columnist Alison Green answers questions about workplace and management issues--everything from how to deal with a micromanaging boss to how to talk to someone on your team about body odor.

A reader asks:

I am a director of a local nonprofit with a very visible presence in our area.

Two years ago, I hired a new associate director, Gina, after she had amazing interviews and strong references. She has proved to be exceptional in her role. Eager, great sense of humor, very intelligent, poised, I could go on. She, like myself, is a single mother and I cleared a path through our company for her to return to school and get an MBA. Within the past two years our company has really blossomed, and part of that is directly related to Gina's hard work.

But a week ago, I was at a work conference. While speaking to one of the event coordinators, Gina's name came up. He stated that he worked with her briefly at her previous job and disclosed to me that she was fired. I was shocked. I distinctly remember from her interview that when I asked why she wanted to leave her current position, she stated that she wanted to return to the nonprofit field. The man delivered this information to me in an "Oh, I'm glad she got something she likes, but I assume you knew she was fired" kind of way, so it wasn't as though he was trying to toss her under the bus.

When I returned to work, I checked her personnel file, and her resume clearly listed her previous job as still ongoing when she applied with me. I haven't told anyone, and no one would know. Do I speak with her? Do I terminate her? Neither of these things feels right to me. She made a mistake, but there is nothing in her two-year performance that suggests anything other than a highly qualified and committed individual who has gone above and beyond in her role. I'm torn over this, and to be honest, I wish I never knew this information.

Green responds:

Well, wait--you don't actually know that she lied on her resume. It's very possible that when she submitted the resume, she was indeed still employed at her job -- and that she didn't get fired until some point after that. If that's the case, there was nothing for her to disclose, as long as she didn't deliberately mislead you by talking about her job in the present tense when she was no longer there. Really, unless this guy told you exactly when she was fired and it was before she submitted that resume -- and you have reason to trust that he's being precisely accurate two years later in an offhand comment -- there's just no smoking gun here.

Which means you should let it go.

But for the sake of argument, let's say that you did find out that Gina had already been fired at the time that she submitted that resume to you, and that she deliberately misrepresented her dates of employment on her resume, adding a month or two of extra work. Should that trump the two years of exceptional work she's done for you? I'd argue no.

She wouldn't be the first decent person to panic about unemployment and make a poor decision about her resume. She probably wouldn't even be the first person you hired who fudged something on her resume. Believe me, I'm not arguing in favor of doing this -- I'm on record as calling it an integrity issue many times in the past. But if the firing was fairly recent when she applied (a matter of a couple of months, not like a year), I'm not willing to advocate firing an otherwise excellent employee over it. Certainly if I'd trusted her implicitly before, I wouldn't now, but I wouldn't fire someone stellar over it.

On the other hand, if we're not just talking a month or two -- if the firing was, say, a year before she submitted that resume -- that's a much bigger deal.

In either case, I'd say the next step would be to talk to her about it and see what she says. (Again, this is in the hypothetical case that you really know she lied on her resume, and not for the actual situation that you've described.) You might hear something that changes your assessment entirely (like that she continued to work for them as a contractor and just didn't know to separate it out on her resume), or something that puts things in more context (she was desperate and has regretted it ever since and it's made her vow to be scrupulously accurate going forward), or something that increases your concern (she's shady about answering you or doesn't see what the big deal is). But you'd want to talk to her before reaching any conclusions.

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