Fake degrees, fake certifications, real resumes

There was an interesting story in today's Washington Post, about a series of scandals involving South Koreans who exaggerated or lied about their academic background:

The state prosecutor's office has launched a nationwide investigation this summer into fabricated degrees, plagiarized doctoral theses and forged test certificates. It has asked tipsters to call in with information.

"Even if you are accomplished in Korea, people are constantly asking about your college degrees," said Whang Sang Min, a professor of psychology at Yonsei University in Seoul. "You have constant pressure to fake it."

In an online statement, Yoon said last month that she faked it to enhance her career. She said she falsely stated on a résumé that she attended the prestigious Ewha Womans University. The lie took on a life of its own after she became well known. She was invited to speak at the university's chapel, where she recounted her supposed college memories.

Like Yoon, many of the fakers who have been outed this summer are prosperous and middle-age. Until their lies became public, they held solid perches in the Korean establishment.

They invented academic achievements three decades ago, when this prosperous nation -- now the world's 11th largest economy -- was still recovering from the economic and cultural devastation of the 1950-53 Korean War.

It was a time when traditional social structures had largely collapsed, when a college credential had become the preeminent measure of individual worth and when it was terribly hard to get into a good university.

This article suggests that there are unique social and historical reasons for the high number of faked/exaggerated academic accomplishments in Korea, but I have to ask: Is the situation really much different than what happens in other countries? Consider the Nigerian politician who allegedly faked his academic background, and Marilee Jones, MIT's former dean of admissions, who was forced to resign in April after  decades-old fabrications on her own résumé were exposed. Jones had stated that she was a graduate of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, even though she had only been a part-time student in a non-degree program in the mid-1970s.

These are not isolated cases. I've pointed to numerous examples of people faking Ivy League backgrounds, in some cases going so far as to live in dorms, attend classes, and participate in clubs and other college activities. An archived Time article indicates that this was a problem for Harvard, Yale, and other schools (and employers) in the 1960s and 1970s, well before the advent of Internet diploma mills.

And it's not limited to degrees. IT certs already have a bad reputation, but they are still required for many positions. There are reports of faked and exaggerated IT certifications, including this example involving someone who claimed to have "Wireless+" -- a wireless LAN certification that never existed. Searching for "fake MCSE" and other bogus IT certificates brings up thousands of results -- clearly there is a demand for forged IT certs in the marketplace.

So why do people embellish their credentials? It boils down to this: Lying on a résumé is a low-risk, high-benefit career move. It's so easy. For a minimum amount of effort someone can potentially improve his or her job prospects, salary, and workplace status. Forget going through the trouble of spending years getting an MBA, or months studying for and passing required IT certifications -- the ROI on résumé padding is unbeatable.

That is, until the lie is exposed. Then there can be some nasty fallout, particularly if the embellished résumé becomes public knowledge. But what are the chances? A good interviewer or background check can catch many phonies, but some people can bluff their way through questions relating to obscure technical credentials, especially if the interviewer on the other side of the desk is not familiar with the certification or the subject matter it covers. Moreover, not every company can afford to check every degree and certification listed on the résumé of a promising candidate.

I'd be interested in hearing about your experiences dealing with resume padding in the IT field -- do you think it's a common problem? What are some tactics for dealing with it?

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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