This essay has two parts. The first is about the ethics of lying in the context of a job search, whether on a resume or in an interview. The second half focuses on a massively common falsification that is not only common, but socially accepted: the Fundamental Subordinate Dishonesty.
I realize that this opinion is not without controversy, but I don’t find myself up-in-arms about most resume lies. In the professional world, that seems to be considered one of the worst things people can do, leading to immediate termination, even without any other context. In my opinion, much of this attitude is overblown, a high-horse position taken because, since there is so little in the way of actual ethics in the white-collar corporate world, the appearance of ethical “above-boardness” becomes critically important.
Let me make myself clear on three things, however. First, I don’t lie on my resume. Why? I don’t need to, and the consequences of being caught are severe. There are annoyances in my career history, but nothing so damaging that I have to hide it. Second, I’m using “resume lie” as a shorthand for dishonesty that occurs in a job search, so lies on an interview would count. On that, it’s tactically a lot better to keep that resume factual and truthful and deliver whatever inflations you need to make verbally, if you can. Third, there are two categories of this type of lie, one of which I consider extremely unethical, and the other of which I don’t care about. Feigning competences that a person doesn’t have is charlatanry and a form of fraud. That can be extremely harmful. A person who lies about having a medical degree (a “quack” doctor) is hurting people, committing a dangerous fraud, and deserves to go to prison. There’s no question that charlatanry is unethical. It’s completely unacceptable. The other category of career inflation is what I call cosmetic inflation. When a person represents work experience honestly but inflates the title, or alters dates of employment by a couple months to cover an embarrassing gap, he’s not trying to get a job he can’t perform. He’s just inflating his own social status– in truth, mostly lying about performance reviews, which falls into the “who gives a fuck?” category as far as I am concerned– in order to bring his image in line with his capability.
On when such cosmetic inflations– fudging titles, knitting dates, representing termination as a voluntary resignation, and upgrading “performance-based” compensation to the top bracket– are advisable, I can’t say when they are and when not. I don’t do them, and I have no data. The downside is obvious– you can get just as fired for an ethical lie as an unethical one– and the upside is often unclear. Is someone really going to be treated better when he self-assigns the promotion from AVP to VP? I have no earthly idea. What’s obvious to me is that there’s nothing ethically wrong with this sort of thing. People aren’t faking capabilities they lack, with such falsehoods, but improving their stated political trajectories in the direction of what’s socially optimal. If it’s unethical to lie about social status and past political success, then the whole world is guilty.
Companies worry a lot about resume lies, and understandably so, because I imagine they’re common given the stakes. So, I asked myself: do they lose money to these? How much? This said, I’m focusing only on the cosmetic brand of lie: upgraded job titles and date-fudging, not actual fraud. I’m not talking about the objectively unethical and fraudulent lies (charlatanry) because (I would hope) only a very small percentage of the population is depraved enough to attempt them.
Perversely, I can actually see companies winning more than they lose from cosmetic inflations. Why? One of the major causes of corporate inefficiency is the lack of trust. Most people are stuck in junior roles below their level of ability (and, therefore, producing less value for the company than they otherwise could) because they aren’t trusted. They have the capability but not the credibility. The existence of outright fraud is obviously a part of this problem, even though psychopaths are often skilled at office politics and can easily win these cosmetic awards (such as job titles). Cosmetic dishonesty, perversely, might be the cure. It sounds ridiculous that I would be advising outright (if harmless) lying as a remedy to a trust problem (although I think this is an absurdly common social behavior) so let me give a concrete example. Bob is a 34-year-old banker who was an Associate for 5 years, and then laid off when his bank hit a rough patch. In his job search, he represents his work experience, and strengths and weaknesses, honestly but upgrades his political success by claiming to be a VP (in banking, “VP” is a middling rank, not an executive) who is still with the firm in good standing, and simply looking for new challenges. He gets another job, and performs well there. How much damage does he do? He might receive $20,000 more in salary from his next employer on account of his falsification. Big deal: if he’s actually incompetent, they can fire him and cut their losses. Chances are, he’ll deliver over $300,000 of additional value to his new employer on account of being trusted to perform better work. He is lying to his future employer, and making a huge return on investment for them.
What Bob is actually correcting is a cognitive flaw of humans whereby mediocrity in past social status is conflated with ethical depravity. This made sense in evolutionary times, because people (at least, men) of low social status had to subvert the existing order, often in violent ways, in order to reproduce. The alpha ape needed to watch out for the gammas, who might attempt to compensate for their lack of physical superiority by trickery, thereby killing him. It’s less relevant in the modern time, when there is a nonviolent and socially positive solution to low social status: move somewhere else and reinvent yourself. If anything, I think people who do this are more likely to be ethical. Rather than do whatever it takes (read: cheat) to win where they are, they walk away and find another game.
For an aside, most of these cosmetic lies aren’t dishonesty so much as insubordination. When someone upgrades his title to reflect a promotion that he was passed over for, is he lying? One could argue so, but one could equally convincingly argue that he’s merely de-legitimizing the managerial authorities that delivered a negative assessment of him. They called him a loser and he’s saying, “No, I’m not”. Most job titles don’t reflect objective accomplishment but political success in any case, and who’s to say that the inflated title isn’t a more accurate reflection of who he is? He’s clearly showing a lack of subordination to his ex-managers, but why shouldn’t he? What he is really doing by inflating his title is counterfeiting a social currency that he believes to be illegitimate anyway. Very little harm is done.
So what is the costliest of the cosmetic lies? Are there any that lose money for employers? The answer I’ve come to is that there is one, but it’s (a) not a traditional resume lie, and (b) so common that it is not conventionally considered unethical: the Fundamental Subordinate Dishonesty.
Subordinate dishonesty is a term I use for the often omissive deceptions that people have to use in order to survive a subordinate role in an organizational hierarchy. These aren’t ethical faults, because they’re often adaptations required for survival. For example, I learned early in my career that it is never acceptable to voice the opinion that your assigned project will not pan out, even if that is obviously true. If I hold that opinion, I keep it to myself. Even if true, “This project is never going to work, and here’s why” is a one-way ticket to Firedville. The basic, underlying principle of subordinate dishonesty is “never bear bad news“. You have to know your boss extremely well, and usually this requires a pre-existing friendly relationship, before you can trust him enough to associate your face with negative news.
There is one variety of subordinate dishonesty that is especially common, and I’ve given it the name above: the Fundamental Subordinate Dishonesty. This is when a person represents himself as being happy to take a subordinate role. This is very common on job interviews. Most people wait too long to look for jobs, and are semi-desperate by the time they “officially” hit the market. By this point, they exaggerate their willingness to take on junior, low-impact roles or positions far outside of their desired specialty. They’re just happy “to be a part of something great”. This isn’t an intentional dishonesty, so much as a self-deception repeated often, because it’s socially attractive. The problem is that it doesn’t last. After a few months in a new job, the “honeymoon period” ends and people will no longer be happy in a role where their credibility is below their capability. However, when people are either desperate or (more commonly) think they are, they will frequently overestimate and, thereby, overrepresent their willingness to fill such a role “as long as it’s needed of me” in order to “just close” an offer. But once they are settled in and no longer in fear of unemployment, they become agitated in a way that they didn’t predict (at the time, they were just happy to get out of the mess they were in) but that should have been predictable.
If I’m looking for a big-ticket loss in terms of resume lies, I don’t think inflated titles or padded dates do much damage. At their ethical worst, they’re a zero-sum game that is to the disadvantage of truthful nonparticipants, like me. (I have no ethical problem with cosmetic inflation. My decision not to take part is strategic. My career history is above-average so I gain little and risk too much.) Being in that category, I’m OK with this “loss”, because the companies where I might not get hired are those that value things (like past job titles) that I find to be imbecilic noise. It’s better, for the world, for that company to hire an (ethical) liar and trust him so he can get his job done than for it to hire me and trust me less because my (truthfully represented) social signals are not as strong. This “victimless” crime that the liar is committing doesn’t bother me much.
Instead, the trillion-dollar killer is the Fundamental Subordinate Dishonesty. It creates massive unhappiness and turnover.
For all this, I don’t want to make it sound like employees are dirty and companies are clean on this one, because that’s not true. In fact, employers have a history of over-representing the autonomy associated with a position and the challenge of the work just as brazenly as job applicants overrepresent their will to subordinate. Sometimes this is unintentional, and sometimes it’s overt. In general, I’d say that it’s aspirational. A manager’s sense of time is distorted by the need to deal with multiple concurrent and often conflicting story lines, which is why an employee who asks for more interesting work at the 4-month mark is doing so “way too soon”. So managers often present a job role, in terms of authority and creativity, based on where the employee “should be” after a “short time” (read: 2 years on busy-work that’s mostly evaluative because it’s not critical to the business) if that employee “proves himself” (read: doesn’t piss anyone off). The problem is that very few people are willing to be outright bored for two whole years. This begins as benign aspirational hiring, but grows into something else once a company goes into full-on recruiting mode. I’ve seen companies (mostly, crappy startups) that literally cannot function because over 80 percent of their people were promised leadership roles and nobody is willing to follow.
This is also why, as I’ve become older, I advise people to pay a high degree of attention to salary in comparing job offers. I used to say that it was worth it to take a low-salary job for “interesting work”. I’m not so sure anymore. If you’re going to be a founder of a startup, with real (5% or more) equity and standing in the business, then this may be an exception. Otherwise, you’re often better off looking at the hard number to size up what the company really thinks of you, unless you have solid data. Don’t trust intangibles on a “just-said” basis, because employers lie about those all the fucking time. This is the mirror image of the Fundamental Subordinate Dishonesty. The employer represents a low-level position within the hierarchy as being better than it actually is, and the employee represents herself as being content with a lower level of autonomy that she’ll actually accept. Eventually, both sides find themselves dissatisfied with the relationship because the other party “should be” picking up on their real desires. It should be no wonder that this commonly leads to a theatrical crash.
So what is the solution? I think the answer is many-fold. First of all, what actually makes people happy at work isn’t the salary. Compensation makes people happy outside of work. When at work, it’s social status. People put an optimistic spin on this in accord with what’s socially acceptable, but the reality is that people don’t like jobs where they can’t get anything done, and it’s impossible to have real achievements in a position of low status. So an organizational hierarchy that leaves most people with low status is going to make a lot of people unhappy. This was not a major issue with traditional industrial work, where unhappy workers were only 20 or 40 percent less productive than happy ones, but for modern technological work, that difference is at least an order of magnitude. Hierarchical companies are losing their ability to perform at the highest levels.
I see no other conclusion than the fact that corporate hierarchy is obsolete and increasingly incapable of solving modern technical problems. The subordination on which it relies is fundamentally dishonest, because no one is content to be held artificially at such a low level of impact. People who will follow orders in the context of a symbiotic mentor/protege relationship that advances their careers, for sure. They will also follow another’s lead on a specific project when they believe that other person has a better grasp of the problem than they, themselves, do. What they’re not willing to do anymore is be truly subordinate: to follow rank because it is rank, and to let their own long-term career goals take a backseat to professed organizational needs. Why? Because when you accept this, you reduce your long-term career prospects, and are effectively paying to keep your own job. That era is finished. Yet social protocols remain and require a certain dishonest signaling about the willingness to subordinate, leading to failed communication, overblown expectations and festering unhappiness.
If there’s a job search lie that’s a billion- or trillion-dollar killer, I would say that the Fundamental Subordinate Dishonesty is it.