As dean of admissions at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Marilee Jones was responsible for ensuring that applicants represented their academic backgrounds honestly. So it was more than a shock when the 55-year-old resigned Thursday, admitting that she had misled school officials over a 28-year period into believing that she held three degrees from New York institutions. In fact, she had never received even an undergraduate degree from any school.
While Jones's case is extreme, it points to a major concern for any corporation or institution that hires employees: embellishments and outright lies on résumés. Sue Murphy, association manager of the Human Resources Association, says that in her 20 years in HR she has seen the application process change dramatically. "We used to try to have the applicant provide two or three business references. But now … employers are being much more aggressive about checking applicants' backgrounds, and if they can afford it they are even hiring third parties to do background checks."
One of those third parties, ADP Screening and Selection Services, said it conducted 5.8 million background checks in 2006, a 20 percent increase from 2005. Out of nearly 500,000 reference verifications ADP did last year, 41 percent came back with some sort of discrepancy between the employment, education or credentials information provided by the applicant and what the source reported. "In some cases it's individuals who are just trying to fluff up their résumés, and in others it's people who are desperate for work," Murphy says. "They are trying to put food on the table and pay the mortgage, so they will try to embellish. As the economy and job market has tightened up, it has become more prevalent."
But if an employer doesn't catch the falsehoods, how does an employee live with such a big lie—in Jones's case, a falsehood that she maintained for 28 years? Psychologist Paul Ekman from the University of California Medical School in San Francisco (who has not spoken with Jones, and only knows of her situation from media reports) speculates that Jones's case is likely related to self-esteem. MIT officials noted that a college degree probably wasn't required for the entry-level position that Jones took on in 1979, and apparently no one checked her credentials with each successive promotion. Still, by all accounts, Jones was good at her job. She was quoted frequently in the press as a college-admissions expert and recently wrote a book that cemented her reputation as a sage adviser for college applicants. "Even though [the fake degrees] didn't [initially] give her tangible benefits, she [personally needed them] in order to get people to respect her," Ekman says. "And in time it appears she did get a lot of respect, but by then she couldn't reveal she had lied without losing her position."
Ekman says many people are tempted to exaggerate their credentials for the same reason a kid exaggerates his father's strength, but that most people resist. "They either know from past experience that they could never get away with it—perhaps because they are bad liars, they don't like taking risks—some people are risk takers so it attracts them to lying, or they are religiously observant," Ekman says.
Early in her career, Jones didn't resist the temptation, and it may have become too difficult to rectify the situation as she climbed the workplace ladder. "My bet is that it was never out of her mind completely that she had taken such a risk, but I doubt she spent many nights worrying someone would catch her," Ekman says. "She had done such a great job and was so admired, that she probably became confident after all these years that no one was going to check."
But while Ekman says everyone tells little white lies, which don't have any serious repercussions, the potential damages caused by hiring a poorly qualified employee are serious for companies. In fact, citing an example where a man lied on an application for a job as a bridge engineer (his dishonesty was discovered before any bridges were built), Murphy says there is serious liability for employers. "We live in a much more litigious society, so employers are trying to protect themselves against liability," Murphy says. "In today's hiring process it is very rare that employers are not going above and beyond trying to verify people's backgrounds."
Depending on the position applied for, Murphy says different background-information firms offer different service packages. For example, she says a credit check may not be necessary for a person applying for an administrative job; but an executive or financial position may call for a check of references, a credit check, a criminal-records check and even a check of driving records.
With such diligence, it's much riskier for today's job hunters to lie than it was 30 years ago when Jones filled out her first application at MIT, Murphy says. "When she moved up, she may not have had the degrees but she had the work experience to be good at her job, so were we cheated?" Ekman asks. "The real issue here is what does she represent to young people. Clearly she's not a good role model on how to get ahead in the world, so at least you could say she is a good lesson."