Deconstructing Resumes - Disarming Precedent-based Evaluations and the Obstacles in Your Campaign for the Job
November 21st, 2018
To all who would lend me an ear:
This is a clip from the Emmy award-winning game show Password. Popularized in the 1960’s, the object of the game is for a player to cue his or her partner into guessing a mystery word by using only single-word clues. In theory, by the power of word association and human inference, two people can communicate purely by synonym or suggestion. However, we see in this clip that multiple guesses and mistakes are made before the single word password is finally conveyed. Password was popular in large part due to the hilarity of miscommunication and misunderstanding. We find amusement in seeing two people fumble over their words—or in this case, word—and the resulting breakdown in communication. Perhaps on another level, we find it humorous because we have all had Password-like experiences when communicating.
Resume writing is like a game of Password. In a resume, you are allowed one page of descriptions of your professional experiences to convey your value to the reader, rather than directly stating why you would be successful for the job in question. The theory is that you can suggest your capability by listing your past jobs and their requirements, and that the reader will be able to infer and evaluate accurately; but throw in variables like differing backgrounds, dissimilar life experiences, and contrasting opinions on the qualities that make a good worker and teammate, and you end up with a game of Password.
Like Password clues, resumes leave a large margin of error and give the reader opportunity to misunderstand or misjudge your qualifications. But unlike Password, in a job search, miscommunication is anything but humorous.
Understanding the Reader
In order to limit Password-like scenarios in your job hunt, the first important action is to understand your audience: the recruitment team.
Recruitment teams have many concerns, including but not limited to:
- Sourcing (where we find talented people)
- Recruiting Marketing (how talented people discover us)
- Employer Branding (how talented people perceive us)
- Assessment (how talented people fit our needs)
- Recruiting Operations (getting everyone in the organization to care).
Given the wide scope of responsibilities that recruitment teams are in charge of, it is imperative to be efficient in your communication with them; which brings us back to the legibility of the resume. Resumes in their inherent nature do not place us in the best position for the recruitment team to make accurate forecasts of our success.
In order to understand the weaknesses of the resume, it is important to recognize what we as job seekers are trying to communicate with the resume. Ideally, a resume:
- Communicates your value clearly and accurately
- Communicates your value with consistency
Unfortunately, these goals are rarely met. The people who are evaluating your resume come from a variety of backgrounds and bring along with them a diverse set of experiences. They have different ideas of what makes a qualified candidate and good worker. Their unique life experience and history affects how they interpret the route your career has taken. Because of this, your story has great potential to be misconstrued and misunderstood. This is especially true for people with nontraditional backgrounds, such as people who have gone through recent life changes or career changes.
As the world continues to globalize, compete and diversify, new roles in new markets are created every single day and career changes are becoming more common. Furthermore it is becoming more prevalent for individuals to have careers in fields unrelated to the degrees they obtained in school. While it was once rare to meet someone who took a nonlinear, nontraditional career path, globalization has made this a much more common phenomenon.
As this type of applicant becomes more commonplace, the means by which employers evaluate talent will need to adapt as well. A resume, due it its brevity and formatting style, is not an ideal vehicle for explaining the nuances of a nontraditional background. Traditional career paths have the luxury of the precedence of someone with a similar background who succeeded before them to be their barometer of success; this is something nontraditional career paths do not have. Insufficient context, which is an essential characteristic of the resume, creates greater potential for incorrect and inconsistent interpretation, opening the door to implicit bias and unfair hiring practices. In order to ensure our stories are interpreted correctly and consistently, it is important than ever before we begin to find alternatives to communicating our value to potential employers.
It is true that there are commonly advised tactics to improve the communicability of the resume. When I was looking for a job, I received advice to “supercharge” my resume by using special buzzwords and reformatting. There are a plethora of tools on the market utilizing these strategies. However, even with seemingly sensible suggestions like tailoring the resume to the job description and alluding to measurements of success in your work experiences, resume formatting and wording tactics can only carry your story so far.
Resume tailoring by mirroring your resume to the job description is a common strategy. The theory behind resume tailoring is that it is a means of signaling to a hiring manager that your resume is relevant and that you are the right candidate for the job. However, it is important to recognize that job descriptions are not necessarily written for accuracy.
Because there is a high level of competition for qualified talent, recruitment teams focus on advertising the perks of the job in their job descriptions, outlining the free snacks and 401k instead of the actual description of the position. Their goal is to appeal to passive job seekers, a topic which I will discuss in a future article. Furthermore, many job descriptions are written by ghostwriters, or even more generically, automatically generated by applicant tracking systems (ATS) like GoHire and Lever, or job board companies like Glassdoor and Indeed. Because these non-specific, templated job descriptions are not what the actual job demands, mirroring our resumes to them is not the best strategy to precisely target the jobs we are applying to.
Another common “supercharging” tip is to use key performance indicators, or KPIs. The idea is that KPIs show that you are “concerned about how your performance affects the company’s success” and that “you are committed to making your performance count.” [http://resumefactor.blogspot.com/2011/11/talk-about-kpis-in-your-resume-and-give.html]
While KPIs are a good means of evaluating success internally within a company, on a resume, they fail to fully communicate the value of your experience at a previous job and how that will translate to your success at the job in question. On a resume, KPIs are relatively meaningless, especially without context or further explanation. Afterall, a 200% increase in user acquisition may be 20000 to 60000 users, but it may also be an increase from 1 to 3.
Hiring managers see resumes using KPIs everyday and are fully aware that the numbers can be twisted and skewed. So what is the actual intent of the KPI? The value of KPIs is not in the actual numbers, but in the context. Regardless of whether or not your participation in a project resulted in a 50% increase or even 50% decrease, both experiences can be valuable if you are able to prove that you learned a new skill or developed a deeper understanding of your role. Unfortunately, a resume does not give writers the capacity to give context or delve deeper into the story behind the KPIs, consequently depreciating their value.
Own Your Career Story and Your Job Campaign
The inherent nature of the resume increases the possibility of your success potential being devalued. To ensure an understanding of your worth as a candidate, we need to look beyond the resume and look to a more complete career story. Some proposed solutions involve creating a brand or making a more visual stimulating resume—but if the foundational content is the same, there will be nominal impact on the outcome.
Leaving it up to the resume to communicate value is gradually becoming obsolete. More and more job seekers use referrals to solve their context problem and take charge of the interpretation of their career story. In fact, referrals are the best way to get hired: over 40% of all hires are through referrals. However, in the current market there are not many options to scale your job searching efforts through referrals. Job seekers know that communication of value within hiring is broken.
Instead of playing Password with the job search, it is important for job seekers, especially those with nontraditional backgrounds, to take control of their career stories. If we allow our fit for a position to be expressed implicitly by bullet points about our previous jobs, we are at risk of selling ourselves short. Job seekers need to explicitly communicate our potential worth to potential employers, and in the age of globalization, the resume is not capable of meeting that need.
In the next post, I’ll discuss a viable solution to the resume problem. It’ll be on how to create a direct story of how you explicitly fit with the company and the open role and how to use it to campaign for the job you want. We call this direct story of your fit a Fit Story, and JobFit is entirely built off this framework.