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For some executives, a lie is just another step on career path

  • Article by: Lou Gelfand
  • Star Tribune
  • March 11, 2006 - 7:15 PM

When a Fort Worth newspaper revealed that the CEO of RadioShack Corp. had lied on his résumé, the company's board of directors initially issued a statement saying that it had known about some of the falsehoods and that the board still supported him.

The CEO, David Edmondson, had falsely claimed to have earned two bachelor's degrees from a small college. Eventually, he left the company "by mutual agreement" and received a parting gift of about $1 million in stock and cash.

One might think that this was an isolated incident. After all, if companies make a habit of rewarding executives' unethical behavior, how can consumers trust that company's products and advertising?

But wait. A study by professor David Yermack of New York University's Stern School of Business said that out of the 1,789 CEOs who retired or were dismissed from public companies between 1996 and 2002, more than half received average severance pay of $5.4 million.

Even similar incidents in academia attract apologists. A few years ago George O'Leary was fired on his second day as head football coach at Notre Dame for falsely stating that he had played three years of football at New Hampshire University and had a master's degree in education from New York University. A newspaper reporter brought it to the university's attention.

Columnist Dale Dauten of King Features pooh-poohed the idea that résumé lying is a punishable offense. He wrote: "What makes these stories poignant is that résumés are the wrong way to hire. They cause both applicants and managers to focus on things such as degrees and certifications and years of experience. Hiring ought to be done on knowledge and experiences, on dreams and passions, on courage and curiosity -- things that can't be qualified and put on a piece of paper."

Apparently the search for a bowl bid has become bigger than the search for truth.

The number of discovered résumé liars is, for obvious reasons, not public knowledge. Of those publicized in this decade, the chief financial officer of Veritas Software Corp. resigned in 2002 after directors learned he had lied about having an MBA from Stanford.

Omissions count, too. James Minder resigned as chairman of gunmaker Smith & Wesson Holding Corp. after it was learned in 2004 that he had spent time in prison in the 1950s and 1960s for armed robbery. Apparently the company's directors did not appreciate the irony.

O'Leary's comment in the St. Paul Pioneer Press said much about the state of résumé integrity. "A lot of coaches said the same thing to me. It wasn't malicious. I know this: A lot of people cleaned up their résumés after they saw what happened to me. I did screw up, but I never used that information on the bio to get any job. Those things never came up in any job I ever interviewed for."

I asked two academic ethicists to comment. Kenneth Goodpaster, Koch professor of ethics at the University of St. Thomas, agreed that credibility is the bedrock of any relationship.

Prof. Alfred Marcus, of the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota, characterized résumé lying as "stupidity, outright falsification, and not having good common sense."

Which leaves unanswered two questions: Why do applicants lie? And shouldn't their employers have shared in the guilt for failing to do their homework?

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