After college, I worked in the mailroom of a video editing house in Chicago. My job consisted of sitting in front of the internet, listening to Howard Stern, and every now and then, shipping a tape somewhere. It took minimal training to get used to, because at its core, it was an entry-level gig to prove I could handle the bare minimum.
And yet, this is how I described the job in resumes: “Optimized logistical solutions to deliver important materials between facilities.” This is what you call “padding the ol’ resume,” and it’s one of the more hilarious aspects of the job hunt process.
“‘Highly motivated’ is a popular one on cover letters. Total throwaway,” says Jay Pullman, an accountant based in Oakland who’s involved in his company’s hiring process. “Someone once under the ‘skills’ section put ‘adaptability’ with no context. It sounds good, but doesn’t really mean anything. Oh, here’s a good one: ‘Frequent use of company programs.’ What the fuck does that mean?”
Big lies that can cost you the job
Of course, you shouldn’t lie on your resume or cover letter. Not because of some great moral reason, but because it can hurt you way more than help. “It can be a black mark on your record,” says Alison Green, who runs the Ask a Manager blog and released a book with the same name earlier this year. “Employers will make note of it, and another job down the road that you are qualified for, you won’t get because you lied about work experience.”
Even if you do get the lie past them and snag an offer, employers can withdraw it altogether if they find out you lied. And if you get past all that, and actually get the job, you’ll never have the same job securities as coworkers, since employers can fire you on the spot if they ever discover the lie. (One of the more famous cases was that of David Tovar, Walmart’s top spokesperson, who, while up for a promotion, was found to have falsified his resume; he quickly resigned, but advantageously used the scandal to continue his career.)
“You really don’t want to end up in a job that you have to lie to get, because that indicates you might struggle with it,” Green says. “And you don’t want a job that will be tough for you to succeed in.”
Lying even has legal ramifications now, as is the case in New York, where a new state law has made it a misdemeanor for nannies to falsify their credentials. Which takes us to perhaps the logical endpoint of this conundrum: how to answer the “have you been convicted of a felony?” question. Despite a growing movement to “ban the box,” many states still allow the question, putting those with felony convictions in an impossible spot. Mark “no” and you’ll be fired if found out. Mark “yes,” and you might as well through the application straight into the trash. Job recruiters recommend forgoing online applications entirely, and instead applying in person after someone has vouched for you.
Embellishments that just might fly
But what about the self-promotion that happens when job-needers try to sell themselves to job-providers? “A good litmus test is if your co-worker or old boss saw your resume, would they laugh?” Green says. It’s more than a test, though. Those people may actually be contacted for a reference check, and the last thing you want is them mocking you.
So, how do you know where the line is when it comes to exaggeration and lie?
J.T. O’Donnell, founder of the career site Work It Daily, recommends by-passing the self-hype bullshit altogether, and just laying out basic facts of the position. How many customers did you manage? How many transactions per day? How big was the territory? “Give them numbers so they can get a sense of your work,” O’Donnell says. “When recruiters see so much self-promotion, they think, this person’s going to be high maintenance, or they’re trying to hide something.”
Once you get past the resume and application process, then comes the actual interview itself, another gauntlet of disguised tripwires that must be navigated.
What if the job asks for management experience, and you have none? Again, it’s a bit of a catch, because you need to be a manager to get managerial experience, but how do you become a manager if you don’t have experience?
One way around that, suggests O’Donnell, is admitting you don’t have the experience, but then turning the question around to why they need it. As they explain, come up with times in your past job when you performed these activities. Maybe you weren’t a “manager,” but did you have to delegate responsibility? Or hold other people accountable?
Finessing a job loss
Perhaps the biggest stumbling block is the most obvious: Why are you leaving your old job behind? You can’t say you had a shitty boss or terrible working environment, even if that’s true, because you’ll be seen as a potential problem in the office. And yet, if you had a perfect relationship with your last job, you wouldn’t be seeking out something new. It’s a tough line that necessitates a smooth story about what happened.
“In interviews, I always present it as looking to get out from what I was currently doing, and move back into what I am passionate about,” says Jack, a job-seeking tech worker based in San Francisco, who wished to stay anonymous due to a non-disclosure agreement he signed and because of his ongoing job search. “Which isn’t bullshit, but it also isn’t, ‘well, I could have stuck around and had someone hired on top of me and then forced into obscurity.’”
It’s important for you and your previous place of employment to be on the same general page—don’t say it was a layoff when you were actually fired for cause—but that page can hold a few different narratives. “There are three versions to every story: the company version, your version, and the truth,” O’Donnell says. “The best thing you can do is take your emotions out of it, and get as objective as you can.” O’Donnell calls this the “experience learning” route of crafting your narrative.
“How you choose to interpret the story is important,” O’Donnell says. “Don’t recount the story and not take any accountability, or blame everyone else. Say what you would have done differently, how you worked through the experience. Be honest that they’re likely not going to be the best references, and explain why. They’ll like it if you are objective, put time into thinking about what went wrong, and how you moved on from there.”
After all, the job hunt is about revealing your past, but also providing a blueprint for your future. Showcasing an ability to self-examine hints at your best days being ahead. Days that, if your employer’s lucky, will be spent with them.
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