When the toy maker Mattel was deciding who to cast in plastic as part of its Sheroes series celebrating iconic female role models, Eleni Antoniadou seemed an obvious choice.
At the tender age of 32, Thessaloniki-born Ms Antoniadou had worked as a researcher for Nasa, where she had won an award for her outstanding work, taken part in the world’s first artificial tracheotomy surgery and co-founded a company providing life-saving artificial organs. Or so she said.
Last week the women dubbed by the Greek City Times "one of the world's best scientists" – a moniker that earned her a place in the BBC's 100 Women series in 2014 and Forbes magazine's 30 under 30 a year later – was accused of being a fraud.
A Greek professor suspicious of how she had managed to achieve so much at such a young age started digging into her background and began dismantling her achievements, one by one. Nasa says she never worked at the space agency. Her company Transplants Without Donors does not appear to exist. At the very least, there seems to be some exaggeration, misrepresentation and stretching of the truth on Ms Antoniadou's part.
While Ms Antoniadou has so far failed to respond to the allegations, she posted a statement to her Facebook page, which read: "It takes decades of labour, effort, failures and maybe some successes to hope that you will contribute essentially a small stone to science. My goal has never been to compete with academics or compare my first steps in science as a new researcher with people who have been in the field for many decades."
So is this a case of over-embellishment of a CV getting out of hand, or is it straight from the “fake it until you make it” playbook?
Some people are very skilled in creating false impressions, which they then conveniently neglect to correct – what is known as the art of lying without lying.
But while Ms Antoniadou's example is at the extreme end of the scale, exaggerating credentials and overinflating accolades is becoming increasingly widespread. In places with large populations from overseas, where it is relatively easier to manufacture a past, such behaviour can be even more prevalent. The derisory acronym Filth (Failed in London, try Hong Kong) was coined to refer to the ease with which below-average foreigners could walk into jobs with above-average salaries. In the days before widespread internet use, social media and the ability to vet someone's profile online, it was easier to inflate past accolades to climb the greasy pole. With the right look, accent and just enough swagger, the former caretaker could make chief executive.
Here in the UAE, with people hailing from around the world, it has long been possible to reinvent yourself and create a new back story – so how can we truly trust anyone? Some companies in the UAE are now far more rigorous in checking credentials. Some are even outsourcing background checks to private investigators in an attempt to stem the tide of exaggerated and overinflated CVs. The UAE's Ministry of Education has also rolled out a more robust system to verify and evaluate academic qualifications from around the world.
These are wise measures as we seem to be living in an age where deception is not perceived to be as dishonourable as it once was. Selfie filters, photoshopping and airbrushing – indeed, one could say, one’s entire social media database, complete with boasts about busy, fulfilled lives – form a collective deceit on how we would wish to be perceived by the world at large.
Exeter University’s Centre for the Study of Integrity published a report in 2012 documenting a clear increase in “low-level dishonesty” across the UK. One of the questions in that survey, known as the integrity test, specifically asked about lying on job applications. Researchers found between 2000 and 2011, dishonesty levels rose significantly, irrespective of social class, education or income. Women were, on average, more honest than men and the older generation tended to be more honest than the under-25s. Only a third of under-25s thought lying on a CV was unjustifiable, compared to 55 per cent of over-65s who condemned the practice. Meanwhile, more than seven in 10 leading organisations in the US reported receiving doctored CVs, according to a report from screening firm HireRight – and those are just the ones they detected.
In an attempt to combat this rising tide of dishonesty, some employers now also see it as fair game to scrutinise our online profiles to get a more accurate picture of potential hires. Vetting social media accounts of potential employees is becoming an increasingly common practice and can give rise to red flags. Imagine hiring someone to be the public face of your company in an office reception, for example, who then turns out to have a Facebook timeline full of aggressive rhetoric and borderline hate speech. Which would you believe – the CV or the timeline?
Ms Antoniadou’s highlights the importance of carrying out the most basic checks. None of the organisations that interviewed her or awarded her appear to have done so and effectively helped create her mystique by heaping accolades on her. Ultimately, this case was particularly damaging because she was held up as a role model, and what might have seemed like a harmless myth now serves as a fable.
Justin Thomas is a professor of psychology at Zayed University