The High Price Of Career Lies
Written by Deborah L. Jacobs, Forbes Staff
Scott Thompson resigned as CEO of Yahoo after a discrepancy on his résumé came to light.
Why did Yahoo CEO Scott Thompson fudge his résumé? That’s the question that lingers in the wake of his resignation yesterday just four months after taking the helm. Ever since the news broke two weeks ago that Thompson claimed to have a degree in computer science when he didn’t, colleagues, pundits and many of the rest of us have been debating whether he was fit to run the company.
The padded résumé came to light in the course of a proxy war, as FORBES senior editor Susan Adams explains here. Daniel Loeb, head of hedge fund Third Point, who owns 5.8% of Yahoo and has a net worth of $1.2 billion according to the latest FORBES estimates, wanted control of the board and Thompson stood in his way. So he apparently went looking for dirt and easily turned up the discrepancy with a Google search. In business and in politics that’s not an unusual scenario.
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Yahoo’s first reaction was to call Thompson’s résumé entry an “inadvertent error,” but it turns out this version of the résumé had been kicking around for more than a decade. Thompson blamed a search firm, which pointed the finger right back at him.
Ironically, Thompson probably didn’t need that degree to become Yahoo’s top dog. His prior job experience–he previously headed eBay’s PayPal unit–plus his degree in accounting from Stonehill College, were almost certainly enough. Still, like so many people, he seems to have yearned for a status symbol he would have liked to have had.
It’s the same feeling that causes workers to embellish their job descriptions, fudge their class ranks and suggest they graduated from college when they never did. Especially in a tough job market, graduates inflate their class standing for fear they’ll otherwise lose out to people who were just better test-takers.
Behind each deception there’s usually a rationalization – like, “Everybody does it.” “Who will ever know?” or “I deserve it.” As The New York Times noted here, other CEOs have lied about their credentials and not lost their posts. They include Ronald Zarrella, who as CEO of Bausch & Lomb, admitted in 2002 that while he attended New York University’s Stern School of Business at night, he did not graduate. He retained his perch until he retired six years later.
David Edmondson the former CEO of RadioShack, who also padded his résumé, didn’t fare as well, The Times notes. His claim: that he graduated from Pacific Coast Baptist College with bachelor’s degrees in theology and psychology. He resigned from the company in 2006 after admitting he didn’t have either.
History is full of fakers, and some almost get away with it. One of my favorite examples involves Lieut. Cmdr. Richard E Byrd, who won a medal in 1926 for being the first person to fly over the North Pole. Seventy years later, a Baltimore historian who studied his diary said that the Navy pilot had a leaky fuel tank and never reached the pole. I’ll bet Byrd, who died in 1957, always worried that his secret would get out.
Adm. Jeremy M. Boorda had a more tragic demise after wearing Vietnam War combat medals that he hadn’t earned. He committed suicide in 1996 when he heard Newsweek magazine was about to run a story questioning whether he was entitled to don the medals.
Sadly, there are some notorious examples in journalism too. Janet Cooke, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1981 for her Washington Post story about an eight-year-old heroin addict, lost the prize two days later when judges found she made up the tale. More recently, in 2003, New York Times reporter Jayson Blair was forced to resign after the paper discovered plagiarism and fabrication in his stories.
Job-hunting books, Web sites, career counselors and resume writing services inadvertently encourage cheating when the advise workers to “market” or “position” or “brand” themselves in a way that appeals to hiring managers. The results can be misleading and undermine your credibility. For more about this, see my colleague Meghan Casserly‘s article, “Stop Lying! And The Nine Other Mistakes You’re Making On LinkedIn.” If you’ve recently been fired and are wondering how to play it, check out my post, “What To Say On LinkedIn When You’ve Been Laid Off.”
One reader who faked her age when she applied for a job thought she’d have a better shot if she pretended to be four years younger. That lie, which escaped the company’s detection, caught up with her 12 years down the line when her employer offered an early retirement package. People 55 and older were eligible for the buyout. She couldn’t take advantage of it since company records showed she was four years too young.
Most often, you don’t need a lie to get ahead. But maybe you wish your record had a little more sparkle. Longingly, you look back on the job that went to someone else, the company you didn’t get to work for, the title you could never claim. Next time you feel a twinge of regret about goals you never reached, though, tally up the other side of the equation. In light of all you have done, it really shouldn’t matter.