The Dance of Deceit

Was there ever a time in American history when employers were honest about their offerings, and candidates were honest about their skills?

Over the years I’ve had quite a few friends who work in human resources*, and most of them have confirmed that employers assume that people lie on their resumes, so they assume that people have fewer skills than they’ve listed. Knowing that HR doesn’t trust them anyway, many people — particularly those new to professional employment — exaggerate their skills, titles, and accomplishments to compensate for this downgrade. Everyone alters their perceptions based on the assumption that the other party is not dealing with them fairly, with the end result that no one is being honest at all.

The current economy, oddly enough, has led to a different kind of deception. Payroll budgets have been slashed, eliminating many management positions. As a result, human resource departments are largely uninterested in people with management experience, particularly those applying for non-managerial jobs; candidates with leadership experience who have been unemployed for any length of time are then downplaying or completely removing their prior management experience, just to get an interview.

Here’s an example. Through years of hard work and patience, a friend rose to a high-level position in information technology, receiving many citations for his leadership and innovation. Nonetheless, when his employer decided to outsource their IT role, he was laid off. For months he couldn’t even get a call-back from a potential employer, even working through a headhunter. He eventually gave up on the headhunter and started applying for pure programming positions. (He’d managed to keep his skills up to date in spite of his years of management.) Still no calls.

Finally, he revised his resume, changing his title to “senior programmer,” and removing any mention of his management experience. Immediately he started getting calls for interviews, and quickly landed a job as a database administrator. There’s no way of knowing if he’d have gotten the interview with a straight resume, but the evidence indicates that he might not.

This isn’t something I’m comfortable with doing. I’m not a complete idiot, so I do tailor my resume to the offering. So far I haven’t changed my titles, though, or removed anything to indicate that I may be overqualified for a position. Maybe that’s hindering me in my job search, but I don’t know that I’d want to work for a company that expected and encouraged deceit in its hiring process.

I do understand the reasons given as to why companies shy away from someone clearly overqualified for a position. A very high percentage of the cost of hiring is the orientation and training of the new employee, and if you suspect that they are going to jump ship when the economy improves then it makes little sense to invest on a questionable return. When the economy improves, though, a good company will rise on that same tide, and may have need of employees with a larger skill set than that expressly required by the position. It would seem to make sense to already have those skills available, thereby removing the additional expense of hiring yet another employee to fill those needs. But I am not a human resources professional, so perhaps there are additional considerations which support keeping a less-skilled workforce, rather than encouraging the loyalty of a superior candidate.

Then again, maybe deceit is simply too tightly woven into the fabric of corporate America. In the business world there is a tacit understanding that everyone around you is always lying, is always trying to cheat you. For many this mindset provides a perfect rationalization for their own deceptive practices: do unto others before they do unto you. Pessimists (or “realists,” as they like to call themselves) will say that’s just the way people are, so deal with it. Optimists (or “losers,” as pessimists like to call them) prefer to think this is a temporary aberration of human nature, and one that social change will cure. I’m somewhere between the two. I’m enough of an optimist to hope that someday the employment process will become honest again, but I’ve been in the workforce long enough to harbor doubts.

It isn’t a question likely to be resolved any time soon. For now I’ll just keep sending out resumes, and hope that even if it doesn’t get me a job, that honesty will still count for something in the cosmic sense.

*”Human resources” is a term I find personally odious. The industry’s move to it from “personnel,” I suspect, signaled a philosophical shift from treating an employee as a person, to treating them as a consumable object, like cardboard boxes or toilet paper. Sure, it’s just a word, but words carry weight far beyond their concise denotation. Nonetheless, at this point it’s unlikely to change.