So maybe you were shocked by the extent of Adam Wheeler's reported deception. Astounded to think of a college kid passing himself off as an authority on Zoroastrian cosmology and fluent in classical Armenian. Maybe it surprised you to envision that sort of behavior bubbling up beyond the world of politics, the supercharged arena in which candidates for president inflate their credentials by concocting brushes with sniper fire and candidates for the U.S. Senate demonstrate their fortitude by alluding to their days in Vietnam as if they had actually served in Vietnam. But politicians aren't the only ones who pad their résumés with grand delusions. CEOs do it too. And MIT admissions officers. And poets laureate. Hell, even porn stars do it: John Holmes once claimed to have a physical-therapy degree from UCLA.
If you're wondering whether the guy in the office next to yours has dabbled in fiction, odds are good he has. Studies show that the average person will lie at least twice during a typical 10-minute, get-to-know-you conversation. Just imagine what happens during the job-application process, when ambition and anxiety rear their pretty little heads. According to estimates, more than 40 percent of all résumés contain some sort of falsehood.
For argument's sake, let's assume you never spent a summer building huts in Honduras, leading a troop of young business leaders on a rock-climbing trip to Yosemite, or taking a class on the rise of the green economy at the London School of Economics. If you're going to stay ahead of your profession's go-getters, you're going to have to do it the old-fashioned way. In the classic tradition. As in Twelfth Night. Les Misérables. The Great Gatsby. You're going to have to lie about your background.
"There's a decided phenomenon called the liar's advantage," says Robert S. Feldman, professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and author of The Liar in Your Life. "Most often, people will assume that you are telling the truth. It's awkward to do otherwise. It's much easier on everyone to just accept what's said."
Of course, most corporations maintain human-relations departments staffed with experienced skeptics whose job it is to sniff out the whoppers we use to disguise the meagerness of our qualifications; according to a 2004 study by the Society for Human Resources Management, 96 percent of HR professionals say they always examine a candidate's credentials. But don't forget that those same people also get paid to fill vacancies. It's the bald-faced liars they're after, not the well-meaning fibbers. "For all the important positions," says Sharon Jautz of New York's Asset International, Inc., a financial-research and information provider, "we automatically run a criminal background check." Routine reviews comb through an applicant's employment, education, and credit histories as well. "There was a woman here just recently who swore up and down that she had graduated," says Angelo D'Agostino, vice president of human resources at the Internet advertising agency Tremor Media. "She was shocked to discover that she had an unpaid campus parking ticket on her record. The school was withholding her diploma until she took care of it."
For all of their dedication to weeding out bullshit artists, though, personnel directors admit that the material that stands out the most—the rare and the specific—is the hardest to verify. Military records are notoriously time-consuming to track down. Managers, who once felt free to discuss a former employee's shortcomings, are reluctant to do more than confirm job titles and dates of employment these days, thanks to a spate of litigious sore losers. After a certain point, companies just slap a big BEWARE OF DOG sign atop their applications, warning that lying can be cause for immediate dismissal.
But who's to say you didn't increase sales at your last job by 30 percent? That you weren't a pivotal player in the conception of that long-gone dot-com start-up? A little white lie here and there is like a white lie anywhere else: In some instances, it will ruin the relationship; in others, where the liar has admirable attributes, it will be downgraded to a misdemeanor.