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When Mina Chang was hired as a senior administration official for the State Department in 2019, her credentials proved she was the right candidate for the job—
Harvard MBA alumna. Graduate of the Army War College. Front cover of Time Magazine. CEO of a nonprofit. Position on a UN panel.
Stellar candidate, right? There was just one problem—
She made it all up.
Yes, the high and mighty lie on their resume as well—but even they have to face the consequences when caught.
You might not be fired by the President—or go to prison for a year as one Aussie did last week—for lying on your resume. Chances are, you’ve done it before, and haven’t gotten caught.
We started thinking—just how wide scale is this problem? To investigate, we went directly to the source.
We surveyed 1,051 Americans and asked if they lied, why they lied, and if they were caught.
Read on to see which groups of people are most often liable to falsify and stretch the truth on their resumes and the reasons why they do so.
Most studies focus on the who question—Boomers, Millennials, Gen Z.
Sure, it’s interesting to crown one generation as the most honorable.
But—it doesn’t tell us much about the circumstances of why people lie on their resumes.
Our study points to the systemic reasons why people lie on their resume—lack of experience or unemployed for long periods of time—as well as industry professionals.
Like other studies, we were able to see similar results that most people do lie on their resume.
When respondents were asked about whether they knew a person who lied on their resume, an overwhelming 93% of people said yes. The three most common lies related to work experience (27%), skills (18%), and job duties (17%).
Were these people caught, and if so, what happened?
Only 31% of these people were caught. Of those individuals who were caught, 65% were either fired or not hired. That means only 21% of people who lied on their resume paid the price of losing a job or being passed up on one.
Oh, the Lies We Tell
What happens when we turn the tables on our respondents and ask them if they personally lied on their resumes? The numbers change drastically. Here’s what we found.
Only 36% percent of respondents confessed to lying on a resume. That’s a 57% decrease when we personalize the question.
How is this possible?
- We might have sampled a group of thruthtellers.
- Everyone knows dozens if not hundreds of people of whom just single individuals lie.
- A lot of them know the same liars.
- They’re lying about not lying. (We’ll get to that.)
The top five parts of their resume where people stretched the truth are as follows:
- Job experience—25%
- Job duties—21%
- Employment dates—16%
Other interesting trends?
Lying by Gender and Age
Men (58%) lie more often than women (41%) on their resume.
When it comes to age, 38% of young people (aged 18-39) confess to lying more often than older people (aged 40+, 30%). We find this surprising, as the longer you are alive, the greater the odds that you do lie at some point in time. Recall bias perhaps?
When we broke down the data by industry, we found that:
- Business and retail professionals lie nearly 50% of the time on their resumes.
- Education and healthcare professionals (30%) are the least likely to lie.
- No major difference exists in lying on a resume based on education level.
Now—we know what people lie on their resume, but we don’t really know why people lie on a resume. Let’s see what factors lead people to lie.
To Lie or Not To Lie?
Why do people lie?
Let’s be honest: people lie because they want to get an interview and the job. But things get interesting when we look at the details:
About 23% lied even though they thought they were qualified.
As for some more obvious reasons:
- They wanted a higher salary for that position—17%
- They weren’t qualified for the position—17%
And, the most honest answer ever tops the list:
- They didn’t think they’d get caught—18%
Long term unemployment is the main reason for lying. About 37% of respondents chose this answer, nearly double the second most common reason. It resonated more with Boomers (nearly 50%) and the least with Gen Z (26%).
Desperate times call for desperate measures. But—not for all.
So, who doesn’t lie and why?
The most significant factor for why people didn’t lie is they didn’t want to be dishonest (38%).
Coming in as the second most significant reason—they didn’t want to get caught in the lie (31%).
24% of respondents also stated they didn’t lie because they were qualified for the position. Flip that number and we see that 75% of respondents didn’t feel qualified for the job and still chose not to lie.
People don’t lie because of general moral standards, fear of getting caught, and assuming they’re simply good candidates.
Now, back to the discrepancy between how many people know a liar and how many people are liars.
At first glance, these initial responses seemed off. How can so many people know someone who lied (93%) yet rarely lie (31%)?
We asked additional questions and found the root of the issue: the majority of people do lie on their resume—and don’t even realize it.
Caught in a Web of Lies
When respondents were asked specific questions related to certain sections on their resume, we found that 1 in 3 of “truthful” respondents do lie on their resume.
What does this mean? People don’t think they are lying on their resume, but do deceptively stretch employment dates, add skills they don’t have, and boost key achievements from their former positions.
56% of people actually lie on their resume—whether they realize it or not.
We asked respondents a series of specific questions related to different parts of a resume to hone in on whether they tell the whole, honest truth, or whether they stretch it to look better on paper.
More than 10% of people who, at first, claimed that they never lied did inadvertently confess:
- Have you ever said you’re good at something on your resume that you wouldn’t feel comfortable doing when asked? (15% said yes)
- Have you ever stretched the dates of a position you worked at? (13% said yes)
- Have you ever rounded up your GPA on your resume? (12% said yes)
- Have you ever exaggerated your results from previous positions on your resume? (11% said yes)
In addition, young people (aged 18-39) inadvertently confessed to lying more often than older people (aged 40+). This is especially noticeable when it comes to Boomers who have the lowest yes rate for this set of questions.
Lied About Not Lying
For most of these questions, professionals from Business and Finance and Software/IT industries have the highest yes rate as well. Education workers are likely to lie the least.
Those questions related to higher education or work experience yield interesting results. The most likely to lie on their resume (when claiming they don’t) are those with a Bachelor’s Degree or Some College Degree. At the same time, the most trustworthy are people with no college degree.
Potential reasons: these respondents might be in industries in which lying is more common and there's a greater incentive to do it. Or, it’s simply because higher social class is predictive of increased unethical behavior, as research has found.
All research points to one fact—lying on a resume happens more often than we thought.
This study put to the test this assumption—and the results were staggering. Here is a summary of our most important findings:
- A strong majority (93%) of people know a person who lied on their resume.
- Of those who lied on a resume, only 21% were fired or not hired.
- The most common lies on a resume are about job experience (27%), skills (18%), and job duties (17%).
- Only 36% openly admit to lying on their resume.
- However, out of 65% of those who said they never lied on a resume, 1 in 3 confessed to stretching the truth, making the real percentage of people who lie 56%.
- Men (58%) lie more often than women (41%).
- The most important factor for why people lie on their resume is being unemployed for a long period of time.
Methodology and Limitations
In this study, we collected answers from 1,051 Americans via Amazon's Mechanical Turk. Respondents consisted of 49.7% males and 49.9% females. Our sample's average age was 37 with a standard deviation of 12.
This self-report study investigated whether people lie on their resume, what they lie about, and what factors led them to lie. We also checked how truthful non-liars were, by asking pointed follow-up questions.
Respondents were asked 21 questions, most of which were scale-based or multiple choice. As experience is subjective, we understand that some participants and their answers might be affected by recency, attribution, exaggeration, self-selection, non-response, voluntary response bias, self-serving bias, and moral illusory superiority. What’s more, people can be lying about lying. We understand that defining what constitutes a lie is a challenge in its own right. However, for the purposes of this study a resume lie is defined as any discrepancy between reality and what is reported in the application.
Given the gender and age makeup of our large sample, as well as the fact that the official labor force participation rate in July 2019 was 63%, the study can be generalized to the entire population. What is more, a review of the literature and relevant studies suggests that results obtained in the survey corroborate hitherto results, and add to previous studies by controlling for explicit vs. implicit reports of lying.