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Mar 09, 2015

Let's talk about honesty.

By: Paul Ebeltoft

Lance Armstrong last year. Brian Williams last month. The Secretary of the United States Department of Veterans Affairs last week. Each has been outed for lying about issues pertaining to their jobs; about matters great and small.

Has the business world taken notice? Yes, but consistency of response is hard to find. Many in business have adopted a zero tolerance policy. Once a business-related lie is uncovered, it is a fire-able offense. Unless the dishonesty involves theft of company resources, some feel that lying and being caught, like exposure of other human failings, will generate an ebb and flow of outrage or understanding depending upon who is doing the lying and what they were caught doing. Don’t try to predict the future and deal with it on a case-by-case basis is the policy these folks promote. A few others in business urge tolerance as taught in John 8:7, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone …”

None of these are wrong. But, too often, when the rubber hits the road and a deception comes to light, bosses are adrift. They have not considered how to respond. Too often, the fallback is to ask HR Professionals to draw the various lines around the current issue. Was it a “material lie”? What punishment fits the falsehood? Will forgiveness encourage others to do the same?

For purposes of this article, we will explore the most common workplace whopper, falsifying biographical information. We will reveal how we think good businesses should craft their response.

How big is the problem?

Steven D. Levitt, coauthor of Freakonomics and a renowned economics professor at the University of Chicago, cites research suggesting that more than 50 percent of people lie on their resumes. supports that finding and further reports that 70% of the college students they surveyed would lie on a resume to get the job they want. The potential for problems in your workplace is substantial.

What actually is the problem?

Many bosses assume that a disingenuous job-applicant is a problem easily solved by passing over the offender. However, overworked and under-resourced HR Professionals frequently are not able to discover a misleading embellishment or even an out-and-out untruth during the hiring process. Excepting for those few positions where criminal background or more extensive personal background checks are performed, HR simply has too much to do to tweeze the lie out of a haystack of material. Even with sophisticated background review regimes, academic fraud, altered dates of employment, inaccurate job descriptions, falsified references, and inflated prior salary claims are often not uncovered. Only later, after the hire, does the truth sometimes surface and sometimes many years after the lie. Consider the 2001 resignation of Notre Dame football coach, George O’Leary.

O’Leary’s downfall was traced to an application form filled out for his first coaching job in 1980, twenty-one years before he got the job at Notre Dame. In it, he exaggerated his accomplishments as a football player in college. Another problem for the coach was a media guide, published by a former team’s public relations department in 1993, eight years before he was hired at Notre Dame, listing a graduate degree that he never earned.

Apparently, O’Leary’s coaching credentials were impeccable. Would you have fired him on the spot (as was, in effect, done when Notre Dame asked him to resign)? Would you have considered other accomplishments and weighed them against his culpability for the publication of inaccurate data? Would you have suspended him, as was done to Brian Williams? Would you have forgiven him his prior sins?

Consider another example: It has been widely reported that many employers will not even rank an application from a chronically unemployed person – one out of the active workforce for six or more months. As a result, to keep in the running for a job, these people lie about their work experience. They create consultancies that never existed. They fudge the date of employment separation. They explain that they separated to take care of a sick relative who has now met her reward, freeing the applicant to re-enter the workplace. Would any of these deceptions justify firing after hire if the employee was performing adequately?

The solution.

A common theme to employers’ reactions to deception, as in Brian Williams’, in Coach O’Leary’s and in many, many other similar cases, is whether or not the lie broke the bond of trust that had been expected to form (or already had formed) between the liar and the employer. In the case of Coach O’Leary, even though his sins were common – one committed when he was young and desperate for a coaching job, and the other far in the past – Notre Dame felt that his failure to affirmatively correct the long-standing record of untruth should result in termination.

On the other hand, a January 2015 article in Forbes, written by David K. Williams and entitled, Forgiveness: The Least Understood Leadership Trait in the Workplace contained the following “It is an unhealthy and archaic desire to want to punish people. Can you imagine how workplaces could be transformed if forgiveness was the first posture we took and it eventually became part of our everyday disposition?” I think that Coach O’Leary might have kept his job if David Williams ran Notre Dame.

How is HR to form a reliable policy in this divergent environment? The answer is surprisingly simple – talk. Talk now, not when the problem arises. HR will never know the importance of the bond of trust expected by your company or your company’s predilection to retention and growth through forgiveness, unless HR proposes and leads a discussion about this aspect of corporate culture with management, owners, unions and employees alike. The solution to the imponderable questions of what to do when a lie is uncovered in any business is to talk about it forthrightly and extensively before any problem with deception is known and, based upon what you learn, to develop your company’s reaction.

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I make a serious effort to be accurate in my writings. These articles are not exhaustive treatises, though, so do not consider them complete or authoritative. Providing this information to you does not create an attorney-client relationship with my firm or me. Do not act upon the contents of this or of any article on our homepage or consider it a replacement for professional advice.

Reprinted with permission from an article submitted for publication in the March, 2015 Southwest Area Human Resource Association newsletter.