Do You Have To Lie To Get A Federal Job?

The author says that more prospective federal employees are lying on their job applications in order to get hired. He explains why he believes this is happening.

At last week’s Government Workforce Conference, a Department of Commerce official made some news by saying “If you apply for USAJobs and you’d like an interview, every young person in this country who is interested in a federal job knows you have to lie….”

Her point was not that people should lie on their job applications. It was that the willingness of many applicants to stretch the truth, i.e., lie, means that government hiring processes may be screening out the people who are honest on their job applications in favor of those who are willing to lie about their experience.

Is it really true that a lot more applicants are lying? Absolutely.

When we started using questionnaires instead of crediting plans in the early 1990s, we saw very few applications where it was apparent that the applicant lied in response to questions. If anything, there was a problem with applicants not giving themselves enough credit for their experience. Since that time, more and more hiring managers are complaining that their referral certificates are filled with candidates who have little or no qualifying experience. They got on the certificate by overstating their experience in their responses to the questionnaires.

How does that happen? Some people blame the problems on the technology agencies use to receive and rate applications. Because those systems are just tools agencies use to implement their hiring practices, they are not the problem.

The biggest issues are 1) lack of hiring manager involvement in the hiring process, and 2) inadequate numbers of experienced staffing specialists to run the processes.

Hiring manager involvement from the beginning is critical. The hiring manager knows what s/he needs for the job. Hiring managers know the work, know the organization’s needs, and are the ones who are accountable for results. Sadly, many of them do not get involved in the process until they get a certificate in their hands. By then it is too late to influence the process to make certain the candidates on the list are truly highly qualified. Some hiring managers claim to not have enough time to get involved, others delegate it to administrative staff in their own office, and others say their HR offices do not offer them the opportunity to get involved.

The “I don’t have time!” excuse is nonsense. Delegating the work to administrative staff member is another version of not having time. Hiring the right talent is one of the most critical jobs of a manager. A manager who does not have time to do it needs to find another job. The excuse that HR doesn’t let them get involved is true in some cases. Where it occurs, it should be challenged, because it usually means they are getting bad advice from HR.

I hear from Chief Human Capital Officers and others that agencies do not have enough qualified Staffing Specialists who fully understand the hiring process, know how to do job analysis, understand the variety of assessment tools that are available, and remain engaged in the process from beginning to end. Staffing Specialists who know what they are doing check the results coming from the automated staffing tools and overrule applicant answers to questions when the resume has no evidence that the answer is realistic. Just this week a frustrated hiring manager told me of her experience dealing with applicants for a critical job who had clearly lied. She did the right thing and helped develop the applicant questionnaire, but her HR office offered no help and was unwilling to overrule the applicants’ lies.

When hiring managers step out of the process or amateur staffing specialists trust anything that spits out of a computer, the result is an open invitation to unethical applicants to lie about their experience. Nothing emboldens liars more than knowing they will not get caught. And make no mistake – falsifying an application is lying. It is dishonest, unethical, and grounds for firing.

The problem of lying applicants is real. It does affect the quality of talent agencies are able to hire, and it needs to be addressed. If not, we are disadvantaging the honest applicants and rewarding the liars and cheats. There is no way that is good for government or the taxpayers the government serves.

This column was originally published on Jeff Neal's blog,, and has been reposted here with permission from the author. Visit to read more of Jeff's articles regarding federal human resources and other current events along with his insights on reforming the HR system.

About the Author

Jeff Neal is author of the blog and was previously the chief human capital officer at the Homeland Security Department and the chief human resources officer at the Defense Logistics Agency.