Blagging it

A new study of more than 3,000 CVs submitted by job applicants for financial positions showed that 25 per cent contained false, or incorrect statements.

Conducted by employee screening specialists, The Risk Advisory Group (TRAG), the study went on to show that each incorrect CV contained an average of three lies.

Should we be surprised if this was also the case among IT workers? Technical analysts and programmers will all tell you, that the specific skills a person has collected, are not as important as the aptitude for general principles, and a good programmer in one language will be a good programmer in another very quickly indeed.

This point is often lost on companies and agents demanding exact fits for a job specification, so can contractors be blamed for "spinning" CVs in order to jump red-tape hurdles?

Robert Wallace, a contract programmer and designer for nearly twenty years, recalls emphasising his experience of the old IBM operating system OS2 to persuade an agent to get him an interview with a top insurance company. At the interview, it turned out the requirement was for not for OS2, but for IS2 – an original GUI builder.

Rather than admit the mistake, he talked obliquely about another GUI builder. The bluff paid off with a happy two-year contract - a circumstance that would not have happened without the mix-up.

Does Wallace think this is lying? "I did mislead," he says, "the first two weeks involved a lot of bookwork and nervous team meetings."

This might seem like a bit of luck, or fraud, depending on your point of view, but mistakes like this are not uncommon. Paul Curtly now works permanently in the financial services sector, but in a former contract interview, a mistake was made over imaginary qualifications.

"They asked me about my MSc, which unfortunately should have been MSC, Manpower Services Commission, the government-funded training courses for the unemployed. It gave everybody a good laugh at the interview, and I got the job!"

These communication errors are one thing, but Ray Murphy from recruitment mega-firm Spring IT says nudging the dates of contracts to close gaps in the CV is very common practice. "I don't know why they [contractors] are afraid of gaps," he says, adding that Spring's recruitment consultants are all aware of the reality of contracting.

But interviewers may not be, and contractors believe gaps in the CV can make experience look patchy. After all, a permanent applicant wouldn't put time down for holidays, and time between contracts is often viewed as vacation time.

Spring IT pass contractor CVs onto clients with few if any changes and Murphy says he would be surprised if "creative accounting," wasn't rife on many of them. Through spin, or good sales technique if you prefer, a generic CV can be made suitable for many technical jobs.

For example, many server side developments use a combination of tools, languages and methodologies. A CV can therefore, almost legitimately, bring any of these out as the major skill. Where both COBOL and Java are used on a one-year contract, a CV can suggest either one year of COBOL or one year of Java, or both. It all depends on the next position sought.

The point at which spinning the CV becomes lying is definitely moot, but there is a sense that if the contractor can do the job and the client is happy, then 'so what.' Even if CVs have a few inventive decorations on them, the vast majority of contracts work out well for all parties.

Murphy says he has never known a contractor to be sacked for "embellishing" their CV even though he suspects TRAG's figure of 25 per cent is probably an underestimate.

Yet there is the question of trust and Murphy believes contractors are more likely to be punished by not being put forward for interviews. The agent cannot trust them if their CV looks questionable, he says.

"The contracting market is quite incestuous, you will be caught out if you lie."

And as if to underline the point of trust, Richard Prior, TRAG's deputy managing director, says "…candidates seem to be taking the view that if they have lied once in their CV they might as well lie several times."

So, once the threshold for lying once has been reached, then any lie is fair game. Adjusting contract start and end dates, and bringing minor skills to the fore could just be the thin end of a very fat wedge.

William Knight

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