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To Lie or Not to Lie

The Careerist, A Blog
By Vivian Chen
June 8, 2010

Is there a black mark on your transcript--say, an embarrassingly bad grade in some gut course like family law? Have you spent time in detox? Were you a Moonie for eight years before you saw the light and decided to go to law school?

Plenty of job applicants have a slip here or there. The problem is that law firms can be pretty unforgiving about life's foibles. They typically want candidates who are straight and narrow--the type of people whose idea of rebellion is to eat organic lettuce on a regular basis. In my experience, law firm interviewers can be painfully thorough. (For the record, my law school transcript is less than stellar, but I'm clean on the rehab and cult front.)

So the big question is this: What should you do about that inconvenient truth in your past? Should you come clean, in full, and be prepared to explain? Is it ever okay to lie on your resume or during a job interview?

Recently I came across two articles on the subject of lying and careers--one in The Wall Street Journal by Anna Prior and one in the Financial Times by Lucy Kellaway. Not surprisingly, the American publication takes a more puritanical view on lying. The WSJ's  Prior essentially warns readers to tell the truth--or face the consequences. The Brit (the FT's Kellaway) takes a more nuanced view. Ultimately, both the WSJ and FT offer advice that isn't radically different--both consider telling little lies acceptable (say, puffing about your restructuring experience); telling big lies (pretending to be a Yale Law School grad) is not.

The WSJ article, "In Job Hunting, Honesty Is Still the Best Policy," is full of cautionary tales about the perils of lying:

What's the harm in a little white lie on your resume, especially if it will help you finally nab that full-time position? 

Just ask George O'Leary, the Notre Dame football coach who was forced to resign five days after being hired when lies about his academic and athletic background came to light. Or Marilee Jones, an MIT dean who fudged on her credentials and quit when she was found out. 

Sure, these are high-profile examples, but rank-and-file workers also fall into the trap--and get caught.

Personally, I find Kellaway's article, "The Road to the Top Is Paved with Good Lies," more illuminating and fun. "Lying is surely caused as much by pragmatism as fear," she writes. "In my experience, it can be jolly useful. And tests have shown that it doesn't always catch up with you at all."

Kellaway cites some intriguing findings, including one in a recent issue of the Harvard Business Review that found "powerful people are better liars." In that study, bosses and staff members were assigned "to steal a $100 note and then convince someone that they hadn’t taken it--a trick that bosses could pull off far more successfully than their employees." Another study by psychologists at the University of Toronto, Kellaway writes, shows "that children who start lying by the age of 2 are more likely to be successful when they grow up."

Before anyone takes moral offense, let's be clear that Kellaway isn't promoting rampant chicanery. Rather, she's distinguishing between different strands of lying:

There is extreme lying, which is always bad. But there is also modest lying that is not bad; indeed it is absolutely essential to get through a day in the office. What is needed is more than being economical with the truth; it’s being sophisticated with it.

Enough theory. Let's get back to your sullied past. Do you really need to tell all? 

"Everybody has something to explain," says recruiter Jon Lindsey. "There's a difference between explanation and lies--and lies come back to bite you." He counsels telling the truth about almost everything, but says it's fine to fudge the reason you're looking for a new job: "If you're working for a psycho, it's better to say that the job was not a good fit and be vague."

Career coach Ellen Ostrow also advises lawyers to resist the temptation to lie. "If you've been fired, negotiate with your employer to say that it wasn't performance based," she says. 

Finally, it's worth bearing in mind that lawyers are held to a higher standard. Unlike their wheely-dealy clients, lawyers work in a regulated profession. "You can get disbarred for lying," Ostrow cautions. "Lawyers take an oath to uphold the law and should be more honest than their clients," adds recruiter Bonnie Miller.

It might not be fair, but lawyers just have to be more truthful. They have more to lose than the average Joanna when they lie. Pragmatism, rather than morals, decides the day. Is that too cynical?

If you have topics you'd like to discuss, or information to share for The Careerist, e-mail chief blogger Vivia Chen at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .




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