To Tell the Truth

For finance executives, the price of lying and making errors on résumés or in interviews is higher than it is for others. Experts offer tips on how to spot problems, and warnings on how to avoid them in your own job-hunting.

The shock of the five-year-old Kenneth Lonchar résumé scandal reverberated again a few months ago, when the once-celebrated former Veritas Software CFO and four other ex-executives were charged with filing false financial statements for Veritas — the Latin word, of course, for truth.

In that more-recent case, the Securities and Exchange Commission alleged that Lonchar and the others were responsible for filing false and misleading financial statements from 2000 to 2002. (Lonchar’s attorney maintained at the time that her client had acted in good faith, and objected that the SEC’s charges “lack foundation.”)

But among recruiters and career counselors who specialize in finance executives, Lonchar is remembered more for his boldness in trying to slip a phony Stanford University MBA credential past the system — and getting away with it, at least for a time.

“With most finance executives, you find high ethics, terrific integrity. They’re good people,” says Seattle-based career adviser Robin Ryan, who has worked with CPA societies for years and counts finance executives as about a third of her current client base. “But when you get the bad apple, they’re the bad apple in a big way.”

Ryan, who was stunned by an HR Magazine report showing that 44 percent and 41 percent of applicants lie about their work history or education, respectively, with 23 percent falsifying a credential, doesn’t think the numbers are nearly as high among finance employees. Indeed, she says, “the biggest mistake I see for CFOs is that their résumés sound like a job description; like they’ve accomplished nothing on their own. Most of them are not very good at selling themselves.”

Still, she’s seen more than a few instances of finance executives whose curricula vitae show CPA credentials that aren’t valid, a long-ago stint with an accounting firm that didn’t really employ them, or perhaps an executive MBA certificate that’s being passed off as a full-time MBA degree. “I’m sure that there are CFOs out there that if we said, ‘We’re going to examine your résumé,’ would want to go back and make some changes.”

And any mistake, even an innocent one, “is certainly a heavier burden for CFOs and controllers when it comes to a job interview,” says Walter Williams, a partner at the executive-recruitment firm Battalia Winston International. “They’re expected to tell it like it is.”

With that caution in mind, Williams and Ryan offer some thoughts on how to prepare a clean résumé — and how to spot finance executives who might be trying to pull a fast one when they apply for a job.

The Return of the Long-Ago Lie

When there is deceit in finance employees’ claims, “it’s almost always a lie that people fabricated early in their career, and they never fixed it,” says Ryan. “They ‘improved’ the college that they went to, or the degree that they got.” In competing with other strong candidates, these executives might have found that a CPA was a valuable commodity — and claimed that certification when they didn’t have it. Or, if an older applicant says he worked for “Ernst & Whinney 30 years ago,” Ryan notes, he might figure that the current prospective employer might not check.

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