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Lying About Credentials on Your Resume: When It Becomes Criminal

Lying on Your Resume: When Exaggerations Cross the Line into Criminal Fraud

Getting caught in a lie on your resume can end a career before it starts. Small fibs or exaggerations may get your resume tossed in the trash. Larger lies can lead to prosecution and jail time. Where is the line between a forgivable stretch of the truth and an illegal falsehood? This article examines common resume lies, how they are discovered, and when they become criminal offenses.

Little White Lies

Many job seekers are tempted to polish their backgrounds with a bit of exaggeration. Rounding up your GPA from 3.4 to 3.5 probably won’t raise any red flags. Adding a few responsibilities to your last job to match the new role better is unlikely to cause issues either. These “little white lies” are often considered resume padding and may hurt your chances if discovered, but they are not outright fraud.

According to career coach Janine Truitt, small exaggerations are common, but not advisable. “You have to know yourself and what you’re representing. Then, you have to be prepared to actually do what you said you’ve done,” she says. If you’re not fully qualified despite your resume tweaks, you’ll quickly be found out.

Lies of Omission

Leaving something negative off your resume is another common tactic. Omitting short tenures from a resume or excluding a job where you were fired can be tempting. However, these lies of omission can also be easily uncovered in the background check.

Gaps in employment will be obvious on the resume itself. The background check will reveal jobs that are missing. Employment dates that don’t line up or jobs that mysteriously disappear are red flags.

The best approach is to be upfront on the resume. Keep the job on your resume, but briefly explain the reason for leaving in a way that focuses on the positive. For example, “Pursued career growth opportunities” or “Relocated due to family needs.” This shows you have nothing to hide.

Embellishing Your Background

Beyond resume padding, many job seekers are tempted to embellish their backgrounds with skills, experience, or credentials they don’t really have. Common lies include:

  • Claiming a degree not earned
  • Fabricating professional certifications
  • Overstating skills, knowledge, or abilities
  • Extending dates of employment
  • Inflating job titles and responsibilities

Small embellishments that align with the role may go undetected, but larger lies are often uncovered in the background check. Degrees, titles, and certifications can be easily verified. Knowledge gaps become obvious once you start working. Extended dates of employment or inflated roles also raise suspicions if former managers are contacted.

These bolder resume lies can have significant consequences. A study by Checkster found 78% of employers said they would automatically dismiss a candidate caught lying about credentials, skills, or abilities.

When Resume Lies Become Criminal

While resume padding and embellishments hurt your reputation, more serious falsifications can cross the line into fraud and criminal charges. Some of the most common criminal lies include:

Faking or Altering Degrees

Lying about your education by claiming a degree you didn’t earn or altering a transcript or diploma to show higher grades is illegal. If uncovered, it can lead to criminal fraud charges, fines, and even jail time.

In 2012, a Yahoo executive was fired and faced criminal charges for falsely claiming he had a computer science degree. In 2008, the CEO of software firm Blinkx was fired for falsifying his education credentials from Cambridge.

Impersonating Licensed Professionals

Falsely claiming to be a doctor, lawyer, CPA, or other licensed professional is against the law. Practicing these professions without proper credentials and licensing can result in criminal penalties.

In an infamous case, a 17-year old was charged with impersonating a physician and practicing medicine without a license after falsifying a medical degree to get a job. He spent over a year in prison. In 2022, a Virginia man was sentenced to over 2 years in prison for pretending to be a licensed clinical social worker.

Falsifying Documents

Fake diplomas, altered transcripts, forged reference letters, and other falsified documents can all lead to criminal charges for document fraud. Depending on the state, this can be charged as a misdemeanor or felony offense.

In 2015, a woman in Pennsylvania was charged with felony forgery for fabricating diplomas and transcripts to get a school district job. She was sentenced to 24 months probation and ordered to pay over $42k in restitution.

Can a Company Sue for Resume Fraud?

Beyond criminal charges, companies can also sue for civil damages related to resume fraud. Grounds for lawsuits include:

  • Negligent misrepresentation
  • Fraudulent misrepresentation
  • Breach of contract
  • Negligent hiring

Damages can include the costs of hiring and training the employee, losses from poor performance, and harm to the company’s reputation.

In 2015, Yahoo sued a COO hired with a fake degree for millions in damages related to company losses and harm to its reputation. In 2022, Norfolk Southern Railway sued an employee for over $100k for lying about his engineering credentials that led to a derailment.

Avoiding Resume Lies

Given the career and legal risks, lying on a resume is never advisable. Here are some ways to avoid the temptation:

  • Be honest – don’t include anything you can’t verify when asked
  • Focus on your skills and abilities more than titles and credentials
  • Explain gaps in employment with simple, positive phrases
  • Leave out jobs with issues like terminations, but be prepared to discuss if asked
  • Highlight transferable skills from past roles rather than inflating experience

The bottom line is honesty is the best policy on your resume. Small exaggerations may not be verified, but anything substantial will likely be uncovered in the background check. The consequences simply aren’t worth the risk of being caught in a lie. As Janine Truitt advises, “You want to put your best foot forward in an authentic way.”

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