Are young job seekers less ethical or just desperate?

July 12, 2011: 9:41 AM ET

Candidates aged 18 to 34 are more likely to fib on their resumes than older applicants, says a new poll. That raises some interesting questions.

By Anne Fisher, contributor

FORTUNE -- Desperate times call for desperate measures, which may include fudging the facts on resumes these days. With the unemployment rate officially at 9.2% (and actual unemployment, many experts say, far higher than that), it seems job hunters are increasingly tempted to exaggerate or fabricate to stand out from the crowd.

Fibbing isn't distributed evenly across all age groups, however. According to a survey of 2,026 adults across the U.S. by background screening firm TalentWise, younger applicants are more likely than older ones to think that embellishing a resume is okay: 45% in the 18 to 34 cohort, versus 34% for survey respondents overall.

Least likely to stretch the truth on a resume, the poll found, are people 55 or older, about one-quarter of whom (27%) said they might do it.

The resume items least likely to hold up under scrutiny: dates of employment; job titles and responsibilities; and, tied for third place, accomplishments during previous jobs and level of education.

Of course, there's nothing new about embroidering the facts on a resume, or even telling outright whoppers. Even before the recession got underway, over 60% of hiring managers told the Society for Human Resource Management they were finding all sorts of untruths in job applicants' CVs.

"But in this economic climate, where so many people are finding it hard even to get an interview, you may start thinking it's okay to do whatever you have to do to get noticed and get a foot in the door," observes Bill Glenn, a vice president at TalentWise.

The marked disparity among different age groups, he adds, is something of a mystery. One theory is that "young people, as a rule, are more inclined to take risks" -- like, for example, the risk of embarrassment or even firing that comes along with falsifying your resume. It could also be that young job hunters, often lacking much experience or professional contacts, try to compensate by embellishing the truth.

The propensity to cut corners under pressure spells good business for resume-checking companies like TalentWise, which just introduced a new product called TalentShield that Glenn describes as "like Carfax for resumes."

Less-than-honest CVs are an obvious nuisance to employers, but even worse, they're an added menace to many people's already agonizing search for work. "The real impact is on job seekers who represent themselves accurately," Glenn says. "They're up against unfair competition from people who are making stuff up."

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About This Author
Anne Fisher
Anne Fisher
Contributor, Fortune

Anne Fisher has been writing "Ask Annie," a column on careers, for Fortune since 1996, helping readers navigate booms, recessions, changing industries, and changing ideas about what's appropriate in the workplace (and beyond). Anne is the author of two books, Wall Street Women (Knopf, 1990) and If My Career's on the Fast Track, Where Do I Get a Road Map? (William Morrow, 2001).

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