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The Effects of Social Networks on Resume Embellishment

by Hannah Nusser, for SIOP

For job seekers, the employment search and application process can be grueling. With an increasingly competitive job market hanging over their heads, many applicants may resort to “sprucing up” their resumes. A new study examines the link between who a candidate knows and their practice of and attitudes toward resume embellishment.
SIOP member Rashimah Rajah, a Ph.D. student in Organizational Behavior, and adviser Vivien K. G. Lim, deputy head of the Department of Management and Organization at the National University of Singapore, recently conducted research on the effects of social networks—relationships in one’s social structure among individuals, departments, or organizations––on lying behavior, especially resume embellishment, in the workplace. A poster of the findings, “Resume Embellishment in Job Search Behavior: A Social Networks Perspective,” was presented last month at the 26th Annual SIOP Conference in Chicago.
Rajah said this study, conducted mid-2010, is one of the first to streamline two issues, resume embellishment and social networking, which are usually studied independently. After surveying undergraduate college students about their social networks and moral identity, Rajah and Lim discovered that although moral identity had no impact on tendencies toward lying on resumes and in job interviews, having a network of social contacts reduced students’ tendencies to lie.
Social networking has received the attention of more researchers in recent years, Rajah said.
“Networking is highly important in the U.S., where it is commonly said that, ‘It does not matter what you know but rather who you know,’” she explained.
The interest in this study came about when students in one of Lim’s courses admitted to exaggerating their achievements on their resumes when applying for jobs. Many of their peers do the same, Lim said, because they do not perceive it as lying.
“From a game-theory perspective, it is only rational to join the population in embellishing resumes,” Lim and Rajah explained in their poster. “But surely, there must be something ethically and financially wrong in a system that allows the better liars or embellishers to get ahead in the competition.”
Lim’s students are not alone— according to a 2008 CareerBuilder.com survey of more than 3,100 hiring managers and more than 8,700 workers nationwide, 8% of workers admitted to stretching the truth on their resumes and nearly half (49%) of hiring managers reported they caught a candidate lying on their resume.
Resume embellishment, or puffery, includes exaggerating one’s admirable qualifications or omitting unfavorable information to the degree of lying. According to the CareerBuilder survey, the most common areas of misrepresentation on resumes included job responsibilities, skill set, dates of employment, and academic degree.
Rajah explained that one reason for resume embellishment can be the job market. The current study was completed during a time of global financial crisis and a tough job market for fresh college grads, she added.
“Driven by resource and financial constraints, these individuals or anybody in the job market may be compelled to lie on their resumes,” she explained. “We were then interested to find out if social networks will act as a form of social capital that individuals can harness during these times and if it prevents them from resorting to questionable acts when applying for a job.”
Questionnaires were distributed to 198 undergraduate students at a university in Singapore. First, participants were asked to rate how strongly they responded to statements about their social networks and moral identity. They were also asked if they felt they had prominent social networks that could assist in finding a job. In a second wave of data collection, participants responded to a job interview scenario where they were given the opportunity to lie.
The results showed that applicants with a network of social contacts tended to view resume embellishment negatively and were less likely to lie in the interview scenario.
“People with social networks were less likely to engage in lying, as they felt that these social ties could help them get a job,” Rajah explained. “These findings suggest that social networks are a form of social capital that helps enhance individuals’ chances of getting a job and could help prevent them from resorting to more questionable behaviors.”
The study also measured the effects of one’s moral identity. Internal moral identity, Rajah explained, is based on one’s ethical guidelines and values; external moral identity is displayed through actions and affiliations. Results showed participants’ moral identity did not affect their attitudes toward unethical resume practices. Rajah said this suggests that regardless of one’s pre-existing moral identity, social networking may reduce ethically questionable acts.
Within the social networks, previous studies have shown that weaker ties with contacts, like an acquaintance as opposed to a close friendship, are more likely to prove helpful in the job hunt. This is presumably because individuals with close relationships often find themselves in the same or similar networks, with a large overlap of contacts, Lim and Rajah explained.
Rajah said she hopes people realize that, through this research and others, helping job hopefuls form a network of contacts is just one possible answer to making the workplace a more ethical and productive environment. Hiring the more truthful job candidates can benefit the workplace in more ways than one, she said.
“Not only will this help in bringing about a more ethical culture in the workplace,” Rajah said. “But knowing the true abilities of job candidates can help recruiters hire the most competent individuals, leading to a more productive workforce.”
Practitioners and recruiters can also put this information to good use, she added.
“For example, instead of advertising their company as one that ‘only hires the best,’ which may compel people to lie, they could perhaps take efforts to go down to career fairs and allow job candidates to form social ties with them,” she explained.“By establishing some level of trust prior to resume submission, and by getting to know the job candidates better, the recruiters will more likely hire the better candidates anyway, as they will get to know who the more competent individuals truly are as opposed to relying solely on exaggerations on resumes.”