Sunday, March 04, 2018

Why the illusion of credibility can be an ethical bust

The importance of building credentials should not be underestimated. Some people work hard to gain life experiences, build companies, earn college degrees, perform community service, and commit to any number of opportunities designed to help both themselves and others grow.

A recent article written by Jason Zweig for The Wall Street Journal highlights the difference between building credibility and mastering the illusion of credibility. Zweig profiled an entrepreneur named Clint Arthur who for a charge of between $5,000 and $25,000 would provide people the opportunity to "claim to have given speeches at Harvard Business School or the U.S. Military Academy at West Point," even though "they weren't invited to speak by those leading universities."

Instead, Arthur would rent out space on prestigious campuses -- which almost anyone can do -- and hold private events there. Technically, the attendees will have spoken at Harvard or West Point. But then anyone going on a walking tour of either campus who happened to speak during the tour could, I suppose, claim the same thing. As Zweig points out, "more than a dozen financial advisers" claim to have given speeches at Harvard or West Point when the reality is that they had paid for the privilege of attending one of Clint Arthur's events.

Such stories of padding the resume to oomph up a sense of importance are not uncommon. But misrepresenting your experiences -- whether to land a client or land a job -- is wrong.

The effort to pad experiences to look better in an attempt to gain something in return starts early. Too often high school students are encouraged to create "brag sheets," which highlight all of their experiences and skills. The result can be used to show prospective college admissions officers just how engaged the student is and will be. Nothing wrong with that.

Where things go wrong is with the pressure to gain a list of experiences solely for the purpose of adding them to a brag sheet. A day visiting a soup kitchen so you can add "volunteered at soup kitchen" is not the same as regularly volunteering at the same soup kitchen throughout the year. Not making that distinction on a brag sheet can be as misleading as suggesting to prospective clients that you had been invited to speak at a prestigious university when the reality is that the university invited you nowhere and you wouldn't even have been let in the door without forking over serious cash to a third party holding an non-university-affiliated event.

So what's the right thing to do to build credibility, either as a high school student or as a young (or not-so-young) professional?

There is absolutely no need to be falsely humble about your accomplishments. In fact, it's wise to embrace your accomplishments and let others who might want to work with you know about them.

But the right thing is to avoid misleading people by suggesting you have done something you know you have not really done or that you have done more than you are leading them to believe. In other words, embrace your accomplishments, but make sure that that you've actually accomplished something. 

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, a blog focused on ethical issues.

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 


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