When it comes to resumes, most job seekers know that honesty is the best policy. Never say you graduated from college when you didn't or make a job last a year longer than it really did. But the verification process many employers use for resumes can trip up even workers who aren't trying to fool anyone. All it takes is a little carelessness, a poor memory of what happened eight years ago, or the acquisition of a former employer to turn a resume into a liability.
Many companies hire outside background checkers to verify resumes and job applications. These companies note every inconsistency and piece of information they can't confirm -- even the difference between starting a job on April 1 and April 5 -- although some problems are treated more seriously than others by employers.
"We don't make recommendations about whether to hire or not hire," says Glenn Hammer, founder of A Matter of Fact, which does pre-employment background checks in Northern California. "We'll let the employer decide."
Hammer and other experts offer tips to creating a resume that won't raise red flags -- issues that could slow down the offer process or even, in an extreme case, scuttle a potential offer:
# If you're not sure, don't guess. If you can't remember for certain when you left a position, call the company and ask. The same goes for your salary history, which generally doesn't go on a resume but you might be asked for on an application.
"We see a great deal of discrepancy where somebody puts down that they left a job in June and the employer has that they left their job in March," says Barry Nadell, president of InfoLink Screening Services, a Kroll Company. Some of those people may be lying to cover up a gap in their employment history, but Nadell says others simply weren't sure and wrote down their best guess.
# Provide extra information if the company's situation has changed. If a previous employer was bought by another company, it could make it harder for a background checker to verify your employment (although background checkers do have access to databases that sometimes contain this information). Clarify the situation in a short note on your resume: Note the new owner in parentheses after the listing.
# Be careful with titles and temp work. At some companies, employees use a title on their business cards, for example, that is different from the one on file with human resources. An HR job title might be "senior marketing manager," Hammer says. "That's not particularly helpful to an employer. In fact what they called you in the company was 'marketing manager for electric grid suppliers.'"
If the title your HR department uses for your position is very different from the job title normally applied to a particular job, it may help to list both titles on your resume or job application.
Also, if you worked at a well-known company through a temporary agency, make sure you note on your resume and application that you were employed by the agency. The well-known company will likely have no record of your employment.
# Don't obsess over it. If, despite your best efforts, the background checkers can't confirm one of your past jobs, it may not be a problem. At Nadell's firm, more than one-third of past employment verifications turn up something that can't be confirmed. This doesn't mean you'll automatically be turned down for the job.
"If I get a background check that says, 'We couldn't verify employment at five of these places,' I'm going to say to the guy, 'Look, I need more information,'" says Richard Martinez, a management consultant who is currently acting vice president of human resources at NanoAmp Solutions in Milpitas, California. "But if they had 10 jobs in the last 30 years, and we can't verify one that they had 25 years ago, I'm not that concerned about it."