Ethics Center: Business Ethics

Bye-Bye Yahoo CEO: The Ethics of Resume Fraud

Watching the ouster this week of Yahoo CEO Scott Thompson leaves us scratching our head. Why would someone talented enough to head up a major technology company claim to have a phony computer-science degree? Thompson obviously was doing fine without it. So he didn’t need to lie in order to get ahead in the tech world. But he did anyway . . . and you know the rest of the story.

What can we learn from this episode? Here are four key ethics takeaways.

First, if you lie, you will be discovered. It may not happen right away, but five, ten or 25 years from now, someone will call you out. The safest course is to state only the facts on your resume. Also avoid stretching the truth to make a better impression.

Second, if your work environment is highly political, watch out. Thompson had earned the enmity of hedge fund investor Daniel Loeb when he tried to force him off the Yahoo board. Loeb took revenge by exposing Thompson’s phony computer-science major. Thompson had only studied accounting and business at Stonehill College.

Third, no one is immune to punishment for credential fraud. Just ask Dave Edmondson, who in 2006 was forced to resign as Radio Shack CEO for claiming two fake degrees. Or Ronald Zarrella of Bausch & Lomb who offered to resign as CEO and wound up seeing his $1.1 million bonus rescinded. Zarrella had listed a phony NYU MBA on his resume.

Fourth, claiming a fake minor degree is still a major lie. Thompson didn’t claim to have a Ph.D. in computer science or an advanced degree in business or economics. He only lied about having an undergraduate computer-science major. That’s all it took. Even if you fabricate a community-college degree, it will still undermine your credibility. 

In the wake of Thompson’s admission, Yahoo’s employees were reportedly demoralized by the news—and they weren’t exactly in wonderful spirits before. If you want to have the trust of those you lead, you must operate from a position of integrity. Lying will undermine your standing, whether you’re making deals with outsiders or supervising employees.

So as Yahoo’s ex-CEO departs, don’t repeat his tragic error. Either due to ambition or stupidity, Thompson committed a serious misjudgment, and he paid the ultimate price. You may not have as big a job as his, but your reputation is still priceless. Don’t tarnish it by lying on your resume.