The haunting: Resume lies can bite you

Some recruiters say that as many as one in five job hunters is guilty of resumé enhancement, or lying about their qualifications. Why isn't this news plastered on the front page of The Wall Street Journal?

Quite frankly, it's because we all know businesspeople lie– the issue is how bad are the lies? Some people make a distinction between the falsehoods that put us in a better light– even if it's a light we don't deserve to be in– and saying something that's totally untrue. The latter, even on a resumé, is morally wrong and emotionally exhausting. Not only do you have to remember the lie, but you also have to live with knowing you built your career on it. Even more difficult is the stress of waiting to be caught.

Exhibit A is Ronald Zarella, the CEO of Bausch and Lomb. He was caught saying he had finished business school when he hadn't. He did not get fired, though. While he volunteered to resign, the board kept him on, presumably because the other directors had told a lie or two in their lifetimes. As Zarella's case indicates, not all lies are equal on resumés.

To determine the varying degrees of lying terribleness, context matters. For example, murdering 50 people and then saying in court that you never killed anyone is a very bad lie. On the other hand, it's pretty innocuous when married partners tell each other that they just had great sex when it wasn't that great.

What should you do if you lied to get your job? If you're a career veteran, plan to go straight. You'll need to undo the lies you've told over the years to get jobs or promotions. However, don't be quick to make a public confession that could kill your career.

First, determine if the lie is considered "bad." Sometimes, this is pretty easy. For instance, who cares if a metal welder said he graduated from college when he didn't? But a college professor who tells this lie should consider a career change, and perhaps a name change as well.

In a recent speech, the president of Hamilton College quoted Amazon.com without attributing the quote. This lie cost him his job. Ronald Zarella should be thankful he's not a university president.

Some situations are murkier. If you're a high-profile executive at a big company who lied on a resume, you should get a lawyer because the shareholders are likely to create a ruckus, and you may get fired. And if– like most senior executives– you have a clause that allows the company to fire you for cause, you could lose your severance. If your lawyer can't save your job, she might at least be able to save your golden parachute.

If you're a middle manager, pray that your company doesn't invest a lot of money in double-checking resumés. For now, don't mention the lie, but be truthful the next time you seek a job.

Meanwhile, be an outstanding performer. You don't want to provoke your boss into searching for legal ways to fire you, because he might check out your resumé and discover your falsehood.

If you lied about having a college degree when you don't, consider finishing college. Not having a degree will eventually impede your career advancement– but you already know that because you wouldn't have lied otherwise.

For those of you just starting out, heed the duress that lying causes those at the top, and figure out another way to get there. A career is something you should want to live with, and a lie isn't. Choose your life partners wisely. Take action to bolster your experience with hard work so you don't have to bolster your resumé with lies.