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How to Process Résumés More Effectively

The ability to process résumés effectively is a key element in improving human resources efficiency. This means quickly separating the best candidates from the worst. Based on résumés alone, you’d think that all your candidates are such outstanding prospects that you can hire them sight unseen.

Anyone who does any research at all into how to look for a job knows, at this point, how to write a résumé that puts him in the best light. And those who don’t know how to write a great résumé can now hire people who do know.

Before diving into that pile of résumés, consider the following observations:

  • No job applicant in his right mind is going to put derogatory or detracting information in his own résumé.

  • Many résumés are professionally prepared and designed to create a winning, but not necessarily accurate, impression.

  • Reviewing résumés is tedious, no matter what. You may need to sift through the stack several times. Keep your eye drops handy!

Reading between the lines of résumés

Now that more and more people are using outside specialists or software packages to prepare their résumés, getting an accurate reading of a candidate’s strengths simply by reading his résumé is more difficult than ever. Even so, here are some of the characteristics that generally (although not always) describe a candidate worth interviewing:

  • Lots of details: Though applicants are generally advised to avoid wordiness, the more detailed they are in their descriptions of what they accomplished in previous jobs, the more reliable (as a rule) the information.

  • A history of stability and advancement: The applicant’s work history should show a steady progression into greater responsibility and more important positions. But don’t go by job titles alone; look at what the candidate did. Assess how important the work was to the company involved.

  • A strong, well-written cover letter: Assuming that the candidate wrote the letter, the cover letter is generally a good indication of his overall communication skills. Look for specifics that indicate he wrote the letter for you, and that he did not just copy the same verbiage for 20 other applications.

Watching out for red flags on résumés

Résumé writing is a good example of the Law of Unintended Consequences. Sometimes what’s not in a résumé or what’s done through carelessness or mistake can reveal quite a bit about a candidate. Following are some things to watch out for:

  • Sloppy overall appearance: This is a fairly reliable sign that the candidate is lacking in professionalism and business experience. Some applicants actually have included photos of themselves drinking at parties with their résumés! Those get filtered out first.

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

  • Static career pattern: A sequence of jobs that doesn’t indicate increasing responsibility may indicate a problem—the person wasn’t deemed fit for a promotion or demonstrated a lack of ambition. Exceptions occur, however, especially for workers in highly specialized fields.

  • Typos and misspellings: Generally speaking, typos in cover letters and résumés may signify carelessness or a cavalier attitude. In a Robert Half International survey, 76 percent of U.S. executives said that they wouldn’t hire a candidate with even one or two typographical errors in his résumé.

  • Vaguely worded job descriptions: 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 further, you probably want to find out what a “coordinator of special projects” actually does. You want to see job descriptions that indicate how crucial the job is to his company’s success.

  • Weasel wording: Phrasing such as “participated in,” “familiar with,” “in association,” and so on can indicate that 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? A sentence doesn’t need to be untruthful to be misleading.

  • Job hopping: Although cradle-to-grave employment is by no means the norm today, 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 picture of employment history. People do leave jobs for good reasons and should be prepared—and willing—to tell you about it.

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