A few weeks ago I was chatting with a friend at another company about an intern set to join my team. To my surprise, he was also excited because his team was hiring a summer intern. We expressed our shared excitement over the ability to teach a young professional.
“I have so much to teach him already,” he said to me. “I saw his resume — he didn’t even have a hobbies section.”
I’ll be honest, before this conversation it hadn’t occurred to me that a hobbies section was a requirement for a good resume. But I’m certain that good people can disagree on the issue of what makes a good resume. This is fine until you realize that resumes are often the sole measure of whether a candidate will move forward in the recruiting process, and even if a resume manages to pass the screening process, the personal preferences of the reviewer will influence the hiring decision.
For every job posted online, hundreds of people will apply. The majority of resumes submitted along with these applications will never meet the eyes of a human being. That’s because they’ll be eliminated from the process by a computer system. Of the resumes that make the cut, less than 10% will advance to an interview. Then, if the company is lucky, one will belong to an applicant who accepts an offer in the end.
Over the years most companies have evolved their recruiting efforts to keep up with the times. Meanwhile, the submission of a resume has been a tradition since the day Leonardo da Vinci wrote the first professional resume in 1482.
This tradition continues to dominate the recruiting process in essentially the same manner it did over half a millennium ago.
Clearly there’s a valid reason that employers use resumes: They’re the best tool we have to weed out unqualified applicants and prioritize strong candidates. This may seem like a unique benefits of resumes, but careful examination reveals that resumes aren’t as effective at this task as one might believe.
Resumes Are Subjective Recollections of Experiences
One key resume problem is that they’re subjective recollections of experiences. Thus, they can’t provide essential information about the candidate’s potential to succeed at a job.
John Sullivan, a professor and thought leader, wrote that “Resumes are at best, self-reported descriptions of historical events — the very definition of a resume highlights its fundamental weakness. Rather than providing information that you really need to hire someone (examples of a candidate’s actual work or a description of what they could do in your job), resumes are merely self-reported narrative descriptions of the candidates’ past work.”
Resumes rely on the candidate to recall their past experiences. Many of these experiences may be partially forgotten or selectively left out. To put it simply, relying solely on self-reported past experiences isn’t a good indicator of a candidate’s potential. Nor does it identify their future contributions in the role they’re applying for.
Applicant Tracking Systems Reward Keywords, Not Qualifications
Another limitation in the resume problem is that resumes are screened by applicant tracking systems programmed to reward keywords and likeness to a job description. In effect, if a candidate puts the “right” words on their resume, they are more likely to get an interview. This is true even when someone else is more qualified but describes their experience differently than the job description does.
Unfortunately, many candidates are still unaware of the impact of keywords. Even though they may be qualified for the job, they can be disqualified from the process because they weren’t keyword experts.
Leslie Stevens-Huffman, a business and career writer, argued more than a decade ago that “Resume keywords are an increasingly critical element of a successful job search. They’re important because recruiters search resumes for keyword matches when sourcing candidates from databases loaded with job-seeker profiles. The more frequently your resume matches the keywords contained in a recruiter’s search, the more calls you’ll get.”
It goes without saying that whether someone is an expert in keywords doesn’t determine whether they’re qualified to fill a job. Yet this continues to be a significant loophole in resume screening.
Resumes Often Misrepresent Experience
Thirdly, resumes often contain misrepresentations of a candidate’s previous experience. This makes it difficult to rely on them as an accurate measure of whether a candidate is right for a position. The 2018 HireRight Employment Screening Benchmark Report stated that as many as 84% of employers found a lie or misrepresentation on a resume.
The report found that candidates at all levels misrepresent information on their resumes. The research around misrepresentations in resumes is clear. But this hasn’t been enough to convince employers to re-evaluate their reliance on resumes.
Looking Forward: Overcoming the resume problem by reworking the Resume
Given the challenges with resumes, why do employers continue to rely on them? The answer is convenience.
Resumes are still the most accepted method of applying to a job. But this doesn’t mean there’s no room for improvement.
Charles Coy, senior director of analyst and community relations at ReWork, writes that “Today, rather than sift through the thousands of resumes their companies receive, many HR teams rely on keyword-crawling bots to sort out the top candidates. In the future, they’ll have a similar tool — but it will be much, much smarter. AI will be trained to process a much more complex set of data, including social media posts, project experience, relevant trainings, personality test scores and more, to assess candidates more holistically.”
The hope for the future is that the resume will be more expansive and gather inputs from a variety of sources. This would allow employers to rely less on self-reporting and to increase accuracy and improve the process. Employers can get a head start by working on ways to rank candidates holistically and by not relying solely on the resume.
For now, it’s imperative that we become aware of the limitations of the resume and the problems with using them as the sole determinant of whether a job applicant moves forward.
Artificial intelligence may open up a world where the resume of tomorrow looks very different from today. In turn this will give us more objective ways of ranking candidates and determining whether they’re qualified. It will mean that we can rely less on subjective preferences and instead focus on actual skills, abilities and potential. Who knows, maybe artificial intelligence will also be able to tell us whether a hobbies section belongs on a resume.
About the author
DJ Jeffries is an HR innovation analyst at Morgan Stanley and the founder and editor of Led2Win.com.