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Boss’s Tip of the Week #21: Resumes: How To Spot the Hype and Find the Truth

Here is the latest installment of the Boss’s Tip of the Week.  This advice column for managers is brought to you by Bob Rosner and Allan Halcrow, co-authors of The Boss’s Survival Guide.

When Lily Tomlin observed, “No matter how cynical you become, it’s never enough to keep up,” she probably didn’t have resumes in mind. But you should, because too many people out there are, well, creative. Remember that what you see as basic information, the candidate sees as unabashed marketing; and marketing, as we know, isn’t rich with truth. Robert Half reports that surveys done by his company, Robert Half International, show that 30% of job seekers lie on their resumes. Many of the rest exaggerate or omit important information.

None of this gives you license to throw a stack of resumes down a flight of stairs and hire the people whose resumes get to the bottom. For one thing, enough resumes are totally legit to keep things interesting. For another, jurors are more kindly disposed to managers who hire using some sort of uniform rationale. Resumes are the best place to start. Here’s how:

Give resumes a careful reading. Here’s how.

Presentation counts: Give priority to resumes accompanied by a cover letter. Look for resumes that are typeset or created in a word processing program (as opposed to hand written). Deduct points for changes made by hand.

Beware of hyperbole: Suppose, for example, a resume states, “Set new sales record.” It sounds impressive, but guessing all the things it might mean while still being 100% accurate could keep a frat house busy all weekend. “Set new record for lowest sales” and “Set a record for new sales while losing all existing clients” are two that come to mind.

Beware of name droppers: If a candidate cites experience at a brand name employer, make sure their experience is relevant. Flipping burgers may not prepare them for the work you need done.

Beware of job hoppers: You want employees with ambition, but if a candidate has a history of changing jobs every 18 months, beware. Odds are that the employee wouldn’t stay with you any longer, which means you’ll never see a return on your investment in hiring and training. That said, our advice applies primarily to frequent job changes before 2008, when the economy took a dramatic downturn. In a rough economy people grab what opportunities they can, and that may mean several short-term assignments. They may also be the unfortunate victim of several layoffs. If candidates have the requisite skills, use the interview to explore their job history.

Look for gaps: Candidates who drop out of the workforce temporarily for legitimate reasons (a job search or protected leave) usually say so. If they don’t, something has been omitted for a reason. Did the candidate spend time in prison as a convicted felon, or get fired for embezzling or sexual harassment?

Beware of career students: Recent college graduates have reason to emphasize their education. Candidates who have earned a degree while working full time are justified for tooting their own horns. For everyone else, education should be given less emphasis than work experience.

Sweat the small stuff. One HR pro told us that he always pays careful attention to the employment dates listed on a resume. He says that may people give them a cursory glance, or less. But he finds that the dates often include discrepancies. Making such errors can indicate that a candidate either plays fast and loose with the truth or can’t be bothered to pay attention to details. Either way, it’s an indication that — at a minimum –you need further information.

Beware of extraneous data: Sure, you want a well-rounded candidate, but that doesn’t mean you need to know about their pets, voting history, or must-see TV shows.

Logic counts: Look for job history in chronological order. Organization by function or other order that makes you work to figure out job tenure and history has probably been packaged to conceal something.

Spot the top candidates by looking for the following:

Specific accomplishments: Are there concrete examples of what the candidate has accomplished, or glittering generalities about their responsibilities? In sales, for example, look for dollar volume, market share, or increased percentage in sales. Market data and timelines are an added bonus.

Customization: Has the resume been drafted for your job—or at least a similar job—or is it a generic one-size-fits-all resume?

Career progress: Has the candidate made job changes leading to progressively more responsibility and higher pay, or simply seem stuck?

Does the candidate focus on the bottom line? Does he mention cutting costs or making money?

Beware resume-scanning software.   Many large organizations today use resume-scanning software in the hiring process. Resumes are scanned into the system, which in effect creates a large database that allows users to scan for key words.  For example, you could receive 25 resumes for a software programmer position and then search for experience in a specific programming language or application. Although such software can make sifting through resume more efficient and objective, those gains come at some cost, too. Without the full resume you also can’t really tell a candidate’s full story. Specific experience isn’t always as valuable as a candidate’s job history or accomplishments. Think of it this way: Would you date someone based entirely on a list of key words?

Boss’s Tip of the Week #21: Resumes: How To Spot the Hype and Find the Truth
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