Dear Prudence: I'm in my mid-40s and have a relatively successful career. For more than 20 years I've exaggerated on my résumé, in particular regarding my education. I got comfortable with the lie and no one ever questioned my "degree."
A few months ago, a recruiter from a prestigious company reached out to me about a position in his organization. I had multiple interviews and was getting great feedback. Then, they went quiet. I contacted everyone I spoke with and received no response. I was stunned, since everyone had been so responsive when I was there.
A few days ago I received an e-mail from one of the people who interviewed me. It was just a link to an article about the importance of checking a candidate's references. I had a scalding moment of humiliation and understood the silence. That stupid lie about my education got me. I immediately removed the lie from my résumé.
Here's my problem: My professional network comprises people who are connected to the organization I interviewed at. I'm terrified that this lie is going to follow me to my current position. Should I go to my employer and confess my false education history? I can't afford to lose my job, yet I know if my company finds out on their own, that's what will happen. I'm so ashamed and want to learn from this mistake.
Prudence says: A few years ago the beloved dean of admissions at MIT had to resign when it was revealed she had fabricated her education credentials, ironically proving that advanced degrees were not a requirement for her job.
Your success shows that the degree you claimed to have but actually don't wasn't a necessity for your job, either. (But please don't tell me you're a neurosurgeon or a nuclear engineer.)
If you want the catharsis of coming clean with your company, your confession will likely give you plenty of free time to contemplate your original deception.
I spoke to employment attorney Philip Gordon, who said that volunteering this information will raise two questions with your current employer: Why is this person updating her résumé, and, What are we going to do about this fraud?
Flagging for them that you're likely looking for another job and admitting that you've been misleading them for years about your education will force them to act. They cannot afford to set a precedent that misrepresentation of credentials can go unpunished. Gordon says the consequences for you could range from placing a note in your file and putting you in a warning period to firing you.
I'm all for honesty, but in this case I think a more fitting punishment would be for you to keep quiet and simply join the ranks of people with inflated résumés whose eyes pop open from guilt at 3 a.m. some nights. (Gordon points out this calculation is different if you lack a required credential that could create serious liability for your employer.) As for the interviewers at the other company ratting you out, put aside that fear. The person who sent you that note was simply doing you a favor. Everyone knows it is extremely bad form for those reviewing job candidates to blab about who came through the office. Recommit to being an impeccable employee, and hold your head high, even if it never did wear the mortarboard you claim.
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