Should I 'Fess Up to Lying on My Résumé?

Bruce Weinstein, PhD
BusinessWeek Online

Think that everyone does it, so there's no harm in your little "untruth"? Think again, says the Ethics Guy

Dear Ethics Guy: Last year I applied for a prestigious job with a major company and was accepted. I'm now up for a performance review, and I'm troubled by something I did to get the job: I lied on my résumé. It wasn't a big lie (by my standards, anyway), but it was definitely an "untruth." Specifically, I said that I had a double major in business and philosophy. I thought it would make me look well-rounded. In fact, I took only a few philosophy courses (including, ironically perhaps, ethics), so it's not as though I completely made it up. But it didn't amount to a second major.

My question to you is: Should I tell my employer about this during the review? It could definitely hurt my chances of a promotion or raise, and I suppose there's even an outside chance that they would fire me. I'm almost certain, though, that they will never find out about what I did. It's unlikely they would call my university at this point and discover that I wasn't a double major after all. Thus, from an employment perspective, I have only something to lose, and nothing to gain, by telling the truth now.

Also, I know that this doesn't justify what I did, but the fact is that practically everyone I know has fudged their résumé a little. I'm sure that employers know that what they're looking at isn't the whole truth and nothing but the truth. It's all part of the game.

Maybe it's because of my religious upbringing, but I do feel a little bit guilty about what I did, so unburdening myself might be a good thing. But I really don't want to lose this job, and my performance has been so strong that I probably will get a promotion or raise, or both, if I keep all this to myself. What do you think?

What you did was wrong, and you should tell your employer about it as soon as you can. Let's go through your letter point by point, since you raise a host of ethical concerns.

From your point of view, stating that you majored in philosophy when you didn't wasn't a "big lie," but your employer almost certainly won't share your view. Why should they? Your résumé reflects who you are, what you value, and how much you have achieved. If you lie about something as important as your résumé, what will come next? Lying to a potential client to get his or her business? Lying to your boss about how things are going? Telling a lie to make it easier on ourselves only damages our credibility in the long run.

You're right that widespread lying on résumés doesn't justify your doing the same thing. I can't imagine how you could know that most of your friends and co-workers lied on their own job applications, but even if it's true, it's ethically irrelevant to how you should conduct yourself. Your mother probably even told you when you were little, "Just because your friend wants to jump off the roof doesn't mean you should, too." The same notion applies here.
Do the Right Thing

I also take issue with your claim that lying "is all part of the game." A major company like your employer doesn't view work as a game and certainly doesn't condone dishonesty. They take interviewing very seriously, since it's in their own interest to hire only the best people. To be the best candidate for a job doesn't mean just being the most skillful or knowledgeable but also being dependable, honest, and trustworthy. In other words, a smart employer values character as well as competence.

Yes, it's possible that being forthcoming now will adversely affect your performance review, but your employers have a right to know what you did, therefore you have an obligation to tell them. Having the courage to admit a mistake might actually work in your favor, but even if it doesn't, you still will have done the right thing by owning up to the lie you told last year.

If your confession relieves your guilt, so much the better. Still, the reason to tell the truth now is simply because it's the right thing to do. The psychological consequences are a nice side-benefit, but they don't provide the moral justification for so acting.

"But employers should do their due diligence and check out every candidate’s résumé, so ultimately this issue is their responsibility," some might argue. It would be more appropriate to say that responsibilities flow in both directions; employers should do their due diligence, but job candidates ought to act with integrity too. The failure of an employer to do what he or she should have done during the interview process does not give an employee license to engage in unethical conduct or to choose not to own up to a mistake he or she has made.

You mention the irony of having taken an ethics course in college. What may be even more ironic is that you probably would have gotten the job without the lie in the first place. I have faith that in the future you will see why it is to everyone's advantage, including your own, to take the high road, even when you think you'll be the only traveler on it.

Weinstein is a corporate ethics consultant and the author of Life Principles: Feeling Good by Doing Good (Emmis Books).

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