Lessons from the Yahoo CEO resume scandal: 7 ways to smoke out the truth

Yesterday’s admission from Yahoo’s CEO Scott Thompson that he fudged the academic credentials on his résumé is another warning to employers to think of résumés like used cars … something is being sold, and you need to adopt a “buyer beware” attitude before you drive away.

Thompson sent a memo to Yahoo employees yesterday apoligizing and “taking full responsibility” for the scandal. He has now admitted that he did not receive a bachelor’s degree in computer science from Stonehill College, despite claims on his résumé that he had. In fact, he had studied accounting and business. The lie was brought to light by activist investor Daniel Loeb of the hedge fund Third Point, who is trying to oust Thompson from the CEO post.

Yahoo originally called Thompson’s action “an inadvertent mistake.” Such damage-control speak underplays the importance of catching résumé liars. In fact, studies show that the percentage of applicants who falsify their educational credentials and job experience typically goes up when the economy heads down. Thus, the past few years have seen many more desperate applicants trying add a little extra juice to their CVs.

About 20% of job applicants exaggerate their educational backgrounds, estimate investigators at Kroll, Inc., which does employee background checks,. More than 60% of HR pros told the Society for Human Resource Management that they have uncovered inaccuracies when checking the veracity of résumés.

Applicants lie most about their education, followed by their reasons for leaving past jobs, salary, job titles, scope of duties and criminal records.

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Advice: Expecially for top prospects, scrutinize every detail on their résumés. Don’t shrug off minor exaggerations. They tell a lot about character and level of effort. But restrict inquiries to job-related issues and don’t probe into the background of any certain group, such as minorities, or you’ll risk a lawsuit.

Here are seven more ways to get the truth:

1. Check for inconsistencies. Résumé-writing software can make anyone look good. Look for slip-ups in dates (such as overlapping start and stop dates) and contradictions between job titles and duties. Ask about time gaps in jobs.

2. Test skills. If an applicant claims to have proficiency in a computer program or can handle a certain machine, do a skills check. To avoid discrimination charges, test all applicants and ensure your test is business-related.

3. Check references, then ask for more. Demand that applicants provide phone numbers for all past employers, and make the calls. Also, ask for names of former supervisors, key vendors, etc.

4. Probe ‘self-owned business’ claims. Ask for details about their claims, including names and numbers of past clients.

5. Question academic credentials. Phrase some questions to determine whether the candidate really attended the schools listed. “Is Robert Drew still teaching accounting at that school?” If you made up the name and the person says, “He sure is,” you’ve got a fabricator on your hands.

6. Probe claims of supervisory duties. Ask questions like: “When you say ‘supervise,’ what did your duties involve? Did you assign work and evaluate the employees? Did you conduct performance reviews?” A true manager would have done that, and more.

7. Question claims of saving the company money or resources. Often, the claims are true, but they may be exaggerations. Comments like “made staffing change to cut clerical time” may mean he trimmed a half-hour off his secretary’s lunch hour. Follow up on such claims by asking for specifics.

Lies vs. exaggerations

The other type of “lie” is the vague wording that, in some cases, covers applicants’ flaws. Here are the top 10 vague phrases used on résumés (and the percentage of times used), according to Resumedoctor.com.  If you see such words, ask the applicant for details and examples:

1. Communication skills      12.6%

2. Team player                  7.2%

3. Organizational skills        5.5%

4. Interpersonal skills         4.8%

5. Driven                           4.3%

6. Detail-oriented               4.2%

7. Results-oriented             3.8%

8. Self-motivated               3.8%

9. Problem-solver              3.2%

10. Highly motivated          3.2%