Reference & Background Checks, Screening, Assessment, Interviewing

Résumé Fact or Fiction: Tips for Handling False or Misleading Résumé Info

Résumés continue to be the foundation of marketing tools for new hires, internal promotions, and networking introductions. Their traditional organizational structure and common content areas allow for easy comparison across candidates. So, with a document holding the importance of a college essay, how can managers know that what they read is fact, not fiction? And that the dream candidate won’t be a nightmare?

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Telltale Signs of Résumé Embellishment

Résumés written by résumé-writing services can be identified by most professionals who have read a few hundred résumés. These are the glowing piles of words that don’t tell a story; rather, they glorify the news that an employee showed up at work and helped.

“Helped” is a key word to discredit contributions. If managers think someone has used a résumé-writing service (and not been involved in the content development process), one or two questions looking for greater detail immediately confirm the veracity of the individual’s involvement and responsibility.

Ask what challenge initiated the project, how the issue or opportunity arose, and what other attempts were made to deal with the situation. Only someone truly responsible for activity described on the résumé will have the background to answer clarifying questions.

When it comes to education, are there no dates listed with education to obscure the age of the candidate or because the candidate did not finish the degree? If someone has a list of courses including every intro course they took, chances are they did not complete the degree but want to show they attended the school.

Similarly, when a résumé includes a long list of professional development activities and technology training, probe to see if the individual actually has the skills or simply took a bunch of classes. Typically, skilled individuals take these capabilities for granted—after all, proficiency in Microsoft Office is assumed for business, as may be technical skills specific to your industry.

Beware the magic words. Candidates hate applicant tracking systems (ATSs), as they are convinced if they just had the chance to talk to someone it would be obvious they are a perfect fit, which may be true.

Regardless, as long as they are navigating ATSs, they know there is a list of magic keywords that these systems are tracking, so if you see an abundance of keywords and phrases, and no acronyms, recognize an individual trying to game the system and get past the ATS screening.

Title Inflation vs. Title Explanation

Titles are often specific to a company and may not be meaningful to outside readers. Hiring managers need to ask about reporting structure, peer groups, and to differentiate between direct and dotted line reporting relationships. There’s a significant difference between being an assistant to someone and being at an assistant-level position.

Changing some titles can’t be helped. While it would be terrific if every company used titles that are meaningful outside that individual organization, it’s not always the case. For organizations interviewing applicants with general titles such as Administrator II, or Machinist IV, where titles may not correlate directly, ask probing questions regarding the work, responsibilities, and supervisory experience.

Be flexible with candidates who may have modified their titles to be more plain language or descriptive to correspond with opportunities that align with their experience. Applicants may use the title they believe is most descriptive, followed by the title the company used in parentheses.

If the individual includes “reported to” in the descriptive detail for that position, the information is generally more reliable. Employers should ask for detail on timetables for promotion and how the levels progress—i.e., which is more senior, level 1 or level 5?

Responsibilities and Accomplishments

Candidates want to look senior when they apply for new jobs in the hopes of generating a more significant financial increase, so look for specific “in charge of” terms with comprehensive descriptions and responsibilities.

How many and what level of people did they manage? Were they project manager? Have profit and loss responsibility? Manage a program or process; create a plan; or develop an e-mail list, campaign, or program? Managing and leading are words that need to be explored in full to understand what the applicant actually did in terms of contribution to the organization.

If the situation was a success, who received the credit? And how many claimed responsibility for success? Try to unpack if an initiative required course correction—or failed—who took the heat? Answering that question often gets to the heart of who owned the project.

Results that appear too good to be true probably are. Were listed results actually delivered, or were they projected if the individual had one more quarter, or if one more account had closed, or the manager had not cut the program short? Review numbers vs. percentages to see if the results could actually have been achieved and over what time period.

If you have concerns about the validity of résumé content, flip to LinkedIn® to see how the résumé and LinkedIn compare. Candidates know that their current and former colleagues can see how they described their positions on LinkedIn, so they are more apt to be truthful.

Review recommendations given and received on LinkedIn—confirm titles and reporting relationships. If the résumé does not line up with LinkedIn, you can follow up with someone you know who is not provided as a reference and decide whether or not you want to pursue a conversation to hear the rest of the story.

Elaine VarelasElaine Varelas, Managing Partner at Keystone Partners, has over 20 years of experience in career consulting and coaching development and has worked with numerous executive management teams to improve organizational effectiveness. She has expertise in successfully resolving complex career management issues, including workforce planning, redeployment, and multisite restructurings.

Varelas’ experience spans a broad range of industries and businesses, including Fortune 500 companies, start-up ventures, and not-for-profit organizations. She serves as treasurer of Career Partners International, LLC, a network of independently owned career management firms, which Keystone cofounded in 1987. She is also a certified executive coach by the Center for Executive Coaching and MBTI certified.

A graduate of the Management Development Program at Boston University, Varelas holds a Master of Education degree from the University of Vermont and a Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology from the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth. She is an active member of many professional associations, including The Boston Club.