Uncharted Waters

Mar 11 2016   11:14AM GMT

How To Tell When Someone Is Lying On A Resume

Matt Heusser Matt Heusser Profile: Matt Heusser


success_kid_liarOver the past two weeks, all of these things have happened to me:

  • A hiring manager told me that occasionally he gets people who look great on paper, interview well, yet cannot do the work at all. He wanted a waiver on his contract, that if the person is let go within two weeks, they would pay nothing.
  • A candidate we interviewed gave fantastic answers … until we asked for specifics about how to do the work.
  • A tester told me he routinely sees “Java”, “Javascript”, “C#” and so on on resumes as skills. During the interview process, they explain they “Tested applications written in Java” — which is not the same thing.
  • Another hiring manager told me that once the candidate gets to the interview, she throws away the resume, because they are so full of deception, she might as well start over.

I think I understand what is going on here, and I have a few ideas to help.

How The System Works

Hiring Managers want winners — people who can “hit the ground running.” They explain this to HR, along with a job description. HR turns the job description into keywords and require them.

In too many companies, you don’t get the interview unless you match all the keywords. If you manage to get in the door because C# is kind of like java, you’ll still be at the bottom of the stack. No one has all the buzzwords, so people lie.

That’s it.

Somewhere between the staffing company, the candidate, and the hiring company, someone injects the keywords into the resume.

I used to say “aha! Those companies get what they deserve”, but now I find myself in the position of trying to win contract bids with some of these companies — honest people, working in a system that incentivizes lying.

And some of these liars are really good.

How They Get In The DoorBill Clinton "Liar" Cover of the Daily News

One company I worked with had a contractor who could not seem to tell the difference between compiling the code (it was PL/SQL, a programming language for databases) and running it in the database.  He would also disappear for half an hour or an hour at a time. Eventually I followed him, and realized that he was going to another contractor to write his code for him. He would get the code by email, press F5 (Compile), then write a select statement, find his data was not updated, and then ask me for help.

Eventually I asked if he had written PL/SQL before, and he said yes. I told him it was okay, I wanted to know the truth; he insisted he had done the work before. So I asked “When you wrote PL/SQL before, what did it do?” After a long pause, he said “…looping?

I walked over to the team lead, and expressed my concern. Dave said “Honestly Matt, I came to the same conclusion; I asked you to work with him to get a second opinion.”

But how did this happen Dave?

Answer: “I think the person we interviewed on the phone did not speak with a lisp. This contractor does.”

Detecting Deception

Take a look at that job description you offered to the recruiter. It’s probably bad, right? It will have out-of-version supported-number tools, tools that have changed names – it may list things that sound right to the uninitiated but are not really part of the job — for example, “unit testing” for a customer-facing tester. It may have things that are vague (“integration testing”, “code review”, IIS or JavaScript.)

Now look at the resume. Is it “too perfect”? Does it list every last one of those things that are not right, probably multiple times? Does it list new tools under older experience, or old tools with out of date names under current experience? Does it confuse things with similar names, like say, a protocol (SOAP) with a tool (SOAPui?)

Now during the interview, you can do a few things:

(1) Latch on to those things on the job description that aren’t right – the one-line about Novell Netware. Ask about a time they used the technology. You may get a simple answer back – as a sysadmin at the local college, they had to reset passwords. In programming, it might be examples of user or product information searches. These answers will sound kind of textbook. Push back – they worked on this tool for a year; what were some other things they did with it? In our Unit Test Example, ask for an actual example of a unit test, not textbook, but something they did.

(2) Get confused over the difference between two similar things with different names.  For example, HP recently rebranded their Quick Test Professional product as UFT, or Unified Functional Tester. Ask about the difference.

(3) By now you’ll get a feel for the one or two tools they might really know, and the few that might be faking. If you can, set up a scenario where one tool is clearly the right tool for the job — and it is not their favorite. Then ask which tool they would use, and why. When they say they would use ASP.NET for a simple desktop application to store that user’s notes, push back. Ask why. Ask “why not C#?”

(4) If it’s a phone interview and you feel awkward pauses, turn up the volume and listen for whispering, or typing sounds. They might be googling.

Of course, none of this works if the person is willing to literally have someone else interview. If you suspect that then you are working with the wrong vendor.

The Luxury of EthicsGood ol' liar

Peter Theil, the author of Zero To One, said in his book that ethics is a sort of luxury. To be fair, if someone has to steal a cell phone from a tourist in order to feed his family, I would hope I would understand.  It’s worth noting that most of these people are just humans working in a bad system — they just want the job. They may know the job description is only loosely correlated to the job, or, more likely, hope to gain the skills on the job. Only a small number of these people are genuine duck and groove psychopaths who plan to take credit for the work of others while not doing their own. So we want to be sensitive.

My company has been successful enough that, at least for right now, we seem to be able to afford the luxury of integrity. (I’ve also found that integrity yields dividends.) I think you can too. I think you should demand it. Let’s change the system to reward the right behaviors – starting with rewarding the honest job candidates.

Here’s one more idea: Inject fake keywords on the job description. Tools that don’t exist. Perl on Pails, B++, the Comache or EngineY Web Server and so on. See who not only claims those keywords, but claims every single one — then throw them in the dustbin.

Or call me. I’d be happy to look at resumes and detect BS as a service while teaching you to do it, for a modest fee. I’m completely serious – but I don’t think we need that.

One last thought.

When you hear “Everybody does it”, please remember that no, everyone does not do it. We don’t at my company, Excelon Development … and we ain’t starving.

But keep in touch. We’ll tell you how it goes.

12  Comments on this Post

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  • PascalDufour
    Filtering bad resume is not an easy job. At a costumer is teached the HR lady to filter out better resume. A good thing is you also learn for yourself what the carateristics of a good resume are. And also why. It was time well spend.
    20 pointsBadges:
  • AlbertGareev
    Matt, I thank you for the excellent insight. I'm going to repost your article to internal board of Toronto Testing Meetup.

    It might be a curious coincidence but this year I started series of articles in my blog dedicated to hiring and resumes. With over 10 years of contracting, I've been a lot at both sides of the process. And Toronto job market is a very complicated "test environment".

    Now I'm paying back and paying forward to the members of testing community with our Job Finding Club initiative. Along with doing, I summarize my ideas in writing.
    First one is out: Context-Driven Resume: Heuristics. Since my angle is for job seekers, I'm very interested in your opinion.

    Along the series, I'm planning to post about "anti-patterns": what hiring managers use to "rule out" candidates based on what they see in their resumes. That will sure include ideas from this article of yours. Or would you agree for an interview?

    Thank you,
    Albert Gareev
    7,005 pointsBadges:
  • YuryMak

    I assumed that all these stupid skills in job descriptions were introduced by recruiters.
    However it seems that some of them, may have been introduced by hiring managers on purpose.

    Matt, in response to your add you receive what you ask for:

    I believe that you can receive the best possible resumes in case you provide short to the point BS-free job description.

    Yury Makedonov

    0 pointsBadges:
  • Matt Heusser
    It's possible, but I doubt it. Now you've got me wondering!
    5,085 pointsBadges:
  • JoelDrottsEsq
    HR as not only an industry, but as a profession is a laughable joke! These morons utilizing software to filter out humans on arbitrary quantifiers, and pretending to have any business acumen of their own are just sad! HR is what happened when a group of lazy executives scientifically spliced together a third rate Paralegal, and an over drunk junior junior assistant manager from the local fast food chain. Having no true profession or mastery of a body of knowledge like say law, business, or science, HR is the only part of a company which routinely justify its existence in ROI. Every one else actually has an output or generates income directly for companies! HR alone freeloads and blocks qualified candidates that are 10 to 20 times better educated, trained, experienced, and more knowledgeable than the HR staff themselves! Just make manager hire like they used to, keep a decent legal team and you can stop the madness and redundancy that is the HR Department and Profession!   
    40 pointsBadges:
  • Matt Heusser
    ""I believe that you can receive the best possible resumes in case you provide short to the point BS-free job description."

    Thanks for the reply, man. It reminds me of the reality that most calls for an agile coach are long, bulleted lists of what the agile coach will do, and how they'll do it. A better job ad might be "yeah, we need help. We don't know what that will look like, exactly. If we did, we wouldn't need a coach. Let's get to know each other and see if we'll be a fit." 

    5,085 pointsBadges:
  • TheRealRaven
    Great comment after a good article. Hiring/job descriptions is where much of the problem started, especially when filtering by 'keyword' became normal. (Not to mean no one lied on resumes before then.)

    But somewhere along the way, the approach to getting a valid interview meant passing the 'keyword filter' first.

    Does it matter for secondary SQL skills in some position if (1) I have 30 years of experience with SQL, and (2) most procedural SQL coding with SQL PL, i.e., IBM and DB2, but the "requirement" was "PL/SQL"? If it's not a primary requirement, I'll have very little problem adapting to PL/SQL. There might be a good chance at performing better than, say, someone with 5 or more years of actual "PL/SQL".

    After a 40+ year career, I can give numerous other similar examples. Still, I might never make it to an interview without lying (stretching).

    Well, actually, I've never gone more than two weeks without a job in hand, and only once did I have a job offer before resigning -- from my very first professional job for a risky chance at a startup service bureau. Networking can trump resumes as far as filters go.

    Anyway, it's almost a game that needs to be played. It doesn't take long in the industry to recognize that hiring/job descriptions rarely describe actual jobs. So why be overly concerned if a resume doesn't precisely describe the actual applicant?

    For now, it can simply be the way the game is played.
    37,065 pointsBadges:
  • BradleyRoss
    If the only applicants that can get past HR  are those who lie on their resume, it is pointless to tell managers how to detect lies on the resume.

    During World War II, the Army apparently had a questionnaire for people applying as mechanics and engineers.  The question was what to do if your file isn't cutting through the wood or metal.  Some of the options were: get a new file, get a card, and put the file on a grinding wheel.  A file card is actually a wire brush used to clean files so they make better cuts.  That question apparently caught a lot of people who were trying to lie about their experience.  However, this requires that the people who write the questionnaires know what they are talking about.

    The big problem is that HR assumes that they can find good programmers on a few weeks notice.  Therefore, they lay people off if they aren't needed for a month.  If you lay off less people, you will have less people to replace.

    60 pointsBadges:
  • Kitty Jellinek
    Hey BradleyRoss - at last someone with a commonsense answer.
    20 pointsBadges:
  • Sushil4india
    Hi Matt,
    Your article touched my heart. At least somewhere honesty being paid. 
    I myself is a victim of honesty never ever got any call just because I never ever had any fake resume and probably it could never be filtered. One more thing I would like to mention is why there is so many job consultants (actually brokers) and websites who charge from candidate the fees for the job interview ? This must be banned they are the key reason for encouraging such malpractice to make money from hiring companies.
    Why not all the organisation come up with centralized database having correct information of each person and simply throw away their luxury of out sourcing right candidates selections on others?

    Best regards
    10 pointsBadges:
  • AlbertGareev
    Matt, you've sparkled [another] thought provoking theme.
    I'd like to top up your insights with this analytics from FastCompany: The Most Common Resume Lies.

    7,005 pointsBadges:
  • Harisheldon

    The biggest problem with resumes today is that most people just copy and paste what is in the job announcements so that they have the "key words" so that their resume will be picked out to make it to the next step in the hiring process. But I feel that this is not the biggest problem.

    Most people can study for the certification exams, get their degrees in the IT field and such, but, can they do the work?  People can be book smart, but when it comes down to troubleshooting the problems, they draw a blank. They cannot seem to think outside the box because the only experience they have is just from textbooks and maybe some labs. These are the people who wind up getting hired and when they sit at the desk and take that first phone call, they are lost.

    I have worked on a help desk, many moons ago, and a massive movement of personnel was done because of the creation of new sections. AT the help desk, people who were hired for that position were barely able to turn a computer on, and yet on their resume, they stated all sorts of things. Myself and one other tech wound up not only doing the tickets, but also teaching these new "techs" on the process of troubleshooting. Talk about stressful.

    I feel that, before someone is hired, they need to come in, during the interview, and take a practical app test to prove that they can do what they have on their resume. It is the only true way to weed out those who have the knowledge and who read the book.

    12,915 pointsBadges:

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