Have you heard about Adam Wheeler, the 23-year-old Delaware man who faked his way into Harvard? His predicament may seem funny, or even impressive, but these days Wheeler isn’t laughing. His hoax led to his arrest and this week he was arraigned on more than 20 charges, including identity fraud, forgery, larceny and pretending to hold a degree. If convicted, he faces up to 50 years in prison.
Wheeler’s ruse was an elaborate one. He falsified transcripts, forged recommendations and faked perfect SAT scores in order to get into the Ivy League institution, where his lies also won him scholarships and grants. Harvard, for its part, is remaining mum about how it fell for all this. Wheeler spent two years at the university before his hoax was exposed. It was his decision to fraudulently apply for both a Rhodes and a Fullbright scholarship that did him in. He subsequently applied to Yale and, when that proved unfruitful, tried to get a job at The New Republic magazine. (At this point, even Wheeler’s parents were over it; they turned him in when Yale called with some questions about his application.)
His current legal woes got MainStreet wondering: With the current job market making job seekers increasingly desperate, should people who pad their resume fear legal repercussions?
The answer, it seems, is yes and no.
“Criminal charges are possible, but not probable,” Mike Helfand, a Chicago attorney who runs FindGreatLawyers.com says. “It would probably take a scenario similar to the one portrayed in Catch Me If You Can, where there was a threat to public safety, for those types of charges to take place.”
Mason Alexander, an employment lawyer for Fisher and Phillips LLP, concurs. “Generally speaking,” he says, “resume fraud is not a crime, but there might be circumstances in which one could run afoul of a criminal law. “
For example, if a person were to say they possessed a particular license and they didn’t, whether it be to drive or to practice medicine, they could be held criminally liable (especially if a person were injured as a result of their dishonesty). Similarly, someone applying for a governmental position that requires sworn statements or verification under oath could face legal troubles if they chose to fabricate qualifications.
These situations are fairly uncommon. As Alexander points out, “it’s like resume fraud on steroids,” but a job seeker still needs to be mindful of what he or she is putting on their resume. Wheeler’s legal woes, for example, aren’t simply the result of his lies, but, rather, because those lies earned him almost $50,000 in grants and scholarships. Prospective employees who fib to get hired could, conceivably, put themselves in a similar category.
“When an employer hires a new employee, it costs them money,” Helfand says. “They may require special training, new equipment and business trips. They may receive bonuses, benefits, etc., based on their qualifications. An employee who gets hired based on lies may be committing theft.”
Admittedly, there are a few exceptions when it comes to padding the old resume.
“You can say your worked for Accenture even if the firm was called Anderson Consulting at the time, since people are more likely to recognize the current brand name,’ says workplace expert and former Fortune 500 HR executive Liz Ryan. “You can also bundle short-term W-2 and 1099 projects together under an umbrella like Mary Smith Consulting.”
Additionally, Ryan points out “There is no line whatsoever when it comes to omitting items. That is your choice entirely.”
However, making minor adjustments to job titles or dates of employment should be done at your own risk.
"You absolutely can't fudge dates or titles on your resume or any aspect of your educational background," Ryan says. "Beyond that, you have a ton of latitude to describe your accomplishments in past positions in ways other than how your past employer would describe them, talk about the responsibilities you took on in each role and generally make your abilities clear."
Of course, even when serious lies are uncovered, many employers won’t seek legal retribution (the costs of litigation often outweighs the cost of training and development). What they will do, instead, is fire you and a termination based on resume fraud could likely cost you your unemployment checks.
“Unemployment benefits are reserved for those individuals who are fired through no fault of their own,” Helfand says. “An employee who is fired for misconduct, such as lying or providing a false resume, is not likely to win an unemployment claim.”
Alexander agrees. “Some hearing offices will give the employee partial disqualification, just to be generous, but an employee who is fired for resume fraud is almost certain to lose all or part of his unemployment benefits,” he says.
However, the truth of the matter is, resumes that contain false information aren’t terribly likely to get their owners hired in the first place.
“Many employers do background checks,” says Allison Nawoj, Corporate Communications Manager for Careerbuilder.com. “If a job seeker has left off information or lied about other qualifications, a company will likely find out about it.”
“A really good recruiter or hiring manager will ask you detailed questions during the interview process that will bring information to light.” Nick Jimenez, Executive Vice President of Climber.com, agrees. “An Employer and Employee relationship, like any good relationship should be based on honesty. If you start the relationship based on a lie, it’s going to be tough to maintain that lie and you will be found out.”
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