Deceit, Desire, and the Corporation

Posted by Dr. Robert A. Chamberlain, Jr.

Aug 3, 2012 2:36:00 PM

Deceit, Desire, and the Corporation

Liar, liar, pants on fire,
Lie some more, and don’t get hired.
Lie for years, but then get fired,
But don’t lie, and your career gets mired.

The announcement, on July 16, 2012, that former Google engineer Marissa Mayer would take the helm as Yahoo!'s CEO—the organization's, what, seventh in five years (counting interim CEOs)—reminds us of the company's recent history and the various ways in which, in business, ethics occasionally rears its head.

Such a case involves Scott Thompson, formerly the CEO of Yahoo! who resigned from his post in May 2012—ostensibly following the discovery that Mr. Thompson had lied on his resume. According to Julianne Pepitone's article "Yahoo CEO Scott Thompson caught padding his resume," prior to the disclosure of this information, Yahoo had reported on its corporate website that Mr. Thompson had received a bachelor's degree in computer science from Stonehill College in Massachusetts. Unfortunately, at the time of his attendance, the college offered no degree in computer science; Mr. Thompson's actual degree is in accounting. Assuming he had graduated at age twenty-two, or so, the now fifty-four year old Thompson presumably lied about his degree for decades. Pepitone notes that Thompson's biography on the website for PayPal, where he served as president, also mentions this fictional degree.

Following the disclosure of Thompson's fictional life story on May 3, 2012, events unfolded quickly, and, on May 13, 2012, Julianne Pepitone reported that "Yahoo confirms CEO is out after resume scandal"—a procession of events vaguely reminiscent of the conclusion of the 1976 film version of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein's All the President's Men, in which a teletype prints out a sequence of news stories, with the headline "AUGUST 6, 1974--WASHINGTON TAPES SHOW NIXON APPROVED COVER-UP, PRESIDENT SAYS HE WON'T RESIGN" followed immediately by "AUGUST 9, 1974--WASHINGTON NIXON RESIGNS." At least Thompson survived his scandal longer at his post than Nixon did at his.

Thompson's blatant lies on his resume probably had something to do with his leaving the company, if only as the proverbial straw that broke that poor camel's back. In late March 2012, Kara Swisher had reported on key individuals' leaving Yahoo's research units, what she termed the "Yahoo Prominent Brainiac Drain." Thompson had responded to this "Brainiac Drain" by laying off additional people. Nicholas Carlson had noted that, in early April 2012, Thompson fired 2,000 of the organization's 14,000 workers in an effort "to bring 'real change' to the company." Obviously, numerous events swirled about the CEO and his company, but his dismissal following the resume scandal certainly elevated to prominence Web discussions of the acceptability or lack of same about persons' playing fast and loose with their life stories, work histories, and educational achievements.

Regardless of the "real" reasons for Thompson's abrupt departure from Yahoo!, what everyone will remember is that he lied on his resume. The problem for Thompson is not that he lied but that the lie had no real value.

As Dan Lyons notes in "Farewell, Yahoo CEO Scott Thompson, Ousted for a Résumé Lie," Yahoo! had hired Thompson not for his undergraduate computer science degree, thirty years old, out of date, and probably useless for the past twenty-nine years (had he actually received it) but because Thompson had previously been CEO of PayPal. In other words, Thompson's lie was unnecessary. Moreover, it was a lie easily uncovered by Dan Loeb, the activist investor and hedge fund manager whose intention in revealing it was probably to pressure Yahoo! into providing him and other investors with seats on the company's board of directors.

I am reminded of what Addison De Witt (the magnificent George Sanders) says to Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter, in probably her best role) in the film All About Eve (1950): "San Francisco has no Shubert Theater. You've never been to San Francisco! That was a stupid lie, easy to expose, not worthy of you." Addison's discovery of this lie indicates the elaborate fabrication that Eve has constructed to enable her to insinuate herself with the actress Margo Channing (Bette Davis) and, ultimately, to achieve her goal of becoming a recognized actress herself. Addison is not concerned with the fact that Eve has lied. Everyone lies. Addison is concerned primarily with the fact that the lie is so easily revealed and, once he inserts into that lie the thin wedge of truth, so easily undercut. With the application of the slightest bit of leverage, the entire construction of Eve's sad little life story falls rapidly apart to reveal her more than slightly checkered past.

In Thompson's case, the lie was so stupid that it revealed a lack of something—probably good judgment—in the CEO himself. Anyone who would lie about something so easily verifiable and, ultimately in the context of a decades long working career, so meaningless as an undergraduate degree clearly is missing something in her or his psychological makeup. If Thompson wished to lie about something in his biography, he should have lied about something less objective. He could, for instance, like all CEOs, have fudged his involvement in various corporate projects to take credit for the work of subordinates. Such common and expected lies would never have called into question Thompson's intelligence or good judgment.

In "On the Decay of the Art of Lying," Mark Twain suggests that lying should be taught in school: "What chance has the ignorant uncultivated liar against the educated expert? . . . Judicious lying is what the world needs. I sometimes think it were even better and safer not to lie at all than to lie injudiciously. An awkward, unscientific lie is often as ineffectual as the truth." (This work, incidentally, also has some interesting comments appropriate for the annual review process.) Twain's essay is, of course, humorously ironic, but it is not necessarily inaccurate. Unfortunately, the injudiciousness demonstrated by Thompson is not unique. It may, in fact, be common. After the Thompson debacle, the Wall Street Journal was good enough to publish "Yahoo’s CEO Among Many Notable Résumé Flaps." This entry details numerous examples of high-ranking corporate and other institutional officials who had fudged their credentials more than just a little. The article, of course, lists only those persons who have been caught lying. If a public-facing CEO, University football coach, or president of the U.S. Olympic Committee can almost get away with falsifying prior accomplishments or current credentials, why shouldn't an enterprising but inexperienced new hire at least give it a try?

Kate DuBose Tomassi's Forbes article "Most Common Resume Lies" notes that lying about college degrees is a frequent practice. Nor is Scott Thompson the first (or last) CEO to be guilty. Tomassi cites—as does the Wall Street Journal blog—the experience of David J. Edmondson, who in 2006 resigned as CEO of RadioShack after The Fort-Worth Star Telegram reported that Edmondson had not, as he claimed on his resume, received degrees in theology and psychology from California's Pacific Coast Baptist College (which later moved to Oklahoma and was renamed Heartland Baptist Bible College). Here, Edmondson lied stupidly, injudiciously, and small: Why not claim false degrees from Harvard, Heidelberg, or Oxford? (And, incidentally, what values did Edmondson learn attending this church-affiliated, moral and upright educational institution? I thought it was only those secular humanist universities that taught its students how to lie.) Tomassi reports that other individuals inflate prior salaries or titles, presumably to gain greater negotiating traction with potential employers. Those who are older and who, perhaps, fear ageism, obscure dates to a greater or a lesser extent. Those who are younger pad their grade point averages (presumably for those degrees that they actually do possess). Naturally, claiming fluency in one or more foreign languages or proficiency in a technical area or with a software tool is a very common practice. For individuals in the middle to end of their career paths, such as CEOs who have managed to establish a relatively secure retirement, such lies are, again, stupid and unnecessary. For younger persons, trying to establish themselves in a specific organization or type of business, such lies are more understandable but can be just as injudicious.

As the article "The Effect of Linkedin on Deception in Resumes" (in Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking) notes, the desire to improve, or, at least, reconceptualize self-presentation for particular markets creates pressures on individuals to practice deception. What people tend to ignore here are those particular markets that individuals seek to penetrate. Corporations are people too, or so the U. S. Supreme Court says, and those corporations frequently either lie or do not know what they need, want, or expect from the personnel they spend time and resources attempting to hire.

As I have previously noted in "Ensure Current and Future Corporate Needs by Matching Competencies to Job Descriptions," organizations often fail to match their job descriptions with the knowledge, skills, and abilities (KSAs) required for personnel to perform successfully in those roles. Because of changes in markets, processes, and tools and because of job turnover, individuals who fill particular jobs find their roles expanding through the process of competency creep. Current personnel acquire, probably not efficiently, sufficient KSAs to perform in these expanded roles at a sufficiently high level of quality, but, when those personnel retire or find another job (either externally or internally), then the organization is left with a dated and inaccurate job description that Human Resources personnel must rapidly revise and attempt to fill. The result is frequently more wish list than accurate inventory of organizational needs, and such a disparate index almost forces persons seeking jobs to stretch the truth a bit in their desire to find gainful employment.

Thus, although outright lies on resumes and in biographies is certainly ultimately not productive (as such a practice may result in an individual's being thrust into a situation in which he or she cannot perform with any level of competence), neither is an organization's practice of failing to be aware of those KSAs required for particular job openings. To elicit more honest responses on a resume, perhaps organizations should more accurately specify competency requirements for the roles they need filled.

In the film Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Mr. Dryden of the British Arab Bureau (played by the formidable Claude Rains) says to T. E. Lawrence (played by Peter O'Toole, who, on July 10, 2012, announced his retirement "from films and stage,") "When we told lies you told half-lies. And a man who tells lies, like me, merely hides the truth. But a man who tells half-lies has forgotten where he put it." Although job seekers and resume writers may feel compelled to lie to increase their chances of obtaining a job, they are at least aware that they are lying. Corporations not aware of their competency needs have no excuse for their failings.

Topics: Employee Recruitment and Retention