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.
The safest place to stretch the truth tends to be in the parsley parts of a résumé, things like hobbies, interests, and foreign languages spoken. That 2004 survey of HR professionals, for example, found that only 2 percent reviewed applicants' claims about published articles and speaking engagements in every instance. Which means the average sleuth isn't likely to bother with those academic prizes you've collected or your facility with Sanskrit. "Unless the job requires Sanskrit," Jautz says, "we won't check."
Feel free to juice your salary a bit, too. Like a car buyer looking at a sticker price, prospective employers almost always assume a 10 percent markup.
Exhibit A: The handiwork of Adam Wheeler, the 23-year-old former Harvard student accused of lying his way to $45,000 in scholarships.
One thing most HR people are conscientious about is checking references. But let's face it, they don't exactly have the resources of the FBI. People ask their friends for bogus recommendations all the time. If you're going to do so, just be sure to brief your pals on your day-to-day duties. "You can usually tell who's lying by asking what someone did on the job," says Christina Zeller, the director of human resources at Belkin in Los Angeles. "That often holds true when people pad their résumés as well. You ask a guy who says he led a team when he was just on a team, and it's clear that he has little insight into what leaders do."
If you want to be really bold, put the HR department's resolve to the test. A few years back, a Yale student boasted that his application to the school had included a letter of recommendation from the Dalai Lama. Eminent, monstrously busy world figure, residing many, many time zones away—how uncheckable is that?
As counterintuitive as it sounds, though, the best time to start lying about yourself is your first month on the job, right after you've impressed people with your work ethic. "Once we make up our minds about something," says Dan Ariely, professor of behavioral economics at Duke University and author of the best-selling book Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions, "we tend to overlook, excuse, or explain away information that contradicts that belief. We overvalue what we think we know." That explains how Jayson Blair could continue to file phony stories for the New York Times long after suspicions had been raised about his veracity.
When your colleagues are your friends, you can use social media to establish your singular virtues. Fill your Facebook page with status updates on your volunteer work at the soup kitchen. Tweet about your campaign to read the complete works of Tolstoy.
Really, it's no different from the fish stories you tell the guys over drinks after work. Occasionally you might try unleashing your feminine side, too. "Men and women lie with the same frequency," Feldman says, "but they do it differently. Men lie to enhance themselves; women lie to make the other party more comfortable, using flattery and praise and self-effacement to show that they'll fit in." In other words, while conning your boss into thinking that you came up with your previous employer's entire mobile-phone strategy, take a moment to commend him on his own achievements (thank you very much, Google).
Of course, lying entails the risk of getting caught. Embarrassing, yes. Lethal, no. Adam Wheeler was charged with larceny and identity fraud (because of the $45,000 in grants and scholarship funds he received), but he's the exception. Not long ago, the ABC News Sunday-morning program This Week started fact-checking statements guests make on the air, and more than a few political Pinocchios were discovered. The show's interim anchor, Jake Tapper, didn't notice any difficulty booking guests, though. "I keep thinking of that Seinfeld episode in which George says, 'Jerry, just remember, it's not a lie if you believe it,'" Tapper says. "That's what we're all fighting here—the George Costanza standard."
Yet who among us has not had his George Costanza moment? "Lying is something almost everybody does at some time," says Jay S. Kwawer, director of the William Alanson White Institute, a New York City psychoanalytic training and treatment center. "What these politicians have done is no different from whispering 'I love you' when you're unbuttoning a girl's blouse."
Which is to say: The consequences of your good-natured embellishment will be determined within the context of your subsequent performance.