How to Catch Résumé Warning Signs

Résumé writing is a good example of the law of unintended consequences in business, which can help you understand a potential hire. Sometimes what’s not in a résumé or what’s done through carelessness or a mistake can reveal quite a bit about a candidate. Here are some things to watch out for:

  • Sloppy overall appearance: This is a fairly reliable sign that the candidate is lacking in professionalism and/or business experience.

  • Unexplained chronological gaps: Breaks in employment history may mean one of two things: The candidate was unemployed during these gaps, or the candidate is deliberately concealing certain information.

    A well-designed application form or probing interview questions can uncover hidden downtime — for example, if a candidate says he left one job and started another in the same year but actually left the first job in February and didn’t start his next one until late December.

    Before jumping to conclusions, check to see whether periods of schooling or military service cover the time period. Also, bear in mind that, depending on economic conditions, talented people may have been out of work for periods of time through no fault of their own.

    You must tread very carefully in this area. Inquiries into employment gaps may cause the applicant to reveal information that lawfully may not be considered in a hiring (or other employment-related) decision, such as family or medical information.

    Also, there has been legislative activity to prohibit discrimination based on unemployed status. You should check the laws applicable to your worksites — for example, by consulting a knowledgeable attorney — to determine if such prohibitions exist. If so, such laws will directly impact the extent to which you can consider periods of unemployment, if at all, in making hiring decisions.

  • Static career pattern: A sequence of jobs that doesn’t include increasing responsibility may indicate a problem — the person wasn’t deemed fit for a promotion or demonstrated a lack of ambition.

    That said, sometimes solid performers who enjoy just doing their job and don’t necessarily have a career progression history still can add tremendous value as part of your team. Don’t reject a résumé on this criterion alone. It’s something to review and assess but not judge.

  • Typos and misspellings: Generally speaking, typos in cover letters and résumés may signify carelessness or a cavalier attitude. In a Robert Half survey, 76 percent of executives said that they wouldn’t hire a candidate who submits a résumé with even one or two typographical errors. Although not all jobs require candidates to have strong spelling skills, most do call for attention to detail.

  • Vaguely worded job summaries: Perhaps the applicant didn’t quite understand what his job was. Or perhaps the job responsibilities didn’t match the title. Before you go any farther, you probably want to find out what a “coordinator of special projects” actually does. You want to see job summaries that indicate how crucial the job is to her company’s success.

  • Weasel wording: Phrasing such as participated in, familiar with, and in association can indicate the applicant may not have the actual experience he’s claiming. Did the applicant actually work on that vital project, or did he merely run errands for someone who did?

  • Job hopping: Cradle-to-grave employment is by no means the norm today, but a series of many jobs held for short periods of time may signal an unstable or problem employee or a chronic job hopper. Be sure to look at the whole employment history. People do leave jobs for good reasons and should be prepared — and willing — to tell you about it.

  • Overemphasis on hobbies or interests outside of work: This kind of emphasis may indicate an applicant who’s trying to pad his résumé because he doesn’t have enough relevant experience. He instead adds details about outside interests to make it seem longer. Again, though, don’t overreact. An applicant with a broad array of outside interests doesn’t necessarily mean an employee who isn’t just as enthusiastic about his job.

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