Simon Howard ponders where to draw the line between selling yourself and lying in your CV

I wrote only one dissertation at university - an epic on Eden and Suez. It was a lyrical piece which ended with Eden, a broken man, standing on the afterdeck of a ship leaving the Pool of London, watching the sun sink behind the city.
Its only academic laurel was a 2:2 (better known now as a ‘Desmond’). However, my tutor had originally marked it a first but this was crossed out and he’d scrawled beneath “on second reading Simon, I realise this is a triumph of style over content”. At the time it was a blow, but what has stood me in better stead since - my knowledge of Eden and Suez or a modest ability to string a few words together?
All those creative writing skills came to the fore again when I had to write a CV for the first time. Not inaccurately, I claimed 12 O levels, 3 As and a degree. Pretty impressive, eh? But such a clever clogs I am not. Closer examination would have shown two Os weren’t Os at all, the A level grades were poor and the degree was the aforesaid ‘Desmond’. But it got me my first job and nobody ever checked up and, anyway, in its own way it was truthful. However, such complacency may no longer be acceptable.
There is now evidence that as many as one in four people lie in their CVs and more than three quarters of CVs contain inaccuracies and embellishments - do I sense a number of you twitching already?
So, the quarter of you who have porky-free CVs need read no further, but the 75% who are still here may be interested in the growing trend of checking CVs with CV (career verification) techniques. There are now companies who specialise in authenticating CVs and conducting personal reference checks, and you would be amazed by the level of CV fraud as well as how lax employers are in checking out the credentials of new employees.
This was borne out in a recent survey by the Chartered Institute of Personnel Development (CIPD), which found 23% of employers do not always take up references.
Worse still, a quarter of those surveyed withdrew at least one job offer in the past year after discovering that someone had lied or otherwise misrepresented themselves in their application. And on top of that, 23% had dismissed someone who was already in a post, for the same offence.
Now, as an author published in this area - or, as we’re trying to be truthful - as an author only published in this area, I am the first to advise a little selling in CV.
After all, this document is meant to be a brochure and not an autobiography. But even brochures don’t claim features which don’t exist - so I have no sympathy for the outright lie.
However, I have to admit that there’s a subtle difference between omitting to say something, versus actually lying - and the love-rats among you will know exactly what I mean (okay guys, takes one to know one). For example, no-one in their right mind is going to claim a project which they completely cocked up as an astounding success; more likely they’ll quietly omit it from their CV. So is that lying?
Although this might sound as though it comes from the Nick Leeson school of CV writing, I believe omissions on a CV are fine, because it is the employer’s responsibility to probe at interview, and through the rest of the selection process, a candidate’s suitability for a role.
Now, for the son of a Methodist minister, this may seem a tad dishonest, but it’s all a question of degree. If asked at interview if I’ve ever made mistakes, I would have to answer truthfully - and indeed would sell the fact that I had learnt from them and so history was not likely to be repeated. But stick them up there on the CV? Forget it.
Mind you, writing a monthly column for this august journal, and another weekly for the Sunday Times, does tend to mean that most of my howlers are hard to hide away, anyway. And as my late tutor would have reminded me, they are all triumphs of style over content.
n Simon Howard is a founder of Work Group Ltd and writes the Jobfile column for the Sunday Times, and has never actually lied on a CV but…