Liar, Liar, Résumé (and Career) on Fire

If you’ve wondered why the hiring process at many organizations requires you as a job-seeker to jump through more and more pre-screening hoops:  well, it’s stories like the one below that drag the hiring process down for all of us:

Embattled head of American Academy of Arts and Sciences resigns after questions about resume

  • By Todd Wallack, Boston Globe Staff

CAMBRIDGE, MA – JULY 26, 2013 – The controversial chief executive of the prestigious American Academy of Arts and Sciences has agreed to resign on July 31 following reports that she embellished her resume, the institution announced today. She will receive a one-time payment of $475,000 for retirement and other benefits, according to an academy statement, but no severance payment.

Leslie Cohen Berlowitz, who has overseen the 233-year-old Cambridge honorary society for the past 17 years, had been on paid leave from the academy for more than a month after the Globe reported that she falsely claimed a doctorate from New York University and misstated her work history in federal grant applications and other documents over the past decade. (Emphasis mine.)

Berlowitz also came under fire for regularly berating staffers, micromanaging the academy’s affairs, barring scholars from viewing the academy’s historic archives, and receiving an outsized pay package — more than $598,000 in fiscal year 2012 alone for an organization with only a few dozen staffers, several times what her peers were paid. Investigators were also examining whether the academy fully reported all her executive perks on its tax returns, such as catered meals, first-class travel, and chauffeured transit to her home.

The institution said Berlowitz will continue to receive her salary through next week and receive the one-time payment for retirement benefits she is owed under her contract, unused vacation time and other deferred compensation. She will also receive supplemental health insurance for five years.

“The agreement does not call for any severance payment,” academy chairman Louis W. Cabot said in a letter to members. “The agreement has been reviewed by independent legal counsel, and the Board has determined that this agreement is in the Academy’s best interest.”

The academy also said it is launching a search for a new chief executive and the board has appointed a special committee to examine its executive compensation practices.

The controversy has attracted national attention because of the academy’s prestige. Founded by John Adams and other Harvard College graduates during the Revolutionary War, the academy conducts research, holds lectures for members, and annually elects scores of the brightest scholars, artists and leaders every year. Its membership currently includes 50 Nobel laureates and 60 Pulitzer Prize winners.

But academics typically have little tolerance for people exaggerating their educational credentials. Marilee Jones, a popular admissions dean at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, left in disgrace in 2007 after she falsified her degrees. And Doug Lynch, a vice dean at the University of Pennsylvania, resigned last year after revelations that he falsely claimed to have a doctorate from Columbia University. (Emphasis mine.)

Yes, in this day and age of almost instantaneous electronic background-check verification, job candidates, including but not limited to those at the highest levels, continue to lie about their education and work experiences.  I don’t even expend the energy at this point to wonder why candidates lie about their backgrounds.  Fool me once, shame on you.  Fool me twice, and after the employment offer is tendered, I will ask for proof of education and other information from job candidates even before I spend the money finding out the same information from the background-check company.

And make no mistake:  when it is discovered that a candidate, or even worse, a tenured employee, has lied about their education / credentials and it comes to light on the back end, the reputations of both the individual and the hiring organization are damaged, sometimes irreparably.   Given these recent devastating and high-profile falsehoods, here are some nuggets of wisdom for both job candidates and hiring authorities:

Job candidates:

  • Tell the truth; don’t lie – at any time, at any point of the employment cycle, from the first interview to when you resign on great terms to move on to your next great career opportunity.  If you’re not motivated ethically, at the very least, weigh your handling of the truth against how it would play out in the press and subsequently, on the interwebs, in terms of the potential damage to your reputation / future employability;
  • Proactively provide certified proof of your background / credentials once the employment offer is received and accepted:  it will preserve  the reputations of all involved, and help expedite the scheduling of your first day on the job.

Hiring authorities:

  • As we used to say in the election biz at the beginning of my career:  do your own negative research before the press, your opponents and stakeholders do it for you, e.g., check references / credentials post-offer, pre-hire (before the first day at work, and preferably before you send the new hire announcement out to the local press);
  • Perform thorough background checks within compliance boundaries.  If  you don’t have the time / resources to do it yourself, outsource the task to a reliable third-party provider. Your stakeholders at all levels, including but not limited to your press relations staff, will thank you.

Because in the final analysis, it’s the truth that sets us free to produce our best results, in business and at work.

Pencil on resume text


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