What has happened to former Yahoo! chief executive Scott Thompson, since it was alleged that he lied on his CV about his degree, is a cautionary tale for people in any profession.
Thompson (right), who is understood to have told colleagues that he never supplied any incorrect information about his academic credentials, agreed to resign last weekend after a mere five months at the helm of the internet company. The driving force behind his appointment, Patti Hart, who chaired the chief executive search committee, had already effectively fallen on her sword, announcing that she will not seek re-election at Yahoo!'s next annual meeting.
Thompson's 14,000 colleagues no doubt monitored the situation closely, after a Yahoo! investor uncovered the CV anomaly earlier this month.
The absurd aspect is that, for such a senior appointment, the degree course Thompson pursued many years ago - and whether it was in accountancy or computer science - is probably of little relevance to whether he was a suitable chief executive. Thompson, formerly chief technology officer and then president at PayPal, had been poached to take on the onerous task of turning around Yahoo!'s ailing fortunes.
The embarrassing situation is a wake-up call for any profession, according to Sian Harrington, editor of HR Magazine.
'With graduate jobs so thin on the ground, it is tempting to think you need to show something special to get through the recruiter's door. This can lead to lies about education, employment history, achievements and qualifications,' she says. 'The problem is that you get found out.'
Harrington cites research from the Risk Advisory Group, which vets candidate credentials for employers, which found that CVs contained an average of three pieces of misleading information. The consultancy says it has seen a 20% increase in CV discrepancies since the start of the credit crunch, as the downturn makes it harder to get jobs.
Employers are using sophisticated vetting tools to verify CVs to a greater degree, with companies such as Risk Advisory and Universities UK reporting that demand is rising due to the recession and the proliferation of fake qualifications available to buy online.
Recent research from employment-law specialists ELAS reveals that a third of managers admit to lying or exaggerating about their qualifications. So, if lying is so widespread, how sure can employers be about the credentials of marketers they hire?
'There is a distinct difference between candidates over-egging what they have done in previous roles and lying about education and qualifications,' argues Richard Hutchinson, whose remit as sourcing channel manager at Argos and Homebase parent company Home Retail Group includes recruitment.
'This is where the interview process is important in establishing the facts, particularly for marketers, who operate in a soft-skilled environment, where it's more about experience,' he adds.
At General Mills UK & Ireland, owners of brands such as Haagen-Dazs and Old El Paso, candidate selection is rigorous. 'We have in place those things which we believe represent due diligence, including probing during the selection process to ascertain an individual's suitability,' says Sue Swanborough, General Mills HR director (see box).
Traditionally, HR professionals would place a recruitment ad, sift through CVs, invite candidates to an interview and obtain references as part of the standard due diligence process.
Social media has transformed this approach, however. Attracting talented individuals who are not actively job-seeking - called 'passive candidates' - is becoming a priority, because they are much easier to identify via networks such as LinkedIn. 'A lot of top-quality talent is likely to be retained quite nicely in an
organisation. We need to find them and go to them with a good proposition about our organisation,' explains Hutchinson. 'We need to find out how they tick, so we can go to them and show them what is great about this role, or how it gives them more responsibility.'
Although anecdotal evidence suggests that lying is more widespread than ever among applicants, it is also easier to get found out. In the past, a CV would be sent only to a select few, but now background information is available to thousands, including former colleagues and bosses, who can verify it.
There is still much debate about the ethics of recruiters using personal social networks to assess applicants' personalities. However, Peter Mooney, head of employment law at business compliance services firm ELAS, says the temptation to do so is understandable.
'We have noticed a growth in potential employers checking out employees on Facebook or Twitter and we would suggest employers should rely on application forms and CVs, rather than sneaky background checks. But, human nature being what it is, it would be hard to police that,' he adds.
Rob Rees, an interim marketing director who has held roles at Dairy Crest, Vodafone and Friends Provident, says the vetting of senior marketer candidates is still done face-to-face. 'The traditional executive headhunter hasn't died because of Facebook and LinkedIn,' he adds. 'The most powerful way to recruit at senior levels is still through networking and search firms. About 75% of my interim work has come from networking and LinkedIn is a powerful addition to that.'
There are still candidates and employers that prefer to go through consultants. 'We meet everybody we introduce to our clients,' says Susan Howstan, director at Direct Recruitment, which specialises in direct and digital-marketing roles. 'We would investigate any concerns we might have.'
She adds that hiring someone without taking references 'would be ridiculous'.
Howstan says marketer CVs are more likely to feature omissions than lies. 'A candidate might put three jobs under one small paragraph, for example,' she says.
Rees argues that the furore around whether Thompson did or did not embellish his CV comes second to his career to date, 'as he has great, senior experience and a track record'.
Nevertheless, with online scandals having a habit of hanging about, Thompson has become famous not for taking tough decisions during Yahoo!'s evolution, but for being that guy accused of lying about having a computer science degree.
- What processes does General Mills use to double-check a candidate's credentials?
We have in place those things which we believe represent due diligence, including probing during the selection process to ascertain an individual's suitability for the role in terms of qualifications and experience. We also follow up references without fail.
- Are these measures foolproof?
It's unlikely, but I would ask any individual to think about what their intention is in not being fully truthful in their CV. Is being dishonest to get a job really worth it? You might be compromising your own values and are likely to be found out before too long. It really is down to personal responsibility and integrity.
- Would you ever feel able to trust someone who had lied?
For me it would always come down to the principle of lying, which would be in direct conflict with our values.
General Mills places enormous importance on its values. We look for great people who will be a fit with our culture and who will thrive and grow in our business.
Someone who had not been completely truthful on their CV might not excel in an environment that places enormous value on building trusting relationships.
Marketing asked Twitter users what they think of people lying on their CVs - and whether they have ever done so themselves
Elias Markopoulos @markoelias
Oh come on. I'm certain most people at least exaggerate. That's why pre-interview tasks and probationary periods are necessary.
Dan Bryant @DanBryantRD
In the age of hyper-connectivity and social media, it seems even more ludicrous that someone could get away with lying for long...
Project N @getdemoffya
You mean 'telling strategic truths'.
Tom Farrell @island_nine
Lying on your CV is always unacceptable. I learnt that whilst studying with Mahatma Gandhi in the Hindu Kush.
Koko Digital @kokodigital
You don't have to lie on your CV if you're creative at twisting the truth. Crack out a thesaurus and word play.
Pop Digital @PopDigitalUK
Everyone adds 10% on. Everyone.
Andy Sivell @AndySivell
No. Presenting the facts in the best light? Certainly. Lying? No. And if you're found out you should be fired.
Deepa Chhaya @DnB_Deepa
It's wrong, they'll get caught out eventually. And no, I'm glad to say I have never.
Ru Kotecha @RuKotecha
In a cutthroat world many would vindicate it. I don't. Never lie about your abilities or hide your personality. #truthprevails
They are only lying to themselves. If they truly wanted something that they have put on their CV, they would go out to get that.