The television series “Suits” follows Mike Ross, an intelligent college dropout with an eidetic memory, who works as an associate at a New York City law firm despite never actually attending law school. Throughout the series, Mike passes off as a Harvard Law graduate and manages to convince clients and colleagues alike that he is a fully qualified attorney.
While the premise of the series is highly exaggerated, it does focus on a real problem in the work force: lying about qualifications and credentials.
Can an employee lie on their resume?
Under Malaysian law, an employer may be entitled to dismiss an employee who takes liberty with the truth on his resume.
Take the case of Azman Idrus [see Azman Idrus v SGA Services (M) Sdn Bhd  2 MELR 722] . In 2010, he was appointed to the post of “Admin, Human Resources and Legal Advisor” for SGA Services (M) Sdn Bhd. During the interview for this position, SGA claimed that he had represented to them that he is a qualified lawyer and had the experience of a practising lawyer. Based on this representation, he was hired. SGA claimed that during his employment, Azman continued to represent and hold himself out as a person who has the qualification to practice law and had experience as a lawyer.
SGA’s managing director grew suspicious of Azman and asked him to furnish proof that he is a qualified lawyer. Azman, despite promising to do so, failed to do so and was eventually terminated after a meeting with SGA management where he confessed that he was not a lawyer.
The Industrial Court went on to hold that it was acceptable for SGA to terminate Azman since “the portfolio of a Legal Advisor would by implication require the employee to have a legal qualification to advise the company on legal matters”. The Court found that Azman’s misrepresentation about his qualifications rightly led to his dismissal, since he was hired based on the belief that he had the particular qualifications needed for the job:
“Pursuant to such misrepresentation, [Azman] had dishonestly procured…the portfolio of Legal advisor in the company as well as obtained advantages from his misrepresentation. As a result of this misrepresentation, it is evidently clear that [Azman] had acted in conflict with his sense of duty and loyalty that he owed the company… he had violated the trust and confidence which the company had reposed in him.”
The Industrial Court has made similar findings in other cases, where it held that an employee could be dismissed for lying on his resume that he possessed an MBA (Royal Sungei Ujong Club v Vijaysankar Arumugam  3 MELR 65; and Yuen Don Ni v LNK Computer Forms (M) Sdn Bhd  7 MELR 719).
Does an employer have a duty to verify an employee’s resume?
In Anthony Dass S Rajagopal v Strategic Research & Consultancy Sdn Bhd  2 MELR 47, the employee in question represented to the company that he was in a possession of a PhD. His name card with his previous company had “PhD” written after his name, without mentioning the university. It was later uncovered that this PhD was obtained through a distant learning program conducted by a private university in Vancouver, and was not recognised in Malaysia.
The Industrial Court found that the company was to blame because they did not vet the employee’s doctorate before hiring him. This was despite the fact that the Court recognised that “the employee should have realised that an unrecognised doctorate cannot be put on par with a recognised one and it would have been wise on his part to have made it clear that his doctorate was not recognised before he was employed, to avoid any misunderstanding.”
The Court found the dismissal to be unfair, but reduced the compensation awarded to the employee on the basis that the employee had an ethical duty to inform his prospective employer of the status of his doctorate.
The Industrial Court went on to say that this should be a lesson for employers to examine their recruitment policies carefully, as a mistake in the selection process which is not resolved in a proper manner could lead to the company paying compensation.
This case should not be taken as absolving employees from lies and misrepresentations made on their resumes or application letters. In the Anthony Dass case, the employee was “handpicked” to join the company and did not fill in any application form or attend any interview. There was also no express misrepresentation that his doctorate was qualified. The employee had just failed to clarify or correct an erroneous assumption by the employer. It is based on this factual context that the Court assigned most of the blame on the employer.
What can we learn from the above cases?
It’s trite but true: honesty is the best policy. Employees should obviously avoid putting inaccurate or false information in their resumes and application letters. Pretending to have qualifications you do not have is a fast way to dismissal and can severely damage your reputation in the job market. Employees should also be wary of making intentionally ambiguous “half truths” to prospective employers.
Employer are advised to have a proper policy for vetting and verifying prospective employees before they are hired, especially if specific qualifications are an essential requirement to the job. It is more difficult to dismiss a deceitful employee than it is to not hire them in the first place.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR. Donovan Cheah is a partner at Donovan & Ho. He is an advocate and solicitor of the High Court of Malaya, and his writings have been featured in publications like The Edge, The Star, the American Chamber of Commerce updates, and Asialaw.