Elected congressman George Santos has recently been subject of public scrutiny after it became known that he has repeatedly lied about his life achievements and personal background. His case, however, is hardly a one off. Resume padding, the misrepresentation of one’s personal history to increase job market attractiveness, is a common place phenomenon. While the detection of resume padding almost always leads to a breakdown of relationships due to an irrevocable loss of trust, the social effect of resume padding is more complex as explained in our paper “Self-Reported Signaling” (w Michael Waldman).
New York Congressman elect George Santos, preparing to take his seat in January, is facing strong headwinds amid calls to resign before even taking office. These demands came after it was revealed by the New York Times on December 19 that Mr. Santos has repeatedly and blatantly lied about his education and work credentials, charitable undertakings and even his personal background. Journalists were neither able to verify his self-proclaimed working experience on Wall Street for Citigroup and Goldman Sachs, nor is there any record of him ever attending Baruch College as claimed on his biography. There is also hardly any evidence for his involvement in a dog rescue charity organization, Friends of Pets United, an activity he heavily leveraged on the campaign trail. Even claims in his online biography (now taken down) that his grandparents fled Jewish persecution in Europe have since been called in question.
After initially accusing the New York Times through his lawyer of an unsubstantiated vendetta against his persona, Mr. Santos has since apologized for “embellishing his resume,” and “a poor choice of words” in multiple interviews (New York Post, City and State New York) without taking responsibility for misrepresenting his life accomplishments and even his heritage. It is without question that Mr. Santos’ actions show a grave lack of respect for his constituents as well as at least an indifference towards others, such as people personally affected by the Holocaust.
The willingness to lie so blatantly for his own benefit without any regard for consequences is rightfully interpreted by many as a major character flaw for a public servant. Many raise questions how voters and Mr. Santos’ peers alike would ever be able to take his word for granted, and others ask whether his actions may even warrant criminal prosecution (NBC).
While I personally support these viewpoints and believe that Mr. Santos’ actions do indeed necessitate a legal sequel, particularly as it can be argued that his lying directly affected donations towards his candidacy, Mr. Santos’ story is blatant but hardly unique. In fact, he is only one among many who helped themselves to a position of power through misrepresentation of background and achievements. Resume padding is a common phenomenon employed as tactics by Chief Financial Officers, College Football Coaches, and even Prime Ministers. The detection of such a lie frequently triggers resignation or termination and even lawsuits. These are understandable consequences of the loss of trust in a person having catapulted herself into a position of power and decision making, and often, wealth.
Social consequences of resume padding, however, are much more involved, and potentially ambiguous. If lying about achievements and background is a common phenomenon, decision makers such as employers or even voters in turn will put less emphasis on these credentials when making hiring or promotion decisions. In turn, it becomes less attractive for a job-seeker or political candidate to engage in amassing these costly credentials, especially for those who face a harder prospect of doing so in the first place.
The standard theory of signaling teaches us that whenever engagement in costly activities such as education allows for inferences about personal ability, those who are vying for opportunities will overinvest in these activities/credentials. In other words, job seekers and political candidates will over-educate, build an overly packed working resume or engage in too many extra-curricular or charitable activities. By the logic above, the presence of resume padding, i.e., lying about these credentials, then lowers this overinvestment.
My co-author Michael Waldman and I detail this argument in our paper “Self-Reported Signaling,” forthcoming in the American Economic Journal: Microeconomics. Note that our theory relies on the (realistic) assumption that fact-checking a resume is costly, as otherwise the truth would be readily available to everyone. (Mr. Santos story strongly supports this assumption as it took investigative journalism by the New York Times to uncover inconsistencies in his story.) It follows that the overall effect of resume padding depends on the trade-off between the cost of mismatch, auditing and the breakdown of relationships with the benefit of a reduction in the over-investment in costly activities. While blunt misrepresentation such as in Mr. Santos’ case likely leads to welfare loss due to the irrevocable loss of trust, the social effect of more moderate but systematic resume padding is not necessarily negative.