Is it Ever Okay to "Embellish" a Resume?

 by Michael C. Dorf

My latest Verdict column addresses three main legal issues arising out of the lies of George Santos: (1) what it would take for the House of Representatives to judge him unqualified or expel him (neither of which will happen because he's a Republican); (2) what legal jeopardy he may face for violations of campaign finance laws and possibly other laws; and (3) whether prosecuting him or a future candidate specifically for lying to voters would be consistent with the First Amendment, given that the Supreme Court has held that lies are not categorically unprotected speech. I conclude the column with a thought about where Santos fits in the contemporary GOP.

Here I want to consider the closest that Santos has come to justifying his lying: “I’m not going to make excuses for this," said Santos in an effort to make an excuse for his lying, "but a lot of people overstate in their resumes, or twist a little bit. … I’m not saying I’m not guilty of that."

There are at least three claims here: (1) that a form of behavior in which many people engage, ipso facto, cannot be very harmful; (2) that the misrepresentations of Santos--who lied about just about everything--are a form of mere overstatement; and (3) that being a member of Congress is the kind of job for which no harm comes from grossly misstating one's qualifications. I'll consider these claims in order.

(1) Many others do it. Is this even true? I consider myself a generally honest person but not a zealot about it. I'll certainly tell white lies to avoid giving offense. For example, I might tell a faculty candidate who fizzled that everyone thought their paper and talk were great but that we had to prioritize other fields this year due to curricular need. Or I'll thank someone for a "very tempting" invitation to a speak at a conference that doesn't tempt me at all and feign regret that it conflicts with a made-up engagement. I would probably even tell a more consequential lie in extremis. But I've never knowingly fabricated anything on a resume, which strikes me as not the sort of relatively harmless social lie people tell but a species of fraud. I don't think I'm unique or even very unusual in that regard. I acknowledge, however, that there's an empirical question about how common resume lies are.

Studies give wildly divergent ranges. So let's suppose that most people or at least a great many people routinely fabricate items on their resumes. If everyone did that, I suppose that fact would bear on the morality of someone also doing so. Otherwise one is at a competitive disadvantage in the job market.

Let's say that Sheila has a master's degree in children's education. If other applicants for a teacher position who don't even have Bachelor's degrees falsely claim to have Ph.D.'s, then Sheila will lose out by failing to "embellish" her own resume. Under these circumstances, we might say that Sheila is not exactly justified in lying but it would be understandable. We might draw on the distinction in criminal law between the defenses of justification and excuse. But for the most part, cheating by others doesn't  justify or excuse one's own cheating. And furthermore, Santos has made no claim that his opponent lied about his own qualifications. Santos is no reluctant cheater doping just to keep up with the doping riders ahead of him in the peloton. He's Lance Armstrong leading the cheating pack.

(2) The Line Between Exaggerations and Lies. Suppose Bruce worked as a short-order cook at Hungry Harry's Bar & Grill from December 2019 through March 2020 but was let go when Hungry Harry's shut down due to decreased pandemic demand. Bruce has applied for a job as a short-order cook at Just Grillin'. The want ad for Just Grillin' calls for an "experienced short-order cook." Bruce lists his dates of employment at Hungry Harry's as "2019-2020," which is technically accurate but highly misleading. The entry suggests that Bruce worked at Hungry Harry's for one to two years when in fact he worked there for only four months. That strikes me as embellishment or exaggeration. By contrast, Santos completely made up key details about his family history, education, work experience, and finances.

Donald Trump's claim that in his business career he engaged in "truthful hyperbole" was never accurate. His "exaggerations" were often of such a magnitude as to count as lies. But we can grant that there is a real category of something like truthful hyperbole. Think of a junior account executive who played a supporting role in some major corporate deal. If she puts on her resume that she was "a key member" of the deal team, that's truthful hyperbole--because the word "key" is sufficiently vague that the claim will be arguably true if she did any real work on the deal. But again, that's nowhere near Santos-level prevarication.

(3) Qualifications for Congress. I suspect that most people who think it's okay (or at least excusable) to exaggerate or even lie a little on their resume do so because they go through a rationalization of the following sort: I can definitely do this job, even though I never quite finished my degree, and the competing applicants with the fancier credentials aren't even as good as I am. So what's the big deal if I say I do have the degree? The firm will be glad they hired me because I'll be a great employee.

That sort of logic includes a fair bit of anti-elitism, which is, of course, very on-brand for the faux-populist contemporary Republican Party. And sure enough, there was Santos blaming the "elitist" and (in an odd word choice) "bourgeois" NY Times (which broke the story about his lies) for making it necessary for him to lie. Here again, although one can understand a certain kind of defense of resume-padding through an anti-elitist lens, the self-pitying appropriation of anti-elitism by Santos is nakedly self-serving.

Beyond the faux-populism, the suggestion that it's okay to lie about your education and experience in pursuit of a seat in Congress carries with it an implicit judgment about the nature of the job. If Bruce gets the job at Just Grillin' and it turns out that he's not as good as he thought he was at keeping up with the orders, the restaurant owner can let Bruce go and hire a replacement. In the meantime, Bruce probably won't have caused any very serious harm: maybe some customers will have waited longer for their food than they otherwise would have; in turn, maybe the restaurant was less profitable than it would have been if it could turn the tables over more rapidly.

But now suppose that Alfred lied in his application to be an emergency room doctor. He falsely claimed to have graduated from medical school and to have completed a residency in emergency medicine, whereas in fact he dropped out of medical school after two years. Even if Alfred has some medical competence from his limited training and independent reading, I doubt that anyone would say that the false claims on his resume are comparable to those of Sheila or Bruce in my prior examples. Why? Because Alfred will be making life-and-death decisions that ordinarily require the kind of training and experience Alfred claims to have but lacks. If the hospital discovers too late that Alfred lied on his resume, the cost will not simply be a few customers whose french fries take longer than expected; it could be dead patients.

In likening his lies to resume embellishment, therefore, Santos was implicitly likening being a member of Congress to the kind of job in which the stakes of failure are low.

And in some sense he was right to do so. After all, most voters these days vote for the party. In a polarized electorate, even a spectacularly unqualified candidate like Hershel Walker can come very close to winning an election in which his flaws are out in the open, because when voting for a member of Congress, the main thing for most voters is whether there is an R or a D next to the candidate's name.

That's not in any way to let Santos off the hook. After all, if Santos really thought he could win as a generic Republican back-bencher, then he wouldn't have lied so assiduously about his personal story (with the caveat that, as I explore in the column, Santos might not be a U.S. citizen, which is a constitutional requirement for serving in the House, so perhaps he had to lie about that, if in fact he did so). And while most general election voters care more about the party than the candidate, in tightly contested races (like the one for the seat Santos won), the candidate can make a difference.

But that simply goes to show that the lies Santos told could have been material to a critical mass of voters. It doesn't mean that the qualifications about which Santos lied are actually relevant to the job or that--other than the awful votes Santos will reflexively cast in line with GOP party leadership--the stakes of being a member of Congress are comparable to those of being an emergency-room doctor. They're more like the stakes for a short-order cook. The main problem is that while Just Grillin' can fire Bruce tomorrow, absent extremely unlikely action by the House or somewhat less unlikely but still uncertain prosecution, Santos can't be fired by the voters for another two years.