Thursday, January 21, 2010


Among the most common topics for which candidates seek my advice is about resume preparation. Most often I am asked for feedback regarding content or construction yet some questions are quite specific such as whether it is appropriate to use bulleted text or how much employment history to include. In the legal profession it is not uncommon for law firm partners to have a summary bio prepared by the firm’s professional marketing staff. I have talked to very accomplished lawyers who have never prepared a resume for themselves and genuinely need some guidance when they decide to proactively seek a new opportunity. Aside from the few who probably want me to write their resume for them (which I won’t do, for good reason), at the crux of this is confusion about the purpose one’s resume is intended to serve. 

Wait a minute, what is confusing about the purpose of a resume? It should seem intuitive by simple definition of the end goal. In plain speaking it is the starting document that will get a candidate from point A to point B on the career ladder. A lot rides on that little document as it is THE entry point to the proverbial foot in the door. If the right things are not on that resume, a candidate won’t get noticed. Factor in anything which increases the competitiveness of the candidate pool or the desirability of the job and you can see how the need to make one’s resume stand above the rest becomes more urgent. Candidates need to distinguish themselves in a crowded pool. The resume has become the flag all candidates carry which screams ‘CHOOSE ME!’ It is no small wonder that the mere mention of the word whips people into a frenzy.

During the go-go days of the late’90’s, candidates would do all sorts of wild things to get their resume noticed. I still have the shoebox a candidate sent to me complete with a pair of shoes and a note suggesting he was trying to get his ‘foot in the door’ for an interview. (Yes it was from a lawyer, no the shoes were not my size, and no he did not get an interview.) One of my colleagues at a very large technology company received a resume wrapped in plastic and taped to the top of a fresh hot pizza conveniently delivered to her at lunch time. All sorts of quirky information began appearing on resumes, usually in an ‘interests’ tag line which I can only assume is intended to make the candidate seem more human. Do we need to know that you can simultaneously speak Japanese while eating chicken livers? What on earth does that have to do with practicing law? Nothing! Spare me. Sure I remember the resume, but it did nothing positive for that person’s candidacy.

Thankfully these examples have not become widely adopted tactics, but other disturbing trends have emerged. “Dumbing down” a resume by removing experience or omitting dates of employment has become more prevalent among senior level candidates wanting to compete for a job advertised as seeking less experienced candidates. Title inflation, which is using a more desirable job title on the resume different from the candidate’s current official job title, has crept into the mix. There has even been recent press about ‘whitening’ one’s resume. Sure, a few candidates cross the line from enhancing a title to outright false information. But how did the state of the resume deteriorate to this?

Market pressure on candidates alone is not the answer. Recruiters and hiring managers also shoulder some of the responsibility. At a macro level candidates are responding to signals sent into the applicant stream by virtue of how recruiters and hiring managers respond. In an attempt to be all things to the right employers, candidates are responding to the business of filtering engaged in by many in the recruiting profession. In the sake of expediency and to tackle the volume of incoming inquiries the recruiting staff spends a big chunk of time screening incoming resumes in the hopes that the perfect person appears. They are filtering, not recruiting. Key word identification was the first big introduction of technology in the recruiting process. Instead of plowing through piles of paper a recruiter could do a key word search for something on the resume, like intellectual property, and instantly locate the candidates with that word in their resume. It didn’t take long for candidates to get the message and start adding key words even if it was a fraction of their overall expertise. Boom, the vicious cycle was born.

Don’t get me wrong, key word search capability is a helpful tool. Unfortunately it contributes to a process that is designed like a sieve. It excludes people without the right word but makes no distinction as to relative strength of other characteristics that may be relevant. Yet recruiters are usually the first to say that their best candidates do not come from whoever happens to land in their inbox, particularly where a niche skill set is required. The recruiter who affirmatively reaches out to those with the necessary skills and expertise is more apt to zero in on the right candidate. A focused approach adopts a process that is designed more like a target, where the center circle encompasses all appropriate requirements. Less filtering and more recruiting is in order.

Even though it is a bit of a catch-22, the filtering cycle can be broken if both candidates and hiring decision makers contribute to the solution. Candidates need to cut the fluff and focus on the substance of what they have to offer. Tell us who you are, what you do, where you learned it, and who you have done it for and when. Don’t write what you think a recruiter wants to hear, just tell it like it is. Recruiters need to get off the filtering treadmill and build pipelines of qualified prospects. You can add value to the hiring managers and increase the quality of the overall outcome by knowing their business wherever possible and using technology to track who you want rather than just who randomly finds you. Hiring managers can help by educating their recruiting partners about their business, focusing on candidate skills and competencies in evaluating prospective hires, and being realistic about the timeline it takes to find the right person. Employers that don’t have the resources internally to do this can and should engage an external resource appropriate to the relevant area of expertise.

Before internet technology was widely adopted in the recruiting process, like many recruiters I literally clawed through stacks of cover letters and resumes on a daily basis until it felt like my eyeballs were on fire. I cannot begin to fathom how many resumes I have looked at during my 18+ years of recruiting and let me tell you I have seen the gamut. Behind every resume is a person whose talents and value will accelerate in the right environment. We’ll all be better off if the obstacles are cleared and the state of the resume can shine.