Why it's never OK to fib on your CV

Red faces at Yahoo where chief executive Scott Thompson has been accused of lying about his qualifications – but he's by no means the first

Lucy Tobin
Wednesday 09 May 2012 23:09

The board of Yahoo is discussing the future of Scott Thompson, its chief executive, after an activist investor at the technology giant accused him of lying on his CV. His crime was to falsely claim he had a computer science degree, as well as a degree in accounting, when he applied for the top job.

A spot of detective work by Daniel Loeb, whose Third Point hedge fund holds a 5.8 per cent stake in Yahoo, found that the computing degree was impossible, because the college didn't offer the qualification at the time. So Mr Loeb, very much an activist investor, wrote to Yahoo's board saying its chief executive had "embellished his academic credentials" and called on Yahoo to fire him for unethical conduct.

Now, only five months into his role as boss of the tech firm, Mr Thompson is facing a battle to survive. So far Yahoo has publicly backed its boss, saying it was "an inadvertent error". But its board is still conducting a "thorough and independent review" of that "inadvertent error".

Already director Patti Hart looks to be the first victim of the debacle: she won't stand for re-election onto the Yahoo board amid questions over her role in hiring Mr Thompson.

In the meantime, Mr Thompson must be shuffling around the executive floor at Yahoo towers with an awfully red face. It's one thing to be a lowly IT geek who is caught out at a job interview when the HR bloke discovers the A-level in IT wasn't actually ever achieved, or that the year-long spell at Cisco in a "management role" was actually four weeks looking after the work experience kids. It's quite another when you're the boss of that company and it's not just an HR suit that's watching you squirm, but also your 14,000 employees, most of the world's corporates and half of Twitter.

Mr Thompson isn't the first and won't be the last to be caught out with a little white CV lie. A few years back, Lee McQueen, the winner of the BBC's reality programme, The Apprentice, came under criticism after he was hired by Lord Sugar despite lying on his CV. He claimed he was at Thames Valley University for two years – in reality he lasted two months. Lord Sugar overlooked that to hand him a job in his new digital advertising business, but even Gordon Brown, who was prime minister at the time, broke off from dealing with the world's political crises to say he'd seen the show and "people should tell the truth when applying for jobs".

Elsewhere, Alison Ryan claimed on a CV that she had a first-class degree from Cambridge. When she was awarded a £125,000-a-year job as PR boss of Manchester United in 2000 it emerged that in fact she had a second-class degree and had been banned from practising as a lawyer, and she was sacked.

Then there was Patrick Imbardelli, chief executive of the Asia-Pacific arm of the world's biggest hotels firm, InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG), who claimed he had two degrees from Cornell University in the US and one from Victoria University, Australia.

In fact, while he had attended classes at both universities, he did not graduate from either and resigned before he was sacked. Andrew Cosslett, then boss of IHG, privately told friends that parting company from Mr Imbardelli, who was a close friend as well as being viewed as the company's rising star, was "the toughest decision I ever made".

But it might become more common. CV trickery is a growing problem, according to Sal Remtulla, director of employee screening at Risk Advisory, a major consultancy hired by banks, corporates and FTSE 100 firms to do background checks.

"We've seen a 20 per cent increase in CV discrepancies since the start of the credit crunch," she said. "People have always been ready to bend the truth and as the recession has made it tougher to get jobs, so people are struggling to meet the grade of company's tough requirements and lying on CVs.

"You'd think that [Mr Thompson] would know better but he's absolutely typical of the people we're screening," Ms Remtulla added. "We often find that even mid-managers who are in their 40s still feel necessary to bump up their GCSE results. A lot of people have started studying but then have found they can't afford to finish, but pretend they have anyway. We've also seen an increase in 'diploma mills', where people buy degrees off the internet. It makes our life interesting."

The expansion of choice in higher education has made CV lies easier, according to Paul Palmer, associate dean for ethics at Cass Business School.

"The growth in degrees, particularly at the new universities, has made it much more difficult to track education histories," he said.

Risk Advisory has seen one candidate go to the effort of inventing a school, designing its own website and providing a phone number with a fake school secretary in a bid to feign their own qualifications. The most recent recruitment and retention survey from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development found a quarter of employers in the UK withdrew job offers after discovering someone had lied on their CV.

Firms are fighting back with the likes of aptitude and psychometric tests on top of interviews and CVs. Companies like Risk Advisory are also seeing more demand from corporates looking for pre-employment screenings.

"Recruitment may be lower, but they are still hiring and they want the right – honest – people," Mr Remtulla said.

It might not seem as serious, but an IT geek padding out their degree history is just as serious as a doctor's CV inflation, Mr Palmer claimed.

"There's no difference in an accountant or IT worker or medical professional lying about a qualification – people are relying on your advice, and you may not be qualified to provide it. CV lying is morally reprehensible.

"It defames the people who have worked hard and really got those qualifications, and it gives an insight into someone's character too.

"The classic example is the liar on The Apprentice being awarded the top job showed a complete lack of leadership from the BBC and Lord Sugar. What a message that sent out.

"People who lie on their CV should be sacked. You wouldn't trust them. If they can lie once, they can lie again."

Lie detectors: Risk's ranking

The Risk Advisory Group (RAG), which screens CVs for employers, says the most popular porkies are, in rank order: job titles, exam grades, employment dates, reasons for leaving previous employers and dates of qualifications. Forged degrees are surprisingly common and can indicate further dishonesty. RAG recently found a candidate forged their degree certificate. Further probing uncovered a string of overseas drug offences. He did not get the job.

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