78% of job seekers lie during the hiring process—here's what happened to 4 of them

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Applying for a new job can be stressful, and according to one new survey, that stress is leading a majority of job seekers to lie on their resumes in order to stand out.

The survey findings from Checkster, a reference checking company, show that 78% of candidates who applied for or received a job offer in the last six months admit they did or would consider misrepresenting themselves on their application. Put another way, just one in six job seekers say they didn't stretch the truth in any way during their recent hiring experience.

The survey included responses from 400 job applicants as well as 400 hiring managers, recruiters and other human resources professionals.

Here are the most common lies told during the hiring process, and the share of candidates who have or would consider telling them:

  • Having a mastery of skills they barely use (like Excel or a foreign language): 60%
  • Working at a company longer than they did in order to omit another employer: 50%
  • Having a higher GPA by more than half a point: 49%
  • Holding a director title when the actual role was manager or other equivalent level: 41%
  • Earning a degree from a prestigious university when they were actually a few credits short: 40%
  • Earning a degree from a prestigious university instead of where they actually went: 39%
  • Earning a degree from a prestigious university when they'd only taken one class online: 39%
  • Saying they achieved things they didn't: 33%

CNBC Make It spoke with workers who have stretched the truth about why they did it — and what happened.

Stretching the truth to land the job

Stacy Caprio, a 28-year-old from Boston, spent a college semester abroad in Hong Kong and took a level 1 Mandarin class while there. Afterward, she added an "elementary proficiency" in Mandarin to the accomplishments section of her LinkedIn profile.

"Several times during job interviews or other situations, people have seen that and asked if I can speak Mandarin," Caprio tells CNBC Make It. "I always reply no, not at all — I simply took one semester while studying abroad in Hong Kong."

Caprio, who works as an online marketer, recognizes that including the foreign language may give the impression that she knows more Mandarin than she does. But, when asked about it in-person, even being honest about her limited proficiency has had its advantages.

"If nothing else, it is a good conversation starter and often leads to a discussion of what I learned living and learning in Hong Kong for half a year," Caprio says, "and it makes my profile more interesting."

Not all job candidates are as honest in-person. When surveyed about their willingness to lie during an interview, just under half say they did or would consider significantly inflating their role on a key project while discussing their work history with an interviewer. Other common lies at the interview stage include candidates saying they left a previous job when they were actually fired, making up relevant experience and saying they earned a higher salary than they actually did. (A growing number of states, cities and local jurisdictions have made it illegal for employers to ask candidates about their salary history.)

Miguel Cairo, 34, from Dania Beach, Fla., stretched his dates of employment as a systems analyst with a large fast-food chain and said he stayed with the company roughly four years longer than he did.

During that time, however, he left the company to start his own business selling refurbished cellphones. After making some poor choices with his marketing budget, the venture "went south," and Cairo put himself back on the job market.

"I figured it would look better if I listed on my resume that I worked for [the company] throughout instead of having to explain my failed business ventures or having an almost four-year gap in my resume," Cairo says. Over the next three months of applying and interviewing for jobs, the lie about his tenure never came to light. Cairo ended up landing a similar systems analyst job with another restaurant chain, where he stayed for about a year before quitting.

Today, "I am once again working for myself as an online marketer and full-time blogger," Cairo adds, "and use many of my experiences as a way to show people that we all make mistakes, but it is what we make of those mistakes that truly makes us who we are."

The lies hiring managers are willing to let slide

Yves Lermusi, CEO of Checkster, says it's not totally surprising that candidates are most likely to lie about their skills or previous dates of employment.

"Exaggerating your skills may be seen as an easy thing to get away with in the interview process, as it's difficult to check unless there is a skills test in the process," Lermusi says. "In addition, candidates may assume that prospective employers won't check with their previous employer to confirm details about their past work experience."

That said, hiring managers seem to be lenient with candidates who stretch the truth. Just one in three would never hire a candidate who lied, leaving the remaining 66% of hiring managers who are willing to hire someone despite inflated claims.

The majority of people willing to hire someone who lied say they'd do so if the candidate had a "good explanation." The next most common reason: if they can't find any other candidates for the role.

The least egregious stretch of the truth is when candidates inflate their GPA, according to the 92% of hiring managers who would still hire someone who lied about their score.

Roughly half of hiring managers, however, say they would never hire someone who lied during a reference or background check.

Lermusi says he was surprised by the majority share of hiring managers willing to make a job offer to a dishonest candidate, but points to the tight labor market as a reason why hiring managers are under pressure to fill positions, even if they catch an applicant misrepresenting themselves.

"These results may feel discouraging for honest applicants trying to find a job," Lermusi says. "After all, if everyone else is lying, then won't they look better than you? However, employers using reference checks, background checks, skills tests, etc., will be able to separate truthful from dishonest candidates, and candidates may burn themselves for future jobs.

"Moreover, misrepresenting applicants that are hired probably won't last long in those jobs," Lermusi says.

For some workers, lying leads to firing

Indeed, for candidates who don't get caught in a lie during the hiring process, there's always the potential for the truth to come out at a later time.

In November 2019, an NBC News investigation found that Mina Chang, the deputy assistant secretary in the State Department's Bureau of Conflict and Stability Operations, embellished her resume and made misleading claims about her professional background, including by creating a fake Time magazine cover with her face on it. She resigned a week later.

While Chang's case is an extreme example, lying on a resume can have serious consequences.

Gail Tolstoi-Miller, CEO of staffing firm Consultnetworx in New Jersey, previously consulted for a pharmaceutical company that conducted an audit of its employees' credentials. During the process, one worker's lie resulted in his termination.

"What they found out was he put down in his background that he had a college degree, when in fact he did not," Tolstoi-Miller says of the experienced professional who had spent several years with the company. "We're talking about very highly specialized work, research and development. He got fired for lying, so it can catch up with you."

For other areas of misrepresentation, such as workers saying they have skills they don't, Tolstoi-Miller suggests job seekers use online resources such as Coursera and Udemy to brush up these skills rather than lie about them.

"Candidates need to own their background," she says, "and learn how to sell themselves in the best way they can."

According to the Checkster survey, workers in construction were most likely to lie during the hiring process. Information and software, retail and manufacturing workers also lied more than the average candidate.

The most honest workers around? Those in hotel and food service, health care and social assistance, education and government.

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