Fast Track: `After I left the Sorbonne...'

A quarter of all CVs, it is said, contain outright lies. So companies have begun to check them more carefully
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The Independent Culture
There is a much-used piece of jargon currently floating around the world of job-searching: CV abuse. The extent of the problem is revealed by the latest report from the Association of Search and Selection Consultants, which has found that a quarter of all CVs contain lies. What's more, the Institute of Personnel and Development (IPD) claims that it's a practice that is increasing fast.

"Gone are the days when you just filled in a simple job application," says Angela Edward, policy adviser for IPD. "In the late Nineties, there's as much emphasis on sending out the perfect CV as there is on taking exams for a degree. No wonder job candidates feel pressurised into telling a few porkies."

Altering the periods spent at individual jobs in order to cover up periods of unemployment - or even a whole gap year - is the top preference, she claims, though pretending you've got a few extra GCSEs falls close behind. Lord Archer is only one of many who have been accused of inflating their qualifications.

"If people are dismissed from a job, they'll often make it look like a planned career move," adds Ms Edward. "And if they can't seem to hold any position down for more than a couple of months, they'll simply group the jobs under a generic title so they don't come across as too flighty." Since a recent study among graduates revealed that state school pupils are losing out to independent school pupils when they reach the employment market, graduates have even begun to lie about that. Cheltenham Ladies College, after all, sounds better to many employers than your local comp.

So how scary are the repercussions? Not very, it would appear at first glance. According to a report by the law firm Harper Macleod, a third of companies do not check whether job candidates are lying about their qualifications. And because of data protection laws, employers are not even allowed to seek confirmation of qualifications or attendance through the universities and schools themselves.

"Even in the instance that you are caught out, there are unlikely to be legal consequences - so the worst that will generally happen is being given the sack and moving on," claims Debra Allcock, head of campaigning at the Industrial Society. "Graduates, in particular, are not averse to overstating the skills and experience they gain from work placements," she says. "And frankly, I don't blame them in such a competitive market." Indeed, Allcock's leading message on this issue is that graduates should not become so scared by all the hype about CV abuse that they wind up underselling themselves.

For instance, she recently took a one-year course and failed the final exam. "That doesn't mean I can't put it down on my CV, though," she says. "After all, I learnt a lot about law, economics and accounts during that year - and why shouldn't I let potential employers know that?" But, she warns, beware of vague phrases such as "involved in", "knowledge of", and "exposure to". Rather, use descriptions such as "responsible for", "delivery of" and "achievements", which imply higher status.

Some employers are even willing to recognise that it's easy to forget the exact number and grades of GCSEs, or indeed your current typing and shorthand speeds. "Particularly when you've been in the same job for a long time - and have had no need to keep a CV on file - you can forget such details,"' explains Alison Migwell, a careers adviser.

But some people take it too far. In July this year Sion Jenkins, the deputy headteacher convicted of murdering his foster-daughter, was found to have lied about his qualifications in order to reach his position of trust. In the same month, an airline pilot in Harrogate was convicted of selling MA and BSc degrees for pounds 318 each (with honours as an optional extra at pounds 54) from a non-existent "University of Yorkshire". Even people dealing with life and death situations are not immune. A GP, Dr Hani Ghazi, was found guilty of serious professional misconduct after falsely claiming to have an MA from Oxford University.

And this, says Migwell, is why graduates should be as cautious of overselling as they are of underselling themselves. "GPs are struck off for such things," she says. "It's all very well to suggest that lying can - at worst - lead to losing your job; it could also result in never getting another one in the same field." Indeed, according to Stephen Miller, of Harper Macleod, if misconduct occurs as a result of lack of qualifications or experience, aggrieved parties can take legal action against the employers. If that happens, you can be pretty sure that your angry boss will spread the news around and make it hard for you to get another job.

"The problem is that many people know they're good at what they do, so they assume they'll be able to persuade their superiors to keep them on even if their secret is discovered," says Migwell. "This is a mistake I've seen among graduates. They'd probably have a good chance of getting the job with the qualifications and skills they've got, but they get greedy."

Adrian Buckley, personnel officer at the University of Birmingham, explains, "You could ask whether lying on one's CV matters as long as the person is doing the job well, but it's a question of trust and confidence. If a person lies on their CV, what else will they lie about?"

Migwell warns graduates that the current high profile of CV abuse is likely to lead to companies checking details. The number using assessment centres, for instance, is rising fast. Here, your claims of speaking four foreign languages fluently and knowing a particular computer programme inside out could be tested for hours at a time. A few companies are even turning to private investigators to check out potential employees.

Finance managers are the most suspicious of all employers when it comes to applications for jobs. A survey by Robert Half, financial recruitment specialists, found that almost a third believe that half the candidates they see provide false CVs. But their means of extracting the truth are simple. "We ask candidates to substantiate achievements during an interview, and are particularly insistent when [he or she] seems less than enthusiastic about delivering it," says one managing director.

It's a thin line between marketing yourself as the best candidate for the job, and telling outright lies. But, says Angela Edward, "companies are beginning to place far less emphasis on qualifications and more on interpersonal skills. If that becomes the norm, it will be impossible to lie your way into a job."