Branding or Embellishing? Where should the line be drawn for resumes?

6 minute read

The Story

I was talking to a recruiter about my resume the other day. One of the suggestions he made was to combine my TA experience (9 months) and my research experience (3 months) into one position and rename the whole thing to something researchy / buzzword-y.

I had two conflicting reactions.

One was, “Gee, that would really help get me some attention. I mean, it’s true, I have been doing research since before I was technically hired as a research assistant…”

The other was, “Hmm, that sounds kind of slimy / fishy.”

“It’s all about branding,” he said.

“Nobody cares that you were a TA or what your official title was at what time. They care if you can bring business value. Being a researcher is a better signal that you can do that. You were doing research while you were a TA, so that’s how I would format your resume. Truthfully, it’s what everyone does. If you don’t do it you’re behind.”

I thought of all sorts of objections:

  • “but technically I started doing research a month and a half after I started being a TA…”
  • “I wasn’t officially employed to do research for that whole time…”
  • “What if they background check me and find the two different titles?”
  • etc…

However, part of me agreed:

  • “What difference does it make? I know that, given the tech I’d be working with, I could study beforehand and hit the ground running. They would never know the difference.”
  • “He’s right, everyone else is doing it… if someone’s going to stretch the truth and get hired, it might as well be me.”
  • “Well, I did do research during most of that time. Even if it wasn’t official, what is the difference, really?”
  • etc…

Since I’m pretty divided on this, I want to take some time to

  1. draw the line between “Branding” and “Embellishing”,

  2. discuss where the line is blurred, and

  3. talk about how embellishing could be “justified”

The line between “Branding” and “Embellishing”

Let’s say a job description represents a person named Ideal, who has all the qualities the hiring team would like in a candidate.

We can think of Everyone Else as being some “distance” away from Ideal. This distance is some measure of how many traits and how much of each trait one has in common with Ideal.

Let’s suppose that Branding just means, “taking your existing traits that match those of Ideal, publishing them on some medium, and then drawing attention to them.”

Let’s also suppose that Embellishing just means Branding, except publishing scaled or otherwise untrue versions of your traits.

I think those definitions are pretty clear-cut, but let’s see where they break down.

Where the line is blurry.

  1. We know that some interviewers positively note when candidates dress nice to interviews.

We also know that some candidates like to dress nice in general, and some never dress nice in general.

If you never dress nice, but you decide to just for the interview, is that dishonest? Is that embellishment?

One could argue that, no, you’re not making any particular statement directly. You’re just dressing nice.

One could also argue that everyone who dresses nice to an interview knows that employers associate dressing nice with, “responsible, does the job well, exceeds expectations, etc,” so by dressing nice, you are knowingly identifying yourself as someone who fits that bill. If you’re usually not responsible, but you dress nice to an interview, that’s arguably embellishment.

You might say that it’s the employer’s fault for inferring something, but again, where does one draw the line?

If you dress like a police officer in public and expect distressed people to not infer that you are one, that’s probably unreasonable (thanks Dave Chappelle!).

  1. We know that a lot of standard interview questions touchy subjects because of their subjectivity.

“What’s your greatest strength?”

You’re best at X, but you know they don’t care about X. You’re pretty good at Y. They really care about Y.

Is it embellishment to say you’re best at Y? Or is it Branding.

It’s true, it’s technically not what you’re best at. But how do you really know? How would they? Does anyone really care?

“Tell me about a time when…”

You know that if you tell them about time X that fits the description best, they’ll infer negatively about you.

You know that if you tell them about time Y which still fits but not as good as X, they’ll infer positively about you.

They’re both true, but X is “more true” - are you obligated to tell them X? Obviously not.

Is it branding because you’re putting your best foot forward? Or is it embellishment because you didn’t tell them the whole truth?

Do cases exist where embellishing is OK?

I think it’s agreeable that if you embellish and it slows the business down (or otherwise adversely affects it), then you’re in the wrong and you shouldn’t do that.

However, what about embellishing when it doesn’t adversely affect the business?

Suppose that all resume embellishment lies on a scale from 1-10 (least extreme to most). TL;DR:

  • 1 to 2: nobody who hired you would notice and business would run as usual.
  • 3 to 4: maybe a few people would notice at first, but you’d cover your deficit quickly and the business wouldn’t be impacted.
  • 5 to 6: People would notice. It would slow down your productivity for a few months while you ramped up. Business impact would be small, but significant / measurable.
  • 7 and above: You’d contribute basically nothing for the better portion of a year, if you were ever able to contribute anything. You’d have to be really smart / driven to be an exception here.

If your embellishment is a 1, are you necessarily wrong for doing that? Is this one of those times lying is okay?

AGAINST: You could argue, all else being equal, someone who knows X that takes 15 minutes to learn is a better candidate than someone who doesn’t know X.

FOR: However, you could argue that there’s no such thing as “all else being equal” since we live in a giant chaotic system that doesn’t allow us to definitively say “this is a better candidate” based on this specific skill.

For example, maybe they do know X, but they’re going to argue with Jerry, the senior developer, a lot more and cause less productivity for the team in total. You can’t infer business value from small skills like that with any certainty.

AGAINST: You could argue that, true, you can’t know how much value someone will add, but the probability given they know X is ever so slightly higher.

FOR: Then again, you could also argue that the above difference, while true, is statistically insignificant and therefore has no validity.

AGAINST: You could argue that you shouldn’t embellish whatsoever, since it’s not your business what an employer wants to hire for.

FOR: Then again, you could also argue that it’s not the employer’s business to know a complete profile of what you’re capable of - that it’s only their business to know if you can do their job.

FOR: You also could argue: everyone has to eat. In other words, you’re not wrong for doing what you have to in order to survive - which in this case, means embellishing to get a job to get money to get food.

AGAINST: However, you could also argue: it’s not an employers’ responsibility to feed everyone.

I don’t know.

I won’t sweat embellishing at a 1 or 2. I think a lot of people do 1’s or 2’s accidently without ever knowing it.

I wouldn’t necessarily be against doing a 3, but I would be nervous about it and study beforehand if I actually got the interview. That way, I’m not caught with my pants down.

Anything that’s a 4 or above, I wouldn’t do it unless it was a survival situation (which I don’t see happening anytime soon).

I’d probably put the story above at a solid 3…