Yahoo CEO’s Exit: Debacle for Company, and a Warning for Resume Padders

Scott Thompson was hired as Yahoo CEO—the embattled company's fourth in five years—for his record as an executive, not the degrees on his resume. But the fabrication was costly.

Yahoo Center
Yahoo Center

The departure of Scott Thompson as CEO of Yahoo over the weekend poses a new challenge for the struggling firm, but it's also a cautionary tale that ripples beyond the high-tech industry.

The lesson: Padding a resume with fabrications or half-truths can be dangerous to your career.

In Mr. Thompson's case, his resignation was prompted by a recent uproar over an inaccuracy in his biography on the company's website and in a recent filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission. The bio listed bachelor degrees in accounting and computer science from Stonehill College near Boston. A dissident Yahoo shareholder discovered that Thompson had never earned the computer science degree.

On its face, that may not sound like an automatic career ender. Thompson was hired for his performance as an executive, most recently at the Paypal online paymentsfirm, not for his record as an undergraduate more than two decades earlier.

But Yahoo's staff and shareholders were already in turmoil over the embattled company's long struggle to find its way in a tech world now dominated by the likes of Google and Facebook. With the recently arrived chief executive facing doubts from Day 1 about whether he was the right person to chart a course, that nonexistent computer science degree stirred deep concerns.

The Wall Street Journal reported an additional twist in the story Monday: Thompson told the board last week about a medical diagnosis that contributed to his decision to step down.

As Thompson leaves, the prominent shareholder who sought his ouster stands to gain significant new power. Daniel Loeb, who wrote a May 3 letter to Yahoo's board describing the biographical falsehood, already controls a 5.8 percent stake in the company through his Third Point hedge fund. Now Yahoo is reshuffling its board, with four members departing, and Loeb named to fill one of those seats. Two of his allies, former MTV Networks executive Michael Wolf and turnaround specialist Harry Wilson, will also join Yahoo's board.

This kind of high-profile upheaval over a biography doesn't happen every day. For one thing, many companies aren't, like Yahoo, wracked with strategic problems that boil down to a corporate version of the existential question, "who am I." Had Yahoo been less troubled, perhaps the missing computer science degree wouldn't have inflamed doubts about Thompson.

Also, most big companies vet the qualifications and background of their top hires very carefully. On its face, the events of recent days suggest that Yahoo's board failed to do that. Whatever the merits or flaws of Yahoo's hiring process, Thompson was the company's fourth CEO in five years.

At the same time, resume padding has been documented as a widespread problem, prevalent among seekers of both low- and high-profile jobs.

News stories in recent years have followed people who fabricated details regarding military service, university degrees, and business deals, among other things.

The recurring lesson is that falsehoods designed to make a resume stand out against competitors can instead cause an application to be discarded, or can result in job loss if a lie is discovered by an employer after hiring.

In some cases, a job ender isn't a career ender. Fabrications caused Notre Dame football coach George O'Leary to depart after five days on the job in 2001, but other employers still ended up being interested in his coaching talent.

Some career counseling professionals urge workers to correct mistakes rather than let them linger for years on a resume or biography, as Thompson appears to have done.

Also, if you're caught in a mistake, don't compound the problem, they say. Thompson may have done that, too. He sought to assure other Yahoo executives that he wasn't the source of the inaccuracy, blaming a Chicago headhunting firm, Heidrick & Struggles, according an Associated Press report. The headhunting firm, in an internal memo, said Thompson's accusation was "verifiably not true and we have notified Yahoo! to that effect."

Lies or embellishments on resumes are fairly common, and often aren't noticed by employers. But when an application is fact-checked, the misrepresentation is often easy to catch. And the rise of the Internet has made it all the easier for mistakes to be caught by outside parties, such as Yahoo investor Loeb.

"The risk is not worth the potential reward – and it’s the wrong thing to do," says resume-writing expert Louise Kursmark in a recent blog post on the Yahoo episode. She says people often take this step because they're worried about some issue that will make their job application look weaker.

"My advice: Focus on what you DO have, not what you don’t," says Ms. Kursmark, president of Best Impression Career Services. "Emphasize your successes and be able to tell a compelling story about your challenges and accomplishments."