Are LinkedIn Resumes Full of Shit?
The prim thing to say here would have been “untruths”, “embellishments” or, stretching the acceptable, even “lies” and similar other euphemisms. But as a hiring manager I’ve reached a level of saturation where the word fights its way out of my mouth. I’ve had it and at this stage truth wins over primness. LinkedIn resumes are full of shit. I’ve had several experiences with this problem and, although they ended up very differently, they are still very relevant to the discussion. I’ll tell you about two of them. I changed the names and possibly even the genders of these people to protect their confidentiality.
Let me tell you about obviously-not-Marie
This woman walks into my office a couple of years ago – I was looking to hire a customer support team manager. I read her resume and she was well educated, spoke several foreign languages fluently, and claimed an impressive experience in handling precisely the sort of team I needed her to lead.
The only problem? She was too young to have gathered that sort of exposure to leadership while also studying that much. I mean, I consider myself to be the worldly, well-educated sort. I’m an example of success given that I lead my own company, small as it may be, and I made it to what’s basically a CEO position well before 50 – decades before that in fact. But at her age I was still busy picking lint from my belly button and wasting my time on whatever twenty-somethings waste their time with.
So naturally I was very curious to talk to the prodigy from the CV. More precisely, I wanted to ask her plenty of behavioral questions and see if she could really respond to real life situations as maturely and as adeptly as her resume made her to be.
And she did. I asked her what kind of information she would divulge and what she would keep if she were to communicate with her team about a company crisis. She said that she would be as transparent as possible with the exception of information that could cause panic, such as layoffs. Then I asked her who gets more of her time between performers and slacks – or those who fail to perform for whatever reason. She described a couple of situations where she coached poor performers back into acceptable ground. It was good stuff.
Around that point I decided that I must face and accept that there are people smarter and more capable than me out there and I should get on with hiring her despite my – obviously misplaced – suspicions. Several weeks later I did just that and she was true to her word. There were a few situations where she failed to see when someone didn’t do their job – but then everyone makes mistakes. I even got good references about her, despite the HR department I called being very tight lipped.
It wasn’t until a year and a half later that an acquaintance congratulated me for the courage to hire a former customer service rep directly into a manager role. Apparently he knew her from a previous job and she wasn’t at all what she claimed to be. But by that point she was a very reliable part of my team. So I stuttered a thanks and rushed out of the encounter.
I was more shocked than outraged and to be honest I also felt very lucky. She could have easily alienated half of my clients in her first few months. That she didn’t despite her not having almost any of the experience she claimed was a miracle. Or perhaps she simply learned very well her leadership lessons from her previous workplaces. Or maybe she studied. Or – who cares.
Let me tell you about obviously-not-John
With John it was different. I was looking for a secretary at the time and John applied. Seeing how secretary roles are typically so gendered, his application was surprising to me but I refused to be sexist. And I hate gender separation of roles anyway. John claimed 12 years of experience as a secretary and customer support specialist to his name. He spoke with a slight French accent and didn’t have any grand salary expectations. Compared to two other candidates, he struck me as more mature and skilled. I had the chance to run a background check but none of his claims seemed inflated. More so, a background check for a secretary position seemed unnecessarily burdensome and expensive. He even had LinkedIn recommendations. And so it was that John came aboard.
Well, I found out quickly that John couldn’t spell. He could make appointments like no other and his coffee was divine. But he was utterly incapable of typing what I dictated even with autocorrect. It turned out that he never studied English properly and had someone else write his resume, with several embellishments. Ye gods.
John wasn’t expensive and he was very polite with my contacts so I decided to send him to take English courses and keep him. But I always prided myself to be a good judge of character and his flying under my radar was proof that I could be wrong. The problem is that resumes and LinkedIn profiles are full of statements that we take for granted in the absence of any other information.
How much lying exactly?
It turns out that LinkedIn resumes truly are full of shit. And that’s not just my opinion or personal experience. I’m not one of those misfortune stricken people who should refrain from ever playing the lottery. In fact, my experience with Marie shows quite the contrary – I’m lucky. The fact that they are is confirmed by studies made by several independent entities directly interested in the phenomenon, like Business Insider, HireRight, CareerBuilder, and even LinkedIn themselves.
Just like me, some 60% of the hiring managers interviewed in a poll conducted by CareerBuilder together with Harris Poll were faced with inflated resumes and lying candidates. The survey also found that 57% of resumes present a better skill set than the real one, 55% misrepresent responsibilities, 42% present untrue dates of employment, 34% lie about job titles, 33% add an inexistent academic degree, 26% mention companies that the resume owner never worked for, and 18% describe awards and accolades that were never received.
In fact, the recession in the United States escalated this situation because people tried to differentiate themselves from competition by adding to their experience. The situation may have redressed as the economic situation improved but one thing is clear.
Desperate times ask for desperate measures and unemployed people can and will exaggerate their competencies to secure their income. In fact, candidates are becoming more and more HR-savvy, if not more skilled.
They know that the recruiters will see them as less tempting targets if they had periods of unemployment between jobs and especially if they’re unemployed while looking for a job. So to respond unemployment discrimination, people will try to hide the gaps. For example, the most used trick to throw off unemployment discrimination is the pretense of working as a consultant. 1.44 million LinkedIn profiles are using consultancy as a euphemism for unemployment.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the average Joe is not alone in exaggerating his merits or making up an education he never received. As it turns out, there have been many resounding cases where top managers have been caught lying for decades about their education. Apparently it’s common for people to add a degree or two to their profiles and then carry them on for their entire careers.
David Tovar, Wal-Mart’s top spokesman, never finished the courses he needed to get a bachelor’s diploma. Of course, this hasn’t stopped him from listing a bachelor’s degree from Delaware University among his achievements. It all surfaced when Tovar was considered for a promotion and the background check revealed the truth. Such a shame that he lost the promotion since he was clearly doing a good enough job to earn it in the first place.
Much like my Marie, Bausch & Lomb’s former CEO Ronald Zarrella claimed having an MBA to his name but he was kept in station until he decided to retire, apparently having done a good job too. But the stunt cost him a $1.1 million bonus the year when he was caught.
Of course, there is a silver lining to all this. It seems that the probability that a claim is a complete fabrication decreases with the importance of the claim. Sure, an education is a pretty big thing but how many CEOs with decades of experience are hired because they have a bachelor’s degree? Their fabrications are meant more to save face than enhance their skill set. Sadly, this doesn’t help when stocks take a tumble on the day the lie surfaces.
Even if you regard this problem from the standpoint of random chance, you quickly come to the unpleasant realization that the chances are high that you talked to at least a liar today if you’re hiring. A 2016 Business Insider survey found that 31% of respondents have lied at least once in their resumes.
Which brings us back to the matter at hand. LinkedIn was invented so that everyone’s claims lay out there in the open for everyone to see. This means that there’s more transparency, right? After all, people wouldn’t lie where their former employers can see. And there’s of course the problem of recommendations. Profiles containing incorrect data wouldn’t receive any recommendations for sure! Unless of course the profile owner is also making up references – and experience showed that that too happens often enough.
The truth it that over 10% of all LinkedIn profiles are complete fabrications. The number may seem small at first but it means that 1 in every 10 candidates the average manager sees in interviews has fabricated the entire resume. Even when the lies are partial, it’s impossible to tell whether they are small or big. Sure, 1 in 10 may not seem like such a big number, but let me put things into perspective. If my chances of winning the lottery were 1/10, I’d be richer than a Saudi oil company by now.
In the LinkedIn survey, 23% of respondents recognized they lied in the my skills section. Other points users lied about were employment dates, work experience, and educational accomplishments. Over 33% admitted to sprinkling a few embellishments here and there throughout their profiles.
So is everything lost?!
What’s an honest hiring manager to do in this case? Is there no way of finding the truth before 3 to 6 months of probationary employment?
There are several things that can help.
One, you can undergo behavioral interviewing like I did with Marie. Also like her case, you too can fail to recognize the lies because the candidate is simply too well prepared. In that case it’s also true that they may end up being right for the job. Marie is in good company here since a few otherwise successful CEOs lied in their resumes too, while also being good for their jobs.
Another option is to cross-reference the LinkedIn profile information with the HR departments of previous employers. But you wouldn’t be able to call the current employer because that would divulge that their employee is looking for another job and you’d be too much of a jerk to do that. You also need to be aware that HR departments can be tight lipped for fear of being sued. Only carefully phrased questioning may bridge the diplomatic gap between exacting useful information and openly accusing the candidate of lying.
Thirdly, you can buy a background check. Of course you need to make sure the company has the experience to obtain accurate information and also the diplomacy to not put you in a tight spot with their behavior if your efforts are found out. Background checks may also be too expensive for low-level positions so make sure to find a company who can offer affordable ones or, better yet, affordable packages covering all your candidates.