Is omitting a degree from the resume ethical?

Trying to figure out the right thing to do? Ask Darwin’s resident ethicist, John Kador.

Q. I’m desperate. Despite having an MBA from a top school and 10 years experience as a senior manager, I’ve been unemployed for over two years. Everyone tells me I’m overqualified. I am now ready to lower my sights and apply for a mid-level job. I believe I will have a better chance if employers are not made aware of the fact that I have an MBA. Must I include all my degrees on my resume, or am I lying if I omit a degree?

A. Honesty and full disclosure are not the same things. A resume is a statement of qualifications for a specific job, not a life history, so you are within bounds to tailor your resume with true facts most relevant to the position. You may omit your MBA degree, just as you neglect to mention that you are an international chess grandmaster, certified as a paramedic or ordained as a Scientologist.

From a moral point of view, it’s sad that being considered overqualified counts against you. Because of this perversion in the moral order of the universe, St. Thomas Aquinas himself would defend the ethics of omitting certain details on the resume. Ethics does not require you to be truthful with immoral or unlawful authority. While it’s generally wrong to lie, if the Gestapo comes to your door looking for hidden Jews, ethics requires a deception.

That said, being caught in a lie is worse than being overqualified. If you do omit the MBA and receive an offer, you should come clean. Since most companies perform background checks, your overlooked credentials will quickly be discovered. Good luck and see the next question.

Q. My biggest frustration as an unemployed executive is potential employers telling me that I am “overqualified.” How do I counter this accusation? The fact is, I am generally guilty as charged. Nor does it work to argue that I’m not really as qualified as I appear to be. Short of shortchanging my credentials and accomplishments on my resume, which is probably unethical, how can I address this objection?

A. The first thing is not to take it personally. Remember that interviewers trot out the O-word as code for three worries. Interviewers are concerned that candidates with a certain level of experience will demand a higher salary than they want to pay; that even if the candidates accept the lower salary, they will not be happy and soon leave; and that if they stay, problems will arise if the candidate is more experienced or credentialed than his or her supervisor and co-workers.

They are not making up these concerns. So your first task is to assure the interviewer that while these fears are reasonable, in your case, they are groundless. One way to do that is use your cover letter or job interview to reframe the objection. You can say: “With all due respect, let me suggest that it’s not that I am over-qualified for the job. Rather, as presented, the job is under-defined.”

Q. One of my valued employees was arrested for a DUI and since his job requires a valid driver’s license (which he has now lost), we decided it was best that he be suspended from the job until the matter is cleared up. Apparently he told his wife that he’s not working because of a general layoff. Now the wife is calling to confirm his story. I believe he has learned his lesson and I’d hate to add marriage woes to his troubles. Should I tell or not?

A. Answer her questions truthfully. The wife didn’t ask you for marriage counseling. She asked you for information to which she is entitled. Your employee has integrity issues that go beyond his addiction. You ought not minimize the DUI or, worse, be an enabler of the denial in which your employee clearly remains. Marriage woes may well be in your suspended employee’s future, but the employee’s poor choices — not you — are their cause.

John Kador, a business writer in Geneva, Ill., is the author of 12 books on leadership, finance and management. His most recent book is How to Ace the Brainteaser Job Interview (McGraw-Hill, 2004). He welcomes questions on business, office and workplace interpersonal ethics. Send your queries to [email protected].

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