Ethics at Work: Zero tolerance for fake credentials

It's good to have high standards of ethics, but enforcing higher standards can sometimes be counterproductive.

asher meir 88 (photo credit: )
asher meir 88
(photo credit: )
It's good to have high standards of ethics, but enforcing higher standards can sometimes be counterproductive. One danger I have pointed out in recent columns is that too-intensive enforcement can interfere with the day to day functioning of organizations - I made this point in reference to the overly rigid proposed code of ethics for Knesset members. A recent report by the American Association of University Professors makes a similar point regarding "Institutional Review Boards" on US campuses, which threaten to become a sorcerer's apprentice of harmful oversight. Another danger is that a witch-hunt atmosphere exaggerating minor infractions can result in desensitizing us to truly severe ethics violations. Here is an example. Two "ethics violations" made headlines this week. One was that Shula Zaken was caught with (gasp!) tickets to Betar Jerusalem soccer matches. It should be noted that Shula Zaken is considered one of Betar's most loyal and veteran fans and it's not really very surprising that she has game tickets. However, this alarming discovery (during a police search of her home) led to suspicions. Perhaps she obtained the tickets free. Perhaps they were a gift from Arkadi Gaydamak, owner of the team. Perhaps they were even a bribe. Of course, any item in Zaken's house could conceivably have been a bribe from anybody, but this trail of wild speculation led to police calling in Gaydamak for questioning on suspicion of bribery. Even if Gaydamak did give the tickets to Zaken free, the usual response in even confirmed minor gifts to public servants is merely to demand that the gifts be returned or paid for. Not every gift is a bribe. To have a police investigation for a merely speculated (it's not even a real suspicion) gift is unheard of. (Of course, all of this has nothing to do with the fact that Gaydamak announced that he is starting a political movement.) The other ethics violation was the revelation that Knesset member and minister-nominee Estherina Tartman exaggerated her qualifications on her Knesset resume. Her supposed qualifications were explicitly cited by faction head Avigdor Lieberman and by Tartman herself as playing a role in her nomination. According to news reports, Tartman's Knesset resume stated that she had a bachelor's degree from Bar Ilan University, as well as a master's degree; yet it is now firmly established that both claims are false. Tartman has understandably endeavored to minimize the severity of her deception, but I want to emphasize that in today's environment exaggerating credentials is considered one of the gravest ethics violations. It is fair to say that employers have a zero-tolerance policy for any inaccuracies on resumes, even if they are used only as a lever to obtain an interview and "explained away" before any hiring decisions. Not only errors of commission, like exaggerated credentials, but even errors of omission like leaving a hole in the resume (usually a period of unemployment or underemployment that the applicant would prefer to forget) are generally grounds for discarding even a very promising CV. Even explanations for why past employment was terminated are expected to be as accurate and complete as circumstances permit and are carefully cross-examined in job interviews. In fact, not only is exaggerating credentials totally rejected but even omitting them (so as not to appear overqualified) is an extremely controversial practice. In past articles I have defended hiding overqualification, but I received vehement objections to my position from some experts in industry. Even if you are already in and have proven your value, the best companies will get rid of you if they discover you embellished your resume. To give one example, the CFO of US software firm Veritas (that means "truth") was forced to resign after years of job success when it was revealed that his resume from when he was hired included exaggerations no more severe than those of Tartman. Tartman claims that the information posted on the Knesset site was not based on her own statements, but this defense is not credible and, in any case, is totally irrelevant. Imagine a job candidate defending a falsified CV based on the fact that he hired a professional writer to put it together (a common practice). She is responsible for any public representations made in her name, certainly one of such prominence. Her claims of being victimized by a hostile media are also quite brazen. It was she, not the media, who gave prominence to her supposed master's degree. Throughout her Knesset career no newsperson dug up and disclosed her embellished resume; but when she trumpeted her credentials as a justification for making her a minister she could hardly expect that their falsification wouldn't be seen as a good reason for keeping her away from the cabinet. Even the most zealous ethics crusader must acknowledge that not every bit of smoke implies a fire, and certainly finding a match (like the case of Zaken) doesn't justify dousing the site. But Tartman's audacious deception, and her even more brazen attempts at justification, are a genuine ethical conflagration. It is fortunate and unsurprising that Tartman's employer - the Israeli voter - discovered her deception and decided to give the job to someone with more reliable qualifications. The writer is research director at the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem (, an independent institute in the Jerusalem College of Technology.