The fine line between boasting on a resume and lying

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You need to make sure your resume shows you in your best light; give shape to the truth so that it works for you. But be careful, because a well-written resume to one person is a pack of lies to another. Make sure yours falls somewhere in between, which is no small feat. We all know there is such a thing as stretching the truth too much. But there is also such a thing as being too honest.

My 21-year-old brother, Erik, worked summers at Blockbuster Video where, predictably, none of the mostly-teenaged employees followed company rules. In a fit of productivity my brother rearranged the end caps to be in line with the standards sent from company headquarters. At the same time, store sales increased 10%. So (as the family resume writer) I wrote on his resume, “Assumed responsibility for in-store marketing and increased sales 10%.”

At a family dinner, we passed around Erik's resume (yes, we do this in our family). My 34-year-old brother, Mike, said, “Are you kidding me? This is such crap. No one will believe this.”

Erik kept that line in his resume, and he explained it well when challenged in interviews, most recently where he landed a job at an investment bank.

And anyway, what is Erik going to put on his resume? “Spent workdays watching movies and complaining about Blockbuster's no-porn policies?” It would be honest, but Erik would sound like a lunatic.

Someone who is too honest sounds like a lunatic because they seem to have no understanding of how the world works. Here's an example: When my family was in US Customs after a trip to Greece, the Customs guy said, “Any fruit, vegetables or live animals?” And my dad said, “Yes.” And everyone else in the family thought, “What? We have no food.” And then my dad pulled seashells we found. “There could be live animals,” he said. The customs guy immediately went on high alert the way customs guys are trained to do when they are dealing with a crazy person. Customs searched every inch of every one of our suitcases.

Some lies, though, are not in the gray area that seashells are. Some lies are just plain lies. And if you have a big lie on your resume, you need to clean it up. For example, maybe you say on your resume that you worked at IBM for two years, but really you only worked there for one and spent a year job hunting and making web pages for you mom's bridge group. In this case, you need to tell the truth about IBM: one year.

But you don't have to leave a yearlong gap. Be creative. Call yourself a project manager for the year you had no job. You can learn about yourself as you rework your resume — maybe you didn't think of yourself as a project manager, but actually, you were.

We can also learn about ourselves from the lies we tell. I know at least one of you writes on your resume that you played varsity football when really you just went to pep rallies. Not only do you need to delete that line in your resume, you need to see a shrink about your obsession with football.

My dad was visiting my apartment one day, rifling through my papers, as parents will do. And he said, “What's this on your resume about a master's thesis on electronic media? You can't say this. You never finished grad school.”

I said, “It's not a lie. I did write the master's thesis. I just never took the last class I needed to graduate.”

My dad was not swayed. And I'm sure he shudders to think he raised a kid who would sneak shells past customs. But at least I know my own limits.

When it comes to massaging the truth, no two people have the same limits. But you need to be very clear on your own limits so you can stay within them. In the mean time, make sure that your own resume is not so honest that you look like a loser and not so dishonest that you're going to be fired.


25 replies
  1. Angsuman Chakraborty
    Angsuman Chakraborty says:

    We already have enough problems as it is with doctored resumes :)

    Maybe we need an alternative to traditional resumes.

    * * * * *

    Great idea. I think an alternative would be great. Resume formats are much too linear to reflect today’s workers. Looking forward to seeing what’s next.


  2. William Mitchell, CPRW
    William Mitchell, CPRW says:

    The key is to boast without coming across as boastful. The tone of your resume should be objective as opposed to grandiose. A fact is a fact. If you saved the $1.6 million by restructuring the Accounts Payable Department, then you did it. Be proud and own it. After all, if I am hiring someone to add to my bottom line, then I want to know these things. But as with any conversation and relationship:

    “It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it!”

    Keep the focus on the accomplishment, not the accomplisher .. they’ll get that because it is your resume. But you have to be willing to toot your own horn. If you don’t, no one else will. This is something I have to constantly communicate to my clients when discussing the project on the front end. Most claim that they don’t like to brag, and that’s okay. Sometimes you need a ‘hired gun” to pull the resume trigger for you. many are happy with the results after they see the final product.

    But in 2009, you just can’t get away with lying on your resume. There are just too many ways of being found out. Also, is it really worth it? After all, you end up looking over your shoulder throughout your entire tenure, waiting for that shoe to drop. Maybe I like things simplistic, but no career path is worth my peace of mind.

    William Mitchell, CPRW
    The Resume Clinic

    • Anna
      Anna says:

      @ William Mitchell, and that is a sales-pitch camouflaged as a discussion input. I consider that a sort of lying too.

    • Po
      Po says:

      “the truth is that everyone over does it when writing a resume. People keep it simple and you will get the job – Posted by Michael”

      WRONG ! “Sales Weasel” types over do it, pushy people over do it, arrogant and insecure people do it — honorable, legitimate, people do not over do it, in fact they more often UNDERSTATE.

    • Shinako
      Shinako says:

      Not me, and ironically this is me being brutally honest about his brutal honesty. When you’re working with someone you want tact, especially if it’s in business. You want someone that knows when to smooth over any unnecessary information and who knows when it’s important to go into detail on something. It’s taken me a long time to realize that my hair trigger honesty has held me back when it comes to relationships and careers, but there’s a time to soften the truth up a bit (as with the sea shells) and a time to be specific. I’d love a person like that as a friend because I could rely on their in depth perspective of the world and I feel that sort of honesty is honorable, but in business I’d be wary of such ‘risky’ honesty. I’ve learned that the truth about the truth is we don’t live in a society that functions on truth at all–and learning to accept and work with that is an every day challenge.

  3. Andy
    Andy says:

    What do you say on your resume about how you left a job when the reason is that you turned the company in for misappropriating money on a department of defense contract? And then what do you do about the 4-year employment gap that followed, thanks to active efforts on the part of the former employer to keep you from working?


    • Paul
      Paul says:

      Don’t put why you left on your resume. Do unpaid projects if you have no other recourse, to fill up the empty time.

  4. Cubicle Rebel
    Cubicle Rebel says:

    Hmm. There is creative rearranging that takes place on my resume. I’ve learned to effectively use words ending in “…ed”: managed, coordinated, assisted. I’m no longer mousey on my resume. I need a job, dang-it. No time for being timid. I just may bust in a door with scuffed up boots soon. Demand to be hired. Kindly, of course.

  5. Elaine
    Elaine says:

    “increased sales 10%”

    Unless he directly (or even indirectly, and that contribution ADDED to increased sales) increased sales 10%….then it is lying.

    So glad I have a brother that upholds HONESTY, ethics and integrity, rather than how to lie.

    As if we need more liars in investment banking. geez!

  6. Elaine
    Elaine says:

    ps….there is nothing about being honest that makes anyone a “loser”…what a shameful comment!!

    We need MORE honest people to stand up for what is right.
    God judges who is the “loser” in the end…and trust me…it’s NOT the one who is HONEST.
    just sayin’

  7. Layla
    Layla says:

    At this moment (currently in school, and almost optimistic that I’m good enough to get a job if I try hard enough) I feel uncomfortable about claiming I did something like increase productivity when there’s a correlation but not necessarily directly caused by me. But on the flip side, it’s also uncomfortable to have people say “why don’t you just get a job at a restaurant or something?” and want to beat their skulls in with a fry-basket because you are trying and can’t even get a job at McDonald’s.

    So thank you for this advice, and I’m going to take it and do what I want with it. I DO understate myself, but I’m going to really try to do so by being more clear in my wording.

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  11. Joe
    Joe says:

    I realize this article is more than ten years old, but I suggest taking it down before it does any more damage than it may have already done.
    Instructing people to inflate their accomplishments is just really bad advice. The example of taking credit for the 10% increase in sales is a perfect example of what *not* to do on your resume. Don’t lie. Don’t claim credit for things you didn’t actually do.
    The worst thing is that after reading this, I can never trust a single resume that I read again. I will now have to assume that every accomplishment is a lie until proven otherwise.

  12. Newbie
    Newbie says:

    “The worst thing is that after reading this, I can never trust a single resume that I read again. I will now have to assume that every accomplishment is a lie until proven otherwise.”

    Good, gives people like me a chance in the work force considering everyone is taking credits for things they haven’t done when they have the chance to get away with it.
    Someone like me could easy boast and you would treat me as an equal cause you don’t have time to check up on everyone’s credibility and you will more likely accept someone that is more suiting for the job that are better with people then someone that takes it all for granted anyways cause you ignore his claims that can’t be overlooked.
    The work force should hire people with the intention of evaluating them in the field other then just take their word for it and let them do a lot of damage.

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