Last week’s media frenzy focused on Scott Thompson, the new CEO of Yahoo! , who claimed to have earned a degree in computer science when in fact, his degree was in accounting. Some see the slight fudging of a college degree earned thirty years ago as insignificant, while others say you can’t compartmentalize trust, and that if you lie on the small issues you will lie.
End of story.
We will get to the lessons learned from the saga but first, a brief story.
The year was 1990 and we had been retained by a major corporation to recruit a president for a division. We conducted a national search and found what we thought was the perfect candidate. Susan (not her real name) had everything our client was seeking and was open to relocating from the East Coast to California.
As is typical of search firms, we began checking references and verifying the educational degrees as our client prepared the offer. We called the university that Susan listed on her resume and were unconcerned when the registrar could not find her name. This happens frequently when women graduate under their maiden name and change their name as they marry. Back then, even for large universities, you did not need release forms, nor did you need social security numbers. You just called and noted whom you spoke with and what they confirmed.
After a week of the registrar searching, I called my client and advised them to hold off until we straightened it out. My client exclaimed “Oh, Jane, you are being too cautious, . I’m going to extend the offer.” My heart sank, as after many years in this business, I have a sixth sense about these things. I hoped I was wrong.
I called Susan, and she listened quietly. She gave me her social security number with no comment. The next day a Federal Express package letter arrived for me from Susan saying, “I lied to you. I quit college to take care of my child and got a job at a university where a sympathetic colleague forged a degree for me. When both she and I left the university, the forged record disappeared. Because I have had such a successful career for so many years with my current company, I almost forgot that this could come up again.”
I gulped hard and called my client, who had no choice but to withdraw the offer. I was fearful of the consequences because the candidate had given notice at her current position, but fortunately she was so highly regarded that she was quickly welcomed back by her employer after telling them she’d had a change of heart. Her secret was safe.
"An ongoing lie is worse –much worse, than a lie that is corrected."
But it wasn’t.
Fast forward to 1996. We received a call from a well-known East Coast law firm who was representing a corporation that employed our long forgotten candidate Susan. The corporation was going through tough economic times and was laying off layers of management, including Susan. Susan had countered by suing the corporation for wrongful termination and in defending itself, the corporation learned of an offer from a West Coast corporation many years ago that had gone awry. Next thing I knew, I was being deposed as the corporation’s witness to show that the candidate was dishonest and had misrepresented herself to get the job in the first place.
I never found out how the case turned out. I didn’t need to. The lessons were abundantly clear in 1990, 1996 and yes, again today, as the Yahoo! saga unfolds.
If you have done something dishonest—even a tiny misrepresentation, the higher the position you attain and the more visible you are, the greater the chance it will be discovered.
While some will let you off the hook for a small white lie, many will not.
When you hire at the executive level it is imperative that your search firm conduct detailed background, criminal and credit checks. Most search firms offer this as part of their contract. Insist upon it and ask to see the raw data—not just their typed summary. You want to be the one to determine what is significant and what isn’t.
An ongoing lie is worse –much worse, than a lie that is corrected. In the case of Scott Thompson, people would have forgiven him if when he joined Yahoo! he had corrected his bio.
Don’t wait. Look at your resume or company bio and use this opportunity to come clean. And no, it is not okay to claim you have an MBA when you did not complete your dissertation. No, it is not okay to claim a degree if you took the hours but some didn’t transfer and you weren’t awarded the degree. And no you can’t claim to be a member of the State Bar of New York if you have let your membership lapse. Yes, you could be but you aren’t. And a degree in accounting does not an information technology degree make.
Jane Howze is founder and Managing Director of The Alexander Group. She has more than 25 years experience in executive search and has recruited executives worldwide in banking, energy, not for profit, technology, manufacturing, legal and professional services. She directs Board searches for the firm and is actively involved in The Alexander Group’s diversity practice. Ms. Howze is quoted frequently in major business publications, serves as a columnist for culturemap.com and is the author of Best Practices for Executive Search Firms for the Inside the Minds book series.