hired immediately. For six months, he got rave reviews. Ms. Bradley was pleased—until that Monday morning when she received a call from Ben's superior, Mr. Hastings. "One million dollars of the company's money is missing," Hastings angrily announced. "And so is Ben."
Ben was clever. He knew neither of his two previous employers would do more than verify salary and dates of employment. He knew that because two of his accomplices—each posing as prospective employers—contacted them. And the other two employers that Ben listed on the resume simply didn't exist. Ben made them up, and gave them phony addresses. When Ms. Bradley's staff called the numbers Ben listed, they talked to Ben's accomplices—posing as representatives from the fake businesses—who assured them that Ben had worked for them and that he was the greatest employee they'd ever had.
The story may sound melodramatic. But it's a classic example of the disaster that can strike when HR people fall victim to phony resumes. Gina Bridges-White, HR manager at Johns Hopkins Hospital, in Baltimore, Maryland, recalls an incident approximately four years ago when one impressive resume like Ben's cost her department some expense money. "A man from California, who claimed to be a physical therapist, was arranging interviews with different hospitals to get free trips. When we saw his resume, we told him to come out, and promised to reimburse 50% of his expenses. But after he arrived, we learned that several of his claims weren't true. But because the recruiter thought he was qualified, we still had to pay 50% of his expenses."
Such are the consequences of resume fraud—a problem that grows as the job market shrinks. Falling victim to those presenting bogus resumes can be costly. But companies don't have to be had. Knowing the problem exists, and using techniques to guard against it, can save companies' money and HR staffs' reputations.
Defining the problem and its extent.
So, what exactly is resume fraud? Just about everyone agrees that blatant lies constitute resume fraud. But what about certain omissions or "creative wording?"
The problem isn't always easy to define or understand, says Gary Hasenbank, corporate vice president of HR at Pinkerton Security & Investigation Services based in Encino, California. "Fraud is a strong term," he says. "Misrepresentation is a better word. People tend to gloss over things, put spins on job titles, or get liberal with dates. These days, a lot of people are being coached by outplacement counselors, who teach them to put their best foot forward, or even to 'tweak' titles."
Hasenbank believes that in some cases omissions may constitute fraud, and in other cases, they may not. "Failing to mention a summer job during the college years may not be a problem," he suggests. "Sometimes people forget to include certain information, or they might think it isn't important. Also, some applicants concentrate only on the most salient facts. These things have to be viewed in the context of the job sought and the individual's motives. Some omissions may not be so bad; they might even be sensible."
Types of "misrepresentations" seem to run the gamut. Lorayne Dollet, vice president and personnel specialist at the Chicago office of Hay Management Consulting and a specialist in personnel management, says: "Sometimes the dates are a little off." Pamela Koch, assistant vice president of HR for Exton, Pennsylvania-based Environmental Compliance Services says she notices that, "people tend to puff up or reinvent their employment history." And Toni Grabler, vice president of HR for Portland, Oregon-based Brim Inc., says she has discovered discrepancies in a variety of areas. "Problems," Grabler notes, "include credentials, degrees or professional attainments the individual doesn't have."
Defining fraud in these terms, a 1994 survey, conducted by Menlo Park, California-based AccounTemps, indicates that as many as 33% of all resumes may be fraudulent. The 150 executives of Fortune 1000 firms who were surveyed claimed that at least one-third of all resumes they receive are either fraudulent or lacking in vital information. The survey also disclosed estimates of a 6% rise in resume fraud during the past three years.
"I'm inclined to believe that those studies are right," says Koch. Dollet agrees. "Today, it's probably as high as 30% or 40%. As a result, HR people are spending more time verifying resumes than ever before."
Both Koch and Dollet suspect the same culprit—corporate downsizing—as the cause for the increase. "I think the competition for jobs has increased to such a level that there's something of a desperation about the process," Koch suggests. Adds Dollet: "As the average time to get a job has grown from three to nine months, we see more people taking liberties to present themselves favorably."
It may also be that certain competitive industries see more fraud than others. Gail Duncan, president of Career's First and CEO Services, of Cinnaminson, New Jersey, who provides technical recruiting and executive search services, has seen several Fortune 500 companies in her area victimized by resume fraud in recent years. She recognizes a particular problem in high-tech recruitment. "Our industry has been plagued by a well-organized group of competent computer people who've created fraudulent resumes that look very good," she says. "They commonly get hired for lightly staffed second and third shifts so they can raid dormant bank accounts, or use company credit to order equipment for themselves."
Despite intense screening efforts, Duncan says these people are hard to detect because they're so good at deceiving others. "They might use military references, which HR people are less apt to check than some other company reference. They may also provide phony business references, and have accomplices answer the phone with a standard business greeting."
Unlike the problems that Duncan encountered in the high-tech industry, Roxanne Hori, vice president of corporate recruiting and support at Chicago-based Northern Trust Bank, says she has encountered only a few cases of fraud. "I think it's probably less than 10%," she guesses. "The banking industry tends to be a tight community, and word gets around. So people are reluctant to do that sort of thing."
A good grapevine also helps the Arkansas State Attorney General's office minimize its problems with deceptive resumes, according to Director of Administration Diana Vaughn. "I haven't seen much of a problem because most of our hires are attorneys, and the legal grapevine is great in most communities. Besides that, it's easy to verify their resumes because they have to be licensed."
Some HR specialists suggest that resume fraud may be more common among certain types of applicants as well. Grabler says that Brim, which owns and operates 61 hospitals and 20 retirement centers, has had few problems with usual applicants. "It's probably less than 5%," she estimates. "But I don't think our experience is typical. Our experience has a lot to do with the uniqueness of our particular health-care market niche. The kind of people interested in working in our nonurban settings don't tend to need to pad their experience to fit our openings."
Grabler touches on an idea that's echoed by some others. "I suspect it depends on the type of position involved," Hasenbank surmises. "For professional positions, the number is probably in the 10% range. But as you get more toward blue-collar factory work, I assume it's more common—maybe as high as 30%. They probably feel they aren't part of the system. So whatever it takes to get a job is what they'll do. And they aren't too worried about three months from now—only about getting that job."
Dollet suspects, however, the problem is worse at the middle and upper management levels than most experts suspect. "But it's difficult to measure because it's an art, and it's getting more sophisticated," she says. "People who go to resume writing services have gone from standard, concise, one-page resumes, to more wordy, narrative resumes that cover responsibilities and have lots of detail. In some cases, it's nearly impossible to glean [important facts] about education and careers from these resumes."
According to Kathy Zucco, advanced employment specialist at Toledo, Ohio-based Owens-Corning Fiberglass, recent college graduates seem to be the least likely to misrepresent themselves on their resumes. "I work specifically with college students who are taught how to write resumes by their placement offices, and who are told that we will check them. So, in my opinion, I would say the vast majority of these resumes are accurate."
Zucco is aware, however, that on rare occasions even recent graduates may already have something to hide. She mentions a call she received from a college professor. "He told me about a young lady who needed help in writing down her work experience. Because the girl needed money for college, she worked as a dancer at a local club that's known for its nude dancers, where she could make $200 a night. Since everyone in our area would recognize the club by name, she wanted to know how to put that on her resume."
Dennis Guthrie, manager of university relations, Ph.D., recruiting and technical placement for Dow Chemical Co., located in Midland, Michigan, confirms Zucco's findings. Guthrie, who says his company hires 80% of its new recruits from college campuses, is sure that prior dealings with new recruits helps to minimize resume fraud. "We usually know them," Guthrie explains. "So we don't try to determine what's right or wrong on resumes until we're working with the candidates. By that time, we usually have an idea about the person through our sources."
Look for red flags and test for honesty.
Knowing who's likely to lie on a resume provides HR a starting point when screening out potential frauds. But it's impossible to know in advance who may or may not lie on a resume. Simply put, there are no clear and certain categories into which people of any background fit. But there are some techniques that can help HR people separate honest from dishonest applicants.
"We look for gaps in employment or vague information, such as listing only years of employment without months," says Koch. "We also check to see if the applicants include addresses next to company names, or if they only list companies that are all out of business."
Dollet cautions her colleagues against a number of red flags. "Watch out for long verbal resumes with no dates, listings of college work as opposed to degrees, or indications that the person's job titles and responsibilities don't mesh," she warns.
Hori suggests that functional resumes may be a foreboding sign, since they tend to be long on words and short on specifics. "Functional resumes usually include an employment history," she says. "But usually you're not able to attach time frames as to when people performed certain tasks or developed certain skills. With a chronological resume, you can do that."
Lew Shumaker, manager of college relations and recruitment for Wilmington, Delaware-based E.I. DuPont de Nemours Co., says that DuPont's way of handling resumes basically nullifies the problem. "We receive more than 50,000 unsolicited resumes each year," he says, indicating that all new resumes are scanned into a database. "We screen them as we go through them. At that point, we don't worry about accuracy. That will come out at a much later date."
Shumaker suggests that a common cause of resume fraud—intense competition for jobs—also may be a saving grace for the HR department. "Most companies have a tremendous oversupply of people right now. There's something like 4,200 people with post-doctorates, and a three-year's supply of PhD chemists waiting to find regular employment. So, from our standpoint, the sheer volume of people to choose from enables us to skim from the top of the list. And we find that most of those people are pretty straightforward."
For those HR personnel who doubt the validity of information on a resume, however, there's a wide variety of outside services to turn to, all designed to help them get the facts. Hasenbank points out that his company, one of the oldest and largest investigative services in the country, is frequently used by major companies that desire pre-employment applicant checks, workers' compensation or fraudulent insurance claims investigations, personal background investigations or undercover surveillance.
As a security company, Pinkerton must ensure its own workers are honest, and thus uses a number of methods to ferret out potential misrepresentations. "We may do pen and pencil honesty tests, or touch-tone phone honesty tests," Hasenbank says. "We also may conduct criminal background checks, credit checks or other details. But we typically only check employers."
According to Paisley Neeb, corporate services executive at Laramie, Wyoming-based Aspentree Software, one of the best ways to verify the accuracy of a resume is to verify the basic honesty of the applicant. Her company offers a computerized honesty test for this purpose.
"Our Greentree computer software asks the applicant approximately 120 different questions," she explains. "But the same questions are asked more than once, and in several different ways, and with different wording each time. The applicants, however, can't go back and change their answers. So if they get caught in a lie, it's hard for them to get out of it."
According to Neeb, the Greentree program addresses numerous vital issues. "For example, it asks how long they plan to work for the company," she says. "During a personal interview, the applicant may say years and years. But on the computer, they may be honest and say only six months because they're planning to go back to school."
Programs such as Greentree also help HR people spot inconsistencies that may emerge during the application process. "We examine the information people give on the computer to see if it matches what they put on their resumes or applications. In other words, the computer is set up to spot contradictions. If a person says he or she is currently employed, for example, but then says he or she can start working for the new employer immediately, that might suggest some deception."
Verify skills through tests and interviews.
In addition to outside services, there are myriad services that an HR department can administer itself. Wonderlic Personnel Test Inc. of Libertyville, Illinois, for example, provides personal and professional testing services of this type. "We help those who want to know certain things that are verifiable through assessment," explains company president, Charlie Wonderlic. "It may be proficiency in office skills or with certain software."
Bruce Steinberg, spokesman for the National Association of Temporary Staffing and Services based in Alexandria, Virginia, confirms the growing emphasis of many organizations, such as his own, on verifiable skills. "We're more concerned about the person's actual skills," he says, "than with what's on a resume. There's an increasing tendency in our field to evaluate on the basis of demonstrable skills, rather than accomplishments claimed."
Verifying skills is important, but so is ferreting out deceivers. That's why, in addition to screening and testing, some HR managers have developed creative techniques to catch fraudulent information. Duncan uses the mail. "I have a policy of sending mail to someone, to see if it comes back saying: 'Addressee Unknown.'"
Duncan also has developed some reference-checking techniques that can help HR people identify individuals who arrange for impostors to answer the phone on their behalf. "People need to know that just because something's on a piece of paper, and confirmed by a voice on the phone, doesn't make it a fact. If you're given a company phone number and the name of a department head," she advises, "call personnel to be sure the person worked there. Also, look up the company's phone number to make sure it's a legitimate company. In fact, start with the operator," she adds, suggesting that such a technique is a great way to make sure you're not getting sucked into a set-up.
Hasenbank emphasizes that interviewing is a great way to catch people in lies, and endorses the idea of conducting several interviews that involve several people in the process. "HR people who have to hire someone without having time to do an adequate check should still do the check," he suggests. "Finding out a week after hiring the person, and then doing something with the individual, is better than not knowing."
Koch warns that being thrown off-guard by well-prepared interviewees is common today. "I find more and more that people are prepared to come in and make a sales pitch," she observes. "Interviewers need to keep control of the interview so they can get the information they need. Many times interviewees are told they should respond to the question in such a way that they turn the tables around, and get the interviewer to do most of the talking."
Koch makes a point of training department managers to use some of the methods she uses in the screening process. "We urge our managers, during interviews, to ask deep, probing, open-ended questions. Are the applicants talking in 'We dos,' or 'I dos?' When the interviewee tells us what they did while with a previous employer, we'll stop and ask them what exactly they did, and how they did it. We try to get our managers into the habit of asking the 'Rolling Whys.'" Grabler combines interviewing with external screening and internal testing. "We have an external source that pre-screens the resumes to determine the validity of the facts," she says. "Then our hiring office does the initial interview. Next, the applicant is put through an assessment battery, including testing and executive-level profile assessments, which are handled by a clinical psychologist. Finalists then go through another series of interviews."
Persons under consideration for such sensitive positions as chief financial officer must undergo an intense credit check, Grabler says, after permission is obtained from the applicant. "We find that when you have to run a credit check, and you let the people know, those who have a problem tend to opt out."
How to handle a fraudulent case.
Although some applicants may voluntarily take themselves out of the running, others will stand firmly by their deceptions. HR managers develop techniques for spotting fraud that best suit their own particular needs. The consensus is to not hire a person who has lied. Because of the complexity of the issue, however, some HR people look upon "misleading resumes" in a flexible manner. Hasenbank, for instance, acknowledges that some material on the resume is more important than other material. "My main concern is with people who lie about past employment experience or reasons for leaving an employer," he says. "But we absolutely refuse to hire anyone who has lied. Our employees are on job sites where they're responsible for the safety of our clients' equipment and personnel."
While Koch regards an outright lie as definite grounds for dismissal, she also says that she approaches the situation cautiously. "We would definitely address it," she explains. "Educational credentials must be 100% right, because I can't see how anyone can mess that up. If it had to do with employment dates, we would confront the individual and expect an explanation. I don't want to hang someone who's made an honest mistake. So I would try to give them the benefit of the doubt if they proved to be worthwhile employees."
Barring exceptional circumstances, sympathy for the deceptive applicant is nowhere to be found. Shumaker sums up the consensus on the issue. "If they lied, they wouldn't be hired. If they were hired and a lie was later discovered, they would be fired. When you run a chemical operation, you can't risk the environment and your own people. So you can't deal with people who you can't trust. We use moving machinery and processes that require skilled people. So we have no tolerance for dishonesty at all."
Dollet says it best. "Never hire a liar," she counsels. "In the team environment of today's workplace, it's important that you can respect and trust your team members."
Personnel Journal, June 1995, Vol. 74, No. 6, pp. 50-60.