5/27/2010 Fooling Some of the People Some of the Time

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May 27, 2010

Fooling Some of the People Some of the Time

SpaceCoast Business Magazine

Resume Fraud Is More Prevalent than You May Think

One of the most common methods for applicants to present their knowledge, skills, and abilities to potential employers is the resume.  Resumes typically contain information regarding an applicant’s education, previous employment, job-related experience, and professional certifications and licensure.  An entire industry has emerged to support the jobseekers’ efforts to improve their resumes.  There are thousands of self-help books, websites, and resume writing services that help applicants present themselves in a positive light.  Although most applicants legitimately try to capture the attention of a potential employer while presenting a factual account of their employment history, many applicants choose to cross the line and intentionally falsify information.

Recently, there have been many highly publicized examples of resume fraud involving high-level executives (e.g., Sandra Baldwin, chair of the U.S. Olympic Committee; Al Dunlap, CEO of Sunbeam; Ronald Zarella, CEO of Bausch & Lomb).  Popular press articles suggest that resume fraud is commonplace, and is increasing due to current economic conditions.  However, independent research estimates of the prevalence of resume falsification are rare.

What the Research Shows

The Applicant Response Behavior (ARB) project at the Florida Institute of Technology has been examining the issue of applicant deception for more than a decade, and their findings suggest that 20-25% of applicants are providing false information on resumes.  These falsifications are not the typical embellishments we have come to expect to see on a resume.  Substantial portions of these resumes contain manipulations of key facts, dates, and accomplishments.  ARB examined the accuracy of almost 2 million applicant resumes collected from March 2007 to March 2009. Our data suggested that on average 14.5% of applicant resumes contained verifiably false information regarding previous employment, educational background, etc.  An additional 14% of the resumes contained claims that could not be verified as true.  While some of these unverified claims have legitimate explanations, many benefit from their previous employer’s reluctance to share information.

As the economy worsened over the two-year period we examined (unemployment grew from 4.4% to 8.5%)these rates of applicant falsification rose 30 percent. When we surveyed applicants regarding falsification of application materials, 23% of job seekers reported that they had been dishonest on their application materials.  However, 95% of job seekers believed that other applicants falsified their application.  Overall, the evidence we have examined in the ARB project suggests that applicant deception is commonplace, with 20-30% of applicants engaging in dishonesty across diverse selection methods (e.g. resume, interview, personality tests).

What to Look For

Should organizations be concerned about these numbers?  Our research examining the characteristics of individuals who fail background checks and falsify other selection tools suggests that they should.  One of the top predictors of screening failure was the applicant’s level of impulsivity.  The trait of impulsivity has strong links to criminal behavior and counter productive work behavior (CWB).  Three hundred billion dollars are lost each year to CWB.  The U.S. Department of Commerce estimates that over $50 billion alone is lost to retail theft, and employees are responsible for almost 50% of that loss.  Criminal behavior resulting in negligence claims has increased in frequency and in punitive damages, now averaging over $1 million a year.

What can organizations do to reduce their exposure to negligence and CWB?  Our research suggests that organizations need to adjust their strategic view of the selection process.  Most selection tools are used to discern the best applicants to hire based on their intelligence, formal training, and fit for the job and the organization.  These selection metrics are used to skim the cream of the applicant pool to find the best employees based on job relevant factors.  However, with the prevalence of resume fraud, organizations may be hiring more applicants from the bottom of the barrel than they previously thought.  For as many as 25% of applicants, the information that is evaluated to make the hiring decision may be falsified.

Organizations should be investing in screening systems to eliminate these potentially problematic employees from the applicant pool.  By integrating predictors of CWB and a background check into the selection processes, organizations can identify those likely to engage in CWB, and catch the fox before it gets in the henhouse.

Dr. Richard Griffith is an associate professor at the Florida Institute of Technology, and the director of the Applicant Response Behavior (ARB) project.  His research examines the prevalence and impact of applicant deception.  His research has been featured in Time magazine and The Wall Street Journal.

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