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Lying on Your Resume: How to Survive Getting Caught

The Scenario: In the process of hacking your resume down to one page and trying to nail as many "scanner-friendly" words as possible, you, ahem, unintentionally boost your appeal. You're not being deliberately dishonest; you just left out some details. But on the second interview of a job you covet, your potential future boss asks you direct questions about your past performance. Your belly drops — you can tell that he thinks you're lying. And based on how you wrote the resume you realize — right there in the hot seat — that you have indeed painted yourself a slightly brighter shade of gold than you really are.

“H.R. people and recruiters see a lot of fibs, and very few of them are ‘unintentional,” says Charles Purdy, senior editor at and “Even a whiff of untruth is a big turnoff for hiring managers.” That means that if a potential boss’s line of questioning takes issue with your facts, you can assume he thinks you’re lying. You’re left in a situation where you’re guilty and have to prove yourself innocent.

Let’s make one thing clear: We’re not suggesting that you ought to get away with something like claiming you served in Vietnam when you didn’t. And if you have to tell an interviewer “I’m not a witch,” well, you’re on your own, pal. Unfortunately for you, you’re contending with a job interviewer who’s got no time for any falsehoods, not a public that’s sometimes surprisingly forgiving of such errors.

Think about it from a boss’s perspective. “You’ve been living in your career; the chances are good that you’ll assume a resume entry makes sense or reads a certain way,” says columnist Matthew Rothenberg, editor in chief of and author of You’re Better Than Your Job Search. “But it may not make sense to a disinterested third party.”

This is what’s known as an honest mistake that could go very, very wrong. Here are some tips on how to handle it.

1. Don’t Get Caught in the Interviewer’s Headlights

Scared never sells well. If you stutter or seem nervous in any way, you just convinced your interviewer of your guilt when you’re innocent. “It’s so easy to start seeming shifty in an interview once you get into that kind of spiral,” says Rothenberg. “You need to stop it right there.”

So make sure your physical response is positive — lean forward and express curiosity about the issue rather than pulling back and getting defensive. And second, stick to the script: Look at your own copy of the resume, nod your head, and say, “You know, you’re right, I can see how it would read that way. But I want to be clear on that point. Here’s what I mean,” and tell your story.

Confidence, truth, and transparency are the keys here. “Being defensive about it or trying to excuse it is not going to help matters,” says Rothenberg. “Take back some control of that situation and demonstrate that you’re a straight-shooter.”

The biggest mistake you can make? Disputing your interviewer’s interpretation of the resume. “Do not get into a verbal sparring match with your potential future boss about his reading comprehension skills,” says Rothenberg. “Acknowledge the concern, explain yourself, and move on.”

2. Defer to Teamwork

If your resume is reading wrong to someone, the biggest red flags are probably how you wrote about your best qualities or most important accomplishments and the interviewer simply doesn’t buy it. “They’re thinking: I don’t believe you did all that at your age, level of experience, what have you,” says Janet White, author of Secrets of the Hidden Job Market: Change Your Thinking to Get the Job of Your Dreams. “At that moment, don’t take credit for the achievements. Boasting puts up a barrier, so tell the story via the team you were on. No matter how informal the group may be, you are part of the group or company that did something.” Talk enthusiastically about the project or the problem that the group solved.

The benefits are multifold: First, you defuse the immediate situation and take control of the narrative. Second, you bask in the glory of the team — you are a team player, after all. You can then answer specific questions about your role, and explain, with anecdotes, all the lessons you learned about what it takes to succeed. Not only does this give you a chance to show off your strong points, but by revealing your deep knowledge of the specifics of the accomplishment, you restore your credibility.

3. Make Sure It Never Happens Again

Having a bullet-proof resume is the best defense against this kind of situation. As Rothenberg says: “You don’t want to spend time in an interview talking yourself out of a corner that you shouldn’t have painted yourself into in the first place.” Therefore, take the following points to heart.

Understand what a resume is. Yes, it’s a piece of paper or computer file that tells someone about your work history and qualifications, blah, blah, blah. Go deeper than that. “Your resume is the very first advertisement for your personal brand and has to be a coherent narrative,” says Rothenberg. This does not mean clever copywriting and slick declarations. It means telling the clear, concise tale of you. It must make sense as a story moving from place to place, date to date, without gaps and inconsistencies. “We recommend you have it professionally written so you have a paid set of objective eyes making sure the story reads,” says Rothenberg. “At least have someone you trust take a look.”

Don’t let ‘rules’ overrule common sense. In telling your story (remember: clear and concise), don’t be hamstrung by so-called rules that could compromise your ability to accurately convey information. Some examples:

  • The one-page rule. Yes, reining in your resume to one page is usually a good idea. Usually. “Many resume experts say that although a resume for most junior-level or mid-career professionals should probably be one page, someone with a lengthier work history might have to go to two pages to give an accurate representation,” says Purdy. If your story warrants an extra page, go for it. But only if you’re truly completing a clear and concise narrative.
  • The “scanner-friendly” rule. Much has been made of how computers read a lot of resumes these days, looking for the best candidates via key words that relate to the industry or position. And sure, if you have to cold-call a big bureaucratic organization — a low-percentage play, by the way — kiss up to the computer by including a few keywords from the job description. But for the most part, White thinks this is nonsense. “You’re never going to be hired by a computer; you’re going to be hired by a person with two eyes, a brain, and feelings,” White says. “If you write your resume from the standpoint that it’s going to be read by a person, you don’t have to worry about key words.”

Fact check before you’re fact checked. When you think you’ve finished updating your resume, take one last, detailed swing through it line by line, ensuring the presence of two things: One, do you have an anecdote or interesting fact for every entry that you can use in the interview? And two, can every entry be verified? “It’s easier than ever to do background checks on people these days,” says Purdy. “Be sure to choose things that you or a former manager or colleague can verify, and don’t overstate achievements. If you claim, say, that you saved your company $100,000 by sourcing new suppliers, have a good story about how you found those suppliers.” Plus, be ready to detail the savings.

And that’s not a bad piece of interviewing advice, either. Don’t think of your career as a mere list of achievements, but a set of really good stories that someone in your industry would be interested in. If you can present those stories in an accurate and compelling way — on your resume and in the hot seat — you’ll have an honest advantage over everyone else.

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