Often, it's not the original lie we tell that presents the most problems for us, but rather the multiple lies we tell to support the first one. The work it takes to cover ourselves from getting caught can be consuming.
A long-time reader of the column whom we're calling Curtis finds himself struggling with a fabrication he made on his resume about five years ago to enhance his chances of landing his first job. "I falsified experience on my resume to qualify for my first job," he writes.
Since the job he was applying for required two years of experience and he only had one, Curtis falsified his work experience to make it look like he had a year's more experience than he did. He was interviewed by his prospective employer who offered him the job which he gladly accepted.
After two years on the job, however, the Dishonesty plagued him, so he left the position to accept a different job. "I resolved to be honest going forward," Curtis writes, so he had applied for the new job without including any made up work experience on his resume.
For the past three years, he's been doing well on the new job, but recently he finds himself "extremely plagued" by working at a job where he is "profiting from" his earlier dishonesty. "I'm bothered on a daily basis and I feel terrible that I made up the experience and have made an effort to be honest in all aspects of my life."
Curtis indicates he plans to make amends "in other ways" including going back to school and starting over in his career or emailing his managers at his former job to apologize for his dishonesty. "I have even completely eliminated the first role from my resume," he writes, so instead of saying he has five years of experience, he says he has three. He sees this as "a bid to make up for my dishonesty."
Mentors in whom Curtis has confided urge him to accept that he was wrong to lie on his resume, but have implored him to move on since he applied honestly for his current job. Nevertheless, he still "feels a troubled conscience."
"How can I resolve this guilt?" he asks. "What advice would you give to move on?"
I'm not sure it's possible to resolve such guilt rather than to learn to accept it and to learn from it going forward. But to accept that guilt, Curtis needs to make sure he doesn't inadvertently compile the dishonesty by trying to pretend it never happened. Indicating on his resume that he's only worked three years when he's actually worked five doesn't erase that those original two years happened, no matter how he got the job.
It's up to Curtis whether or not to contact the managers at that first job to let them know what he did. But he should recognize that doing that won't change the fact that it happened.
His mentors seem to have given Curtis sound advice. Accept that the dishonesty was wrong, commit to avoiding it in the future, do good work, and move on. We cannot undo what's already been done, but once we recognize that what we did was wrong, we can do our best to commit to trying to do the right thing.
Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of "The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice," is a senior lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of www.jeffreyseglin.com, a blog focused on ethical issues. Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @jseglin.
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