In partnership with the Rock Ethics Institute, Penn State Today’s feature column, "Ask an Ethicist," aims to shed light on ethical questions from our readers. Each article in this column will feature a different ethical question answered by a Penn State ethicist. We invite you to ask a question by filling out and submitting this form. An archive of the columns can be found on the Rock Ethics Institute website.
Question: I used to lie on my resume and no one caught it. It helped me get two internships and some connections, although I likely could have got those internships without lying. I don't lie on my resume anymore.
What punishment do I deserve? Should I tell the truth to the people that I lied to? If they don't keep the information to themselves, they might cause irreparable damage to my future career.
My plan is to take some time off to help people in the future when I've paid off my student loans and have put my brother through college. I plan to tell the truth to the people that I lied to when I've paid for my mistake by taking time off to help people and when enough time has passed so that they can't irreparably damage my career.
An ethicist responds: As you’ve recognized, you should never lie on your resume or exaggerate the truth. If your current employer hired you with the understanding that you have experiences or skills you didn’t possess at the time, the employer can terminate your employment regardless of the quality of your current work. Even if you keep your job, you’ve damaged a professional relationship and your reputation. In this case you’ve damaged something far more important to you — your integrity. You may be inclined to continue hiding the truth to protect your current situation, but your question suggests that the risk of losing your current job is overshadowed by the guilt you feel about your earlier ethical missteps. Let’s assume your integrity is of the foremost importance to you, and you seek resolution.
It seems you’ve already determined your punishment and a timeline for when you should make this ethical lapse right again. While perhaps well-intentioned, you are misdirecting your “penance," and making it convenient for you to the point of meaninglessness. You can never identify the applicants who didn’t get the job which you got under false pretenses. However, you can identify those who have been wronged by your lies: your past and current employers, who have invested their resources in your career and their trust in you.
The extent to which you should be punished depends on the severity of your transgressions. Claiming an academic degree you didn’t earn has more influence on career progression than “rounding up” an employment period by a month or a GPA to the next decimal. Adding imaginary years to your employment experience is more egregious than inflating a project accomplishment by a few percentage points. In principle, the act of lying is equally problematic regardless of the subject matter, but in the business world, a proportional response to a specific lapse is more likely. Did you lie about one really big thing or multiple big things?
Although it was wrong to lie, you may have, or may not have, benefited from what you lied about on your resume. Your assumption that you were hired because of a lie on your resume may be unfounded. They may have hired you for reasons totally unrelated to that portion of your resume content. For example, perhaps you weren’t nervous at the interview and you smiled often, suggesting to them that you have great customer service skills. Talk openly with those you’ve lied to because they deserve to know the truth. Your conversation with your former supervisor will also help you make some decisions about how to proceed going forward.
Assume good intent on the part of those you’ve deceived. Make the assumption that your supervisor wants to help you in your career, even now. Ask them to keep your conversation confidential with the understanding that they may not be able to honor your request. They may be obligated to inform the human resources office, or their immediate supervisor, which may bring others into the conversation and impact the outcome.
Make it easy for them to find redeeming qualities in you. Tell them you won’t be asking them for a reference for future employment searches because you understand the implications of your decision. Tell them you will seek out training in ethical decision-making, attend, and take it to heart.
Be prepared for the employer to express disappointment. Be understanding if they show disapproval. Some people need time to process bad news. An initial negative reaction may not reflect the person’s long-standing opinion of you or what their final decision may be about the issue.
Also, be prepared for the employer to be understanding, gracious, and work with you to repair your reputation. If you admit and own your mistake, taking this proactive approach suggests that you’ve grown and learned from what you’ve done. However, be prepared for severe consequences, including the need to begin a new job search, this one unburdened by guilt.
Good people sometimes make bad decisions, but can learn from those experiences if they hold themselves accountable and commit to ethical improvement. Most employers want to know when and why a mistake or misjudgment occurred and deal with it sooner rather than later. What if someone else discovers the truth before you have the opportunity to tell them? It’s much harder to recover from admitting to your mistake when you’re found out rather than explaining that you didn’t understand the gravity of the deceit so early on in your career. Your employer might never learn of your lies, but the cliché “the truth always comes out” has some validity, and the fact that you have submitted your question suggests you’re aware of this possibility. “The truth will set you free” is another cliché that seems to apply to your situation.
As long as the positions you’ve held which included lies are listed on your resume, your best option is to be upfront and honest. If you are sincere, it will come across to others. As part of acknowledging your ethical lapse and holding yourself accountable, when asked during interviews to talk about a mistake you’ve made or a professional regret, you can use this example from your past. You can acknowledge your mistake while demonstrating to future employers how you have matured as an ethical professional. You’ve taken the first step. Why not go all the way with clearing your conscience and a path for an upstanding and ethical career going forward?
At the Penn State Smeal College of Business, we have an honor code, director of honor and integrity, and resources and events to assist students in making ethical decisions. You can also find an ethical-decision making model and other resources on Penn State’s Values & Culture website.
Brenda Fabian is the director of career services for the Smeal College of Business master of business administration and master of professional studies in management and organizational leadership programs. She has employer relations and admissions experience. Prior to joining Penn State, Fabian was the director of career services at Susquehanna University.
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Note: The "Ask an Ethicist" column is a forum to promote ethical awareness and inquiry across the Penn State community. These articles represent the interests and judgments of each author as an individual scholar and are neither official positions of the Rock Ethics Institute nor Penn State University. They are designed to offer a possible approach to a subject and are not intended as definitive statements on what is or is not ethical in any given situation. Read the full disclaimer.