In light of the prevalence of these practices, is résumé inflation and deception acceptable?

According to Steven Levitt, author of Freakonomics, a small bit of inflation on one’s résumé is universal. Levitt estimates that at least half the people engage in this deception to some degree. Typically, the small edits to one’s résumé are done to disguise some unaccounted for time in between jobs. There may be nothing to hide except the fact that unexplained time period looks suspicious. On other occasions, the deceptions have been more substantial; for example, claiming an academic degree one almost acquired but didn’t: “Well, I was just two courses short!” It has also been said that based on studies, the average American tells one or two lies a day, often at work. A survey of 2,500 hiring managers by CareerBuilder found that 30 percent of them find false or misleading information on applicants’ résumés.

A résumé controversy with significant consequences occurred when the then-Yahoo CEO, Scott Thompson, was questioned about a statement on his company’s Web site, which reported that he had a degree in computer science. A dissident shareholder went public with the revelation that Thompson couldn’t have a degree in computer science because the small college he graduated from didn’t have a computer science major until after he graduated. The company’s regulatory filing indicated that Thompson had a degree in accounting and computer science. Thompson claimed the Web site information was an inadvertent error without providing more information. According to his college, Thompson graduated with a bachelor’s of science in business administration degree.

Days after this information came out, a person close to Yahoo’s board reported that in absence of information that Thompson intentionally misled, the company probably would not force him out, indicating that his importance as CEO to the company was more important than whether he had a computer science degree or not. In spite of this, CEO Scott Thompson resigned his position soon thereafter amid the controversy over his résumé discrepancy.

1. In light of the prevalence of these practices, is résumé inflation and deception acceptable? Is it okay up to a point as long as the distortion doesn’t get too big? Is a small amount of puffery on one’s résumé just expected as part of the game of getting a job and getting ahead? What would the conventional approach to business ethics say?

2. Some small schools don’t have official majors but people sometimes claim them anyway because they took several courses in a specialized area. Is this an acceptable practice?

3. If you had been on Yahoo’s board, would you have supported keeping Thompson?

4. Why do you suppose Thompson resigned?

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