My laid-off co-worker is fibbing on his r

He says he was the manager, but he was a worker just like me!

Published October 18, 2006 10:02AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I work for a large high-tech company that is undergoing some "changes," resulting in mass layoffs. One of those laid-off employees was a co-worker on my team. I felt bad to see him go. He was instrumental in bringing me on board. He and I had become quite close in the last few months of working together and we often socialized outside of work. When he left, I offered my assistance and support, and he immediately accepted in the form of a request to review his résumé.

While reviewing it, I found something that disturbed me. In the description of the job that he held here as my co-worker, he claimed to have managed my team, rather than having been the regular team member that he was.

I ordinarily wouldn't care. I mean, who hasn't fibbed a bit on a résumé, right? But the greater problem is that I agreed to act as a reference for him. What do I do if potential employers call? I don't want to wreck his chances of getting a job over something so trivial -- but I also think it's a reflection of my ethics if I knowingly contribute to a falsity. And it is likely that they will put two and two together that we worked on the same team, and ask me if he was my manager. Do I lie and say yes to cover the lie in his résumé? Or do I tell the truth and say he wasn't the manager but rather a co-worker, and let them draw their own conclusions (which will probably ruin his chances of getting the job)? Or should I, instead, confront him and tell him what I found? Or am I blowing this all out of proportion and should I simply not worry about it?

Thanks for any guidance you can provide.

Obnoxiously Honest?

Dear Obnoxiously Honest,

Your laid-off co-worker asked you to review his résumé. In reviewing it you found a significant inaccuracy. You should tell him about the inaccuracy so he can correct it.

It's possible that he just made a mistake -- that in trying to make his position seem as strong as possible, in using the advice of résumé-writing books to use "power" words, he overreached. It's also possible that he really thought he was the manager. People sometimes have an inflated sense of their own position in the hierarchy. They think they are the boss when they are not.

But it appears to be a deliberate distortion -- one that, moreover, places you subordinate to him, so that in a way he is asking you to willingly participate in your own demotion. So, naturally, you might take offense not only at the inaccuracy but at his presumption.

Nonetheless, even if you are pretty ticked off about it, I think you ought to begin by being businesslike and simply pointing out the inaccuracy. If he is at all perceptive, he will realize, when you do this, that you are not about to lie for him.

If he is not at all perceptive, he may argue with you, or attempt to bully you, or intimidate you, or sweet-talk you, or confuse you, or pretend that it really doesn't matter. But it does matter. It matters because the truth matters.

Maybe he did manage some aspects of the team's performance. Maybe he managed certain tasks or certain projects. Maybe he managed the timely distribution of analog recording devices to key personnel at a crucial decision-making juncture -- that is, maybe he handed out pencils at a meeting. We all manage some things. In his description of his duties, he might mention specific tasks he managed. But unless his title said he was the manager, he wasn't the manager and shouldn't say he was the manager.

That's the straight-up nuts and bolts of it. But I must admit to having a pretty strong gut reaction to this as well. There's something about the whole business of résumé inflation that bugs me. I suppose I'm basically working class in my attitudes: You do your job. You do a good job. You don't puff yourself up.

But I realize that in the corporate world such an attitude is not always welcome. It was a mystery to me why, however, until I came across something in "The Dignity of Working Men," by Michèle Lamont. While the most interesting part of the book concerns her own insights developed from many interviews with working men in the U.S. and in France, she also mentions the work of sociologist Rosabeth Kanter. "Kanter," she writes, "argues that in large organizations where professionals and managers often work, it is important to know how to signal trust because such organizations generate much uncertainty: they require constant interaction with large networks of people who have only superficial familiarity with one another. Hence, having the appropriate operating style, or presentation of self, is important for professional success. For American professionals and managers, the legitimate personality type rewarded by large organizations presents the following traits: conflict avoidance, team orientation, flexibility and being humble and not self-assuming. These personality traits are not of primary importance for the white and black workers I talked with. For them, trust and predictability are not attained via conflict avoidance, team orientation, and flexibility but by being straightforward ... Workers also value personal integrity, that is, standing up for one's principles even in the face of adversity. This trait is not always compatible with the conflict avoidance, flexibility, and team orientation praised by professionals and managers."

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