Tucked deep in the desk drawers of millions of American white-collar workers are documents they hope they won't have to use. But they're kept around, just in case.
They are resumes, those personal histories that contain the highlights of an individual's education and career. It's all there: the schools, the honors, the advanced degrees, the fast promotions, the fancy job titles, the heavy responsibilities. It is certainly impressive.
But often, much of it isn't true.
Despite the publicity surrounding people who have put false information on their resumes, many are apparently still embellishing these documents in an effort to snag a prized new job. While some of this has been going on since the resume was invented, hard economic times seem to make it happen more often. Right now the recession and a highly competitive job market in many fields are being blamed for a slight jump in resume creativity.
''People do become desperate when they've been out on the street for a while and can't find a job,'' said David Peasback, senior vice-president at Heidrick & Struggles Inc., an executive search firm. ''They get tempted'' to lie on their resumes as a result, he added.
''We don't have any hard figures'' on the increase, said Alice Early, a vice-president and recruiter at Russell Reynolds Associates Inc., another search firm. ''But there seem to be more false statements lately.''
Resumes gained a good deal of attention last year when a Washington Post reporter was found to have falsified parts of hers. The discovery came at the same time a prizewinning story also turned out to be untrue. As a result of that case, employers are much more interested in checking these documents.
Requests for resume checks ''have increased substantially'' since then, said Megan Maloney of the National Credential Verification Service, a Minneapolis firm that works for executive search companies and corporate personnel departments. She would not say how many additional requests the firm has had.
In most cases, checking resumes is so easy it makes lying increasingly futile.
''It's such a stupid thing to do,'' Miss Early said. ''Once you lie on a resume, it's hard to change it, especially if you got hired on the basis of something that wasn't true.''
The most common lies, experts note, concern college credentials. ''We find about 30 percent of the people misstate college records,'' Miss Maloney said.
The lies can include listing degrees not earned, colleges not attended, degrees not finished, and awards and honors never received. All of these, Miss Maloney points out, can be verified with one phone call to the university or college listed.
From 90 to 95 percent of the colleges will verify resume information over the phone, she said. The rest require a letter from the verification service, search firm, or the company doing the hiring. A few schools will not release any information without a letter from the former student specifically directing the college to give the information to a particular company.
In addition to college credentials, businesess also look into work history, job descriptions, pay increases, and talk with former superiors. They may also talk to former subordinates, if the applicant is seeking a management position.
Lying on a resume is not only unwise, it is unnecessary, says Diane Blumensen , a career counselor in the Boston office of Bernard Haldane Associates, a job placement firm. ''People should see the resume as a sales tool for themselves,'' Miss Blumensen says. ''You can highlight the achievements and other experiences that relate to the kind of job you're looking for. We've all got achievements, whether it's in school, volunteer work, or our jobs. If you remember this, you won't have to lie.''
Even people who do not intend to lie on their resume often do not know how to write an honest one. The experts offer a variety of ideas:
* Write it yourself. You know your skills and job responsibilties best and should not need a resume-writing service. Bookstores and libraries have books on resumes showing various styles.
An exception might be for people in highly technical jobs who cannot help writing in the jargon of their profession. They should still write the first draft and then have a service translate it into layman's English.
* A two-page resume is long enough. If you need to say more about your qualifications for a particular job, put it in a cover letter.
* You don't have to include why you left previous jobs. But you should be prepared to discuss it frankly in an interview.
* Be sure the resume is neat and spelled correctly. It is often the first impression a company has of the applicant.