Psychologists call it “response distortion,” but to me, it’s just plain old lying.

I’m referring to the common practice of a job applicant exaggerating or inventing qualifications, skills, or job history.

You’ve probably heard many “response distortions” during the job interviews you’ve conducted over the years. Consider a recent reader’s e-mail to the editor of InfoWorld’s Career Currents column: “I have about six years of experience, my MCSE, and a BS in computer science. I currently make in the mid-$40,000 range; with bonus low $50,000s. I always [say] I make $60,000 plus bonus, and I’m looking to make in the $70,000 to $80,000 range.”

As many as 53% of human resource managers answering a recent Society for Human Resource Management poll said job seekers falsify past salaries. Recruiting specialists confirm that applicants often exaggerate and falsify information on résumés and during interviews.

Responses to an anonymous survey by SelectJOBS on falsification included such comments as, “On my last job interview, I claimed to be an expert in a certain software because I knew it would get me hired. It took them three months before they realized I was learning it on the job. They needed IT people so badly they didn’t even care. I’m still making the big bucks.”

Why don’t more IT managers do their homework?
You can safely assume some applicants will exaggerate or lie about their background. However, it may be difficult for you to investigate a job seeker’s professional history for several reasons.

First, many companies have made it protocol to release minimal information about former employees in an effort to avoid defamation-related lawsuits.

“In certain circumstances, an ex-employer can be sued for defamation and may be liable for damages if the ex-employee doesn’t get the job,” said Christine Cesare, partner at the New York law firm of Emmet, Marvin & Martin.

In effect, the legal system has created a hurdle for you in your efforts to receive information about a job applicant. At the same time, courts have found that companies bear a responsibility for thoroughly evaluating the trustworthiness of their hires.

Another obstacle you face is the tight labor market. The IT workforce is growing at an exhilarated rate of 15% annually, 10 times that of the employable U.S. workforce.

It’s a seller’s market, and the scarcity of applicants means some IT managers can’t afford to wait to hire. They act without a thorough understanding of applicants’ skill levels, business experience, and earned salaries.

Call for certification information
With more than 35 certs available, IT applicants could list as few as one or as many as 10 from Microsoft alone, on their résumés.

“People are much more sophisticated in how they present themselves,” said Harold Weinstein, COO of Caliper Corp., a psychological assessment and human resources consulting firm located in Princeton, NJ.

When an applicant lists a cert on their résumé, you should confirm this information.

For Microsoft certs, here’s how it works:

  1. Call the Certified Professional Solutions Provider at 1-800-636-7544.
  2. Give the CPSP representative the applicant’s MCPI number and learn what Microsoft certs the applicant has.
  3. No MCPI number on the résumé? Then you’ll need to provide a name, address, and phone number for the job applicant.

Here are telephone numbers to check certs offered by other vendors.

Check out references and salaries
When you call a reference, let them know you’re looking for a personal impression and not a corporate policy.

Say something such as, “Jack Jones gave me your name as a personal reference.”

If you want to learn past salary history, check out the laws in your state to determine what information a former employer is allowed to reveal. In many states, including California, it’s legal to release salary info without applicant consent. To determine the salary information laws in your state, call the labor research staff of BNA Plus (The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc.) at 1-800-452-7773.

When you request salary information, most companies still prefer a faxed form. In general, companies will confirm or deny whether their former employee has given you accurate salary information.

It does require more time and effort to verify a job applicant’s qualifications. When you consider what’s at stake, however, it’s reckless to overlook this important process. Your company’s reputation and your own career may depend on the quality of the employees you hire.

Corry Kessel is a freelance HR writer and independent HR consultant. She specializes in structural HR design for entrepreneurial businesses and small- to medium-size organizations in specialty markets.

Have you ever caught a job applicant in a lie? What tipped you off? Post a comment below or send us an e-mail.