Why Do People Lie and Think They Can Get Away With It?

We were working on a search for an assistant controller.  We found a CPA.  He was hired.  For whatever reason the controller, his boss, decided to check his CPA license.  Turns out, he didn’t have one.  He was immediately fired.  Funny story:  He didn’t need to be a CPA to get the job.  He lied for no reason.  His excuse:  He had taken all the courses but had yet to pass the exams.

Of course our CPA-Want-To-Be is not unique.  One president, who eventually was able to repair his image to some degree, will always be remembered for “I am not a crook!”  Another, who has yet to repair his image, will forever be known for “It all depends on what your definition of ‘is’ is,” and, of course, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Ms. Lewinsky!”

Why do people lie?  Let’s face it, we all do it on occasion.  Usually it is to avoid confrontation.  We don’t want to be blamed when something goes wrong.  We are embarrassed.  Only once since I became an executive recruiter did I really screw up.  Long story short, I sent an e-mail to the accounting department of a client announcing a new position I was looking to fill.  It was for their department!  I got a call from the fellow who was being replaced.  Although the e-mail was very generic, he recognized the position and new it was his job.

This happened late in the afternoon and I was physically ill over it.  The next day I called the HR director.  It was our first conversation.  When she was finished telling me what I needed to know about the search, I told her that I had something to tell her.  I confessed my stupidity, said I would understand if she wanted another recruiter to work on the search, apologized profusely and shut up!  She was silent and then said, “I appreciate your telling me.  I don’t like to be blindsided.  I’m glad you know that it’s never the crime that get’s you, it’s the cover up!

I’m not singing my own praises.  This was a lesson I learned from my first boss.  He always said, “I won’t fire anyone who doesn’t lie to me.  I want to hear the problem from the guy whose responsible, not from the angry customer.”

We all make mistakes.  Why hide them?  As long as you learn from them they are real assets.  My favorite story is from IBM.  They gave someone $1.5 million to start a new business.  A year later the money was gone and the business was a failure.  He went to his supervisor and offered him his resignation.  “Why would we accept your resignation?  We just spent a million and a half dollars educating you!”

One mistake you cannot afford to make is lying during the employment process.  As with the non-CPA, even if it is irrelevant to the job you have been hired to do, if  you lie on your resume you may be fired.  What constitutes a lie?  That’s a tough one.  Here’s my answer:  If you are basically an honest person and would be embarrassed if the employer were to verify statements on your resume, don’t put those statements in your resume.  Said differently, If you don’t want it reported in tomorrow’s newspaper, don’t do it!

You will almost always be caught.  Over time, with all due modesty, I have gotten pretty good at spotting lies and embellishments.  People talk about increasing sales by a certain percentage.  I always ask for the real numbers.  Or, during a face-to-face interview, they stop looking me in the eye or start speaking in a low voice.  Degrees from unaccredited universities now pop off the page when I see them.  And my all time favorite, when someone sends me an updated resume – even though they know I have the old one – which is totally different from the previous one.  I’m not that stupid!