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Posted on August 20, 2019 at 12:09 PM

by Craig Klugman, Ph.D.

Have you ever lied on your curriculum vitae? Maybe you fudged a job title to sound more impressive (e.g, “research associate” rather than “intern”)? Or moved a date to cover a gap in your work history? Perhaps you are among those who completely made up a position or even a degree. From exaggerationsto adjustments to all out fabrication, it seems that Americans make up their work history far more often than we think.

In a 2017 study of employers and hiring, 85% of the responding companies reported having received applications with faked claims of experience, degrees, and accomplishments. A 2017 CareerBuilder survey found that 75% of HR managers have seen misinformation on resumes. In a 2019 survey of jobseekers, an average of 5% admit to lying on their resumes (that number doubles to 11% among millennials who might be more honest or just more forthcoming; halves for baby boomers at 2%; and triples for Gen Z at 14%). Respondents lied most often about their work experience (38%) and dates of employment (31%).  Subjects also reported lying about job titles, references, having a college education, responsibilities at previous roles, and internship experiences.

One might expect less CV/resume lying among people in academia. After all, we are highly educated and taught the value of honesty and transparency in our professional work. Marilee Jones worked in admissions for MIT for 28 years, eventually holding the position of Dean of Admissions at MIT. When administrators received a tip that her resume was inconsistent, she came clean about making up her degrees. Anoop Shankar was hired as an endowed professor at the new West Virginia University School of Public Health based on his MD and PhD degrees, his list of articles, and being a fellow of the Royal College of Physicians, and references. That MD and PhD do not exist, though he does have an MA in Epidemiology. The list of articles is all faked. The Royal College of Physicians has no record of him. And the references were forged. When they were both hired, no one checked their credentials.

Jones and Shankar, as it turns out, are not alone in misrepresenting themselves. A new study in the Journal of Empirical Research on Human Research Ethics looked at the listed publications of applicants to a single university over one year. They found that 56% of applicants (141 people) who had a publication listed on their CV (1,127 publications total), had at least one article, book, or chapter that could not be verified or that was listed inaccurately (193 total). The results showed a higher rate of inaccuracy among graduates with international degrees, though the authors admit that many of the international journals were hard to find (not in the usual list of U.S. library subscriptions) or published in a foreign language that the research team did not speak. Applicants from R1 schools were slightly more likely to have inaccuracies though the rate for junior and senior faculty was equivalent.

The researchers had IRB approval and sought permission from the hiring authority for each position, meaning a few searches were not included in their dataset. They also excluded anyone who was offered a position or who was an internal candidate. In other words, the statistics could show that even more (or fewer) people had inaccuracies. Degrees, grants, awards and past employment claims were not checked because “doing so would have presented a greater risk of violating the confidentiality of the individuals whose CVs were included in our study”.

The authors offer a few potential explanations for their results. In some circumstances, the inaccuracy may be more misunderstanding then an attempt to deceive (“little lies”). For example, there might be confusion among co-authors for who is an author and in what order. There may be misunderstanding on the different types and stages of publication. There may also be differences in categories of publications. At AJOB, we have people who list Commentaries as peer-reviewed and others who do not. They are editorially reviewed and the editors are peers. The journal takes no position on this and leaves it up to the author how they represent the article. In a second category is deliberate attempts to deceive (“big lies”): Fabrication and falsification. This would be the person making up a job, an internship or changing the dates of employment. A third category would be people who enjoy pulling one over on their potential employers (“psychopathology”).

HR scholars say that bragging about one’s job duties, responsibilities for a project or even shifting dates to cover a gap (e.g. to raise children, deal with health issues, take care of an aging relative) are common reasons for fudging a resume. The CV or resume reflects more than our accomplishments, but also our character. If a CV is built on a lie, that says a lot about the type of person who would be joining the organization (will they lie to students, to their peers, to managers; are they more likely to fabricate research data and engage in unprofessional behavior?). As I have written in this space many times, honesty and transparency are values expected of physicians toward patients. The same can be said for bioethics scholars toward themselves, their peers, and their institutions.

While Phillips et. al looked at applicants to a health sciences university, I wondered what would the results for bioethics positions look like? On the one hand, we do teach and practice ethics for our profession. On the other hand, every few years a study is published that purports to show that ethicists are not any more ethical than other people (often based on poor methodology). These stories do encourage us all to go through our CVs with a fine-tooth comb.

A takeaway from this study is that job applicants have a duty to be sure their CV is as accurate as possible—check listings against the journal and the databases. You are responsible for being honest and transparent.Phillips et. al recommend that creating good CVs be part of graduate education. Other writers suggest that the onus is equally on employers who need to thoroughly check the accuracy of what applicants report. More human resources departments are using AI systems that do some of this background checking to make sure only accurate CVs are forwarded to departments. In all cases, the hiring manager needs to check references, corroborate transcripts from institutions, and verify a sampling of publications, grants, and presentations that a candidate reports. As Ronald Reagan said when signing nuclear test treaties with Russia, “Trust, but verify.”

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