Add RadioShack CEO David Edmondson to the same club as former FEMA head Michael Brown and author James Frey, all of them sterling reminders that, even in the 21st century, the fastest way to climb the ladder of success remains lying your way up. After eleven years in service, Edmondson announced this week that he resigned his post as head of America's number one provider of overpriced batteries. No reason was provided in his statement, but it was revealed that he was about to go under investigation for discrepancies on his resume, specifically that he had falsely claimed to receive two separate college degrees in theology and psychology. While Edmonson did attend Pacific Baptist College (now called the too precious for words Heartland Baptist Bible College), he did not receive a degree in either subject. In fact, Pacific Baptist/Heartland Baptist does not and never has offered a degree in psychology. Nevertheless, the already financially troubled RadioShack gave Edmondson a severance package of "less than one million dollars," which, of course, in business terms probably equals about $999,999.98. When asked how such a discrepancy could go undetected for so long, a RadioShack representative stated that education reference verification, even for candidates for management or executive positions, did not begin until after Edmondson was hired.
Edmondson is a piker when compared to former FEMA chief Michael Brown, however. Much of the nation was not familiar with the man behind this six-figure income position in the federal government until he oversaw the Hurricane Katrina disaster, debacle, horror show, whatever you want to call it. Then when people started wondering why the Superdome was starting to look like a Hieronymous Bosch painting, why the corpses of elderly women were left to decompose in the sun, why the streets of New Orleans and areas surrounding were running with, as Henry Rollins refers to it, "doo doo water," and, why most of all, Brown would flounder under questioning, not saying or doing a single thing that gave anyone a shred of confidence that he knew his job, a little investigating into his background was done. It didn't take a whole lot of deep digging to discover that Brown was woefully underqualified for his position. A former lawyer, Brown's last private sector job was overseeing a horse show judging committee, and was in fact forced to resign from that position after accusations of financial impropriety. He not only embellished his qualifications, but outright lied about many of them. His only ace in the hole was being a close friend of the former FEMA chief, who recommended him as replacement to George W. Bush. Brown was given the position without a single one of his credentials being verified.
Less damaging but no less shameful is millionaire author James Frey, who won critical acclaim and the hearts of Oprah fans everywhere with his gripping memoir of drug abuse A Million Little Pieces. Though some questions were raised about the validity of Frey's story, namely his claims that he was allowed to board a plane while covered in blood and vomit, and that he went through root canal surgery without anesthetic, it wasn't until over two years after its publication that the Smoking Gun, after researching Frey's background, revealed that most of the details in his best-selling book had been at the very least exaggerated, if not entirely made up. Frey's publisher Nan Talese, when asked how a book that is mostly fiction could be misleadingly marketed as a memoir, stated simply (and seemingly surprised that anyone would ask such a thing) that they do not fact-check on memoirs.
The lesson you're probably getting from this is that it's pretty easy to get away with embellishing or lying about your credentials in order to become successful in your chosen profession. Well, no, it isn't, that's the last thing I want you to get from this. Scratch that, it is easy in a sense, provided your job pays a lot and mainly requires you to sign off on some papers and delegate responsibility to others. It is not, however, easy for the ordinary citizen to lie on his or her resume for a job and get away with it, and many times you will get caught before you're even hired. The amusingly inexplicable (or perhaps inexplicably amusing) truth is that the less important your job is, the more likely you will be given a thorough background search. The minimum most potential employers will insist on is a criminal record search and drug test, many will go so far as to take fingerprints, ask for ten years worth of former employment references, run your driver's license, request a credit report, and give what's called an "honesty test," in which you're asked whether or not you think stealing pens from the office supply closet is a criminal offense, if you enjoy gambling, and how much you drink. You may be asked to fill out seven to ten page-long applications just to work at a gas station convenience store or as a driver for a bread making company. Seventy-five percent of the time, the information is verified before you are even officially hired for the position, and if something comes up that doesn't jibe with the information you provided, such as, let's take an example way out of left field such as claiming to have received a degree when in fact you didn't actually finish college, you will not be given that job. Not having a college degree is less a hindrance to finding a good job than lying about having a college degree.
When I moved to New York last summer, I went through the long, disheartening process of looking for work, and I never ceased to be amazed at how much information I had to give up before I could even get into an office to see anyone. There was the tedious online application process, and then when and if I was called in to see an actual humanoid, I was required to fill out another half-inch thick packet of paper, listing every place I had lived in the past ten years, authorizing a credit report without being given a reason as to why they would need my credit report (apparently it's used as a gauge of how honest and reliable you are), and providing the names of three people who could vouch for me as a decent person who wouldn't drink on the job or embezzle money from the company Angel Tree fund. All that, and I was lucky if the interview itself lasted five minutes. These weren't high-level management positions I was applying for, they were mid-level, $20 to $35,000 a year customer service-oriented jobs, and yet I was going through a process that suggested I was attempting to join the Secret Service. And yet, RadioShack only recently began to verify their executives' educational backgrounds. Michael Brown appears to have been given his job on a whim, perhaps while playing golf one day with former FEMA chief Joseph Allbaugh. "Hey, Mike, I'm thinking about quitting my job, you wanna take it over for me?" "Sure, buddy, that'll be swell!" James Frey's publisher Nan Talese claimed that his book was not checked for accuracy simply because it "seemed right" to her.
There is a distasteful message to be heard here, that the little man who's applying for some shitball job at Cracker Barrel is more likely to be dishonest than someone going for an executive position. After all, if he was honest and worked hard, he wouldn't have to be stuck in these minimum wage, nowhere jobs. Clearly, something has been holding him back, most likely a criminal record, lack of education, or a poor work history, and we better make sure to weed that information out before we accidentally hire him and give Cracker Barrel a bad name. However, individuals like David Edmondson and Michael Brown have the "good word" of several other rich white guys to back them up, and in both business and government who you have in your corner far outweighs whatever qualifications you may or not possess. James Frey and Nan Talese saw more money to be made in A Million Little Pieces if it was marketed as a memoir rather than fiction (as fiction the book was turned down 17 times by various publishers), and, like others of their ilk, Edmondson and Brown included, were certain that the world at large would be too dazzled by their skills and abilities to check if any of it was really true. Meanwhile, minimum wage jobs are about a step away from requiring employees to provide blood samples and complete sexual histories.
NOTE: I should point out that legally, you are under no obligation to provide any kind of personal information to a potential employer. Granted, they won't hire you, but you don't have to provide it.