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Bullet Point to the Head

by Jul 30, 2009, 5:16 am ET

As a (once and future) corporate recruiter “actively looking for his next opportunity,” (translation: unemployed and hitting refresh on, I’ve had the opportunity, for the first time in my career, to experience life across the desk, as one of the unwashed masses yearning to breathe free.

Interesting paradigm shifts have occurred. An interview has gone from a job function to an event worthy of a phone call to mom; I no longer screen my calls, and in fact, am excited when the phone rings; and, of course, the worst of it all: I’ve become the target of a billion-dollar industry of profiteers who promise to give my search the winning edge, but they’re no longer contingency recruiters on biz dev calls. That, at least, would represent a career opportunity.

Let me be clear: I actually admire those who have figured out a way to monetize providing services to the unemployed. Most marketers would probably, conducting a SWOT analysis, point to the fact that categorically, those without jobs who are “actively looking” likely lack disposable income. But, you see, that’s capitalism in action.

Perhaps the most common service offered is professional resume writing. These services promise that, for anywhere between 400 and 800 dollars, a professional resume writer will not only critique your resume, but also work with you to create a resume guaranteed to “break through the clutter” by using better verbs to craft the “story of your career.” Corporate recruiters, apparently, have very strict guidelines for formatting on a resume, and a secret code known only to them and somehow cracked by the Professional Resume Writer’s Association. I must have missed that workshop at ERE, but I suppose so too did a lot of my colleagues, who I have seen commit such violations to code as cut and pasting resumes off of Monster into Word or forwarding horrifically misformatted LinkedIn profiles to hiring managers.

Since there seems to be an interesting amount of conspiracy theory around how recruiters read resumes (if they do at all, since apparently, talent acquisition systems are to candidates what the Meadowlands are to Jimmy Hoffa), I hope to add to the body of knowledge and present, from first-hand observation, how recruiters read resumes. And we do. Hundreds of them, every day, but there’s a method to our madness: overstaffed, overworked, we’ve developed a short-hand to get through that resume. It involves a few simple steps.

  1. Recruiter tears off cover letter (or, more likely, doesn’t bother opening the attachment in the ATS). Since most resumes lead with an objective statement (which are always subjective, in a nice bit of irony), we can only handle so much generic doublespeak in one sitting. Recruiters also don’t normally read objective statements, because the objective is pretty apparent when you send in a resume … to get a job. Everything else is window dressing.
  2. Recruiter looks at the candidate’s mailing address. If it’s going to require relocation or there’s any chance the commute is going to come up during salary negotiation, then on to the next candidate. Many resumes do indicate that the person will pay out of pocket to relocate and interview, which raises an immediate red flag as to why. We have enough desperation in our lives already. We’re recruiters, for heaven’s sake. This rule, of course, only applies to applicants, not passive candidates. If you’re top talent with a niche skill set, we’ll relocate you from Zanzibar, if that’s what it takes. Unless, of course, you require visa sponsorship. We have our limits, you know.
  3. Recruiter looks at company name. If we, in our infinite wisdom of all companies, do not recognize the company, we will move on, because there’s so much truth that branding is everything. You’re only as good as your last company, unless you have the letters CPA, MD, or JD after your name. Conversely, if the company has been in the news as either an acquisition target or a source of corporate scandal, on to the next resume (assuming the recruiter reads anything BUT resumes, which most do not). So it goes.
  4. The candidate’s most recent title must be in the same ballpark as the job for which they are being considered. There are some notable exceptions: candidates coming from the financial services industry, for instance, where we well know that interns are Assistant Vice Presidents, or consulting, where the titles are intentionally vague (Analyst, Associate, etc.) and flat so that everyone can be billed out at the same exorbitant rate. Traditionally, though, if you’re a Marketing Manager applying for a Marketing Manager job, then we’re still reading. If you’re looking for a step up, well, best of luck to you, because we promote from within, which will later be transformed into a selling point when offered a lateral move. If you’re looking to gain experience and aren’t title conscious, and are willing to lop off silly corporate constructs such as the word “Senior” or “Executive” from your title for a clearly better opportunity, you are the ideal candidate. But not for our corporate culture, which as a heavily matrixed, hierarchical organization, is obsessed with titles as a designator of worth. Without them, how would you know your place?
  5. If you don’t require relo, work for a brand name company and have the same title as the position you’re applying for, then it’s on to the first listed experience on the resume. Then we become Goldilocks … too heavy or too light? Here’s a rule of thumb. Refer back to the job description. Take the number of years of experience and add two … postings are a lot like dating in reverse. If the job’s looking for five years, the recruiter is looking for seven; 10 years means 12, and so on, until you hit the 20-year mark, whereby it’s onto the next resume because you’re “overqualified.” Besides, anyone who began their career prior to 1985 likely wears cardigans, talks about Andy Rooney around the water cooler, and will complain incessantly about how cold the office is when they’re not using their Dictaphones to compose correspondence. It’s a strange new world out there … and your Facebook page does little to convince the recruiter otherwise. Although interesting Matlock widget … It’s all about millennial now, which is why recent college grads are so successful in finding immediate, meaningful employment.
  6. Education check: Recruiters assign a baseline value of zero for a bachelor’s degree in a related discipline, which is to say, none of you crazy liberal or fine arts majors who spent your way doping through college while the rest of us were studying differential calculus need apply. We’re still bitter. A.A. on a resume? Take 12 steps back. Add one point for a Master’s, add two points for an M.B.A. (2.5 if it’s from a top-25 program), and subtract one point for a PhD. You’re probably either too smart to function here, or you’ve come crawling back from the Ivory Tower with a foiled plan B and the debt to prove it. Subtract the term “viable candidate” if secondary education has come from an institution whose admissions criteria involve clicking through pop-up ads or calling an 800 number on the side of the bus. While you’re obviously easy to close, we’ve got our shareholders to think about, and you’ve demonstrated little knowledge of the concept of “ROI.” The Phoenix will rise from the ashes only in myth. In reality, you should have saved those 30k for the premiums you’re about to pay on our “comprehensive” health benefits package. Oh, yeah. And we offer tuition reimbursement. Eh, too late.

Average time for these steps for an experienced corporate recruiter: 15 to 20 seconds. If you pass this initial scan, maybe then we’ll drill down past the keywords, unless you’re so impressive you’re out of our price range.

Alternatively, if you have a funny name, or if there’s obvious irony (a “Lean Executive” at Krispy Kreme, for instance, or the recent Monster headline, “Desperate Single Mom Willing To Do Anything”) or mention your work as a runway model or professional athlete, prepare to have your resume circulated to the entire staffing department.

Of course, what do I know? If I was such an expert, I’d have a job. Like being a professional resume writer.

This article is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended to offer specific legal advice. You should consult your legal counsel regarding any threatened or pending litigation.

  • Deborah Exo

    Love the post (irony, humor, cynicism)…and trying to deal with the reality of the information on your blog. Swallowing hard!

  • Ron Lyon

    What would you all tell someone that got one of those Phoenix degree, but went on to a traditional college and earned an MBA. Leave the B.S> degree on or off the reusme?

  • Ken Lipinski

    Personally, I wouldn’t ignore a degree from the University of Phoenix, I just don’t score it as highly as I would from a traditional university. I still think it has some value. The traits that make someone pursue an education, and the dedication required to pay for someplace like that are noteworthy, even if the quality of the education isn’t as high as it would be from another school.

    I would recommend leaving it on your resume. It may not help you get past a quick screen like Matt describes, but I don’t think it will necessarily hurt you either.

  • Sheri Birnbaum

    I appreciate your frankness. I don’t agree with a lot of what you say. I understand humor was the basis of your posting but so was reality.

    It’s a new era. Many recruiters complain about how bad resumes are that have been “professionally” rewritten by resume-writing companies. I think it’s a waste of money to pay for a rewrite because each resume is tailored for a particular job. One resume may morph into one hundred and yes, the writing may slip. I ignore some of that and just fix it prior to sending the resume on to a company (always with the submitter’s permission).

    We are asking for an ideal person who can perform several roles rather than just one. Yes, resumes are not as cleanly written as they used to be and I understand that.

    Finally, let us not forget about the numerous recruiters not from the U.S. and how poorly worded those postings are.

  • Randall Davis

    Wow! First I’d like to thank you for an entertaining insight into the resume screening process recruiters use. Honestly, I’m saddened at the approach described here. While your article is somewhat funny, it has little basis in reality. I’m not an attorney, but I’m thinking this approach may even be actionable.

    • Age discrimination – I’ve worked for people over 55 and never heard or saw anything like you described, the ones I know are sharp and up-to-date on everything

    • A black-listed ACCREDITED school – FYI, University of Phoenix is not just an online school. They have always offered on-campus classes. They are accredited, the coursework is solid (did I mention accredited) and it attended my motivated adults – unlike some of the party hard liberal arts types that you’re still bitter about. I know because I’ve attended on-campus business classes at both Party State U and UOPX. I dropped out of Party U in my sophomore year, got a decent job and have been earning a masters-level income without a degree. As a working adult learner I went back to finish my degree ON CAMPUS at the UOPX because they offered an ACCREDITED DEGREE program that fit my schedule – by the way, I had tuition reimbursement too. The dig you made at UOPX really got me fired up because of how wrong you are. I could go on, but I’ll stop here

    • Black-listed companies – you’re passing on a candidate even though that person likely had nothing to do with the reason for the scandal or acquisition and likely is a talented professional

    If this really is indicative of your profession’s approach, it’s time to re-evaluate! Get a real world education on the traits and characteristics that enable people to be successful and then match the right traits, education, and experience to the traits and knowledge needed to be successful in the position you’re client is looking to fill.

    The type of profiling described here is preventing your clients from getting top talent and giving your profession a well deserved black-eye in the minds of the candidates who never get any feedback – even though they know they’re perfect for the position they’ve taken the effort to apply for. I bet you’ve discovered this in your search now that you’re “one of them.”

    Good luck with your search.

  • Ajay Jetti

    Terse yet a breath of fresh air.
    “I wish I had time to recruit.” It’s a matter of simple math, assuming, like most of us “lazy” recruiters, you work a 10 hour day, and it’s always a working lunch. Most of us carry about 10-20 open jobs at any one time. Ballparking from experience, the average experienced, non manager posting receives around 250 applicants, averaging out the executive jobs (think, Cecil B. DeMille and a cast of thousands) and extremely niche searches (think, self-distributed indie film with no marketing budget).

    What are the odds that we still end up with another 250? for the same title!!

  • Sheri Birnbaum

    A) Job seekers are frequently advised to add a cover letter and it’s mandatory. This helps weed out the initial round of people who cannot communicate at basic levels and aren’t smart enough to get someone to write it for them. It takes about 1 – 2 seconds to scan. What exactly is the problem here?
    B) What recruiters look at mailing addresses? Job seekers may be bombarded with postings in Timbuktu. Many recruiters these days haven’t a clue how far a position is from the seeker’s home.
    C) These days, if you insist one’s recent job title be equal to what they’re applying for, you are missing out on many qualified applicants. The market has dramatically changed; you’re living with old-world ideas.
    D) In a market that’s economically unsound, why would you think resume-writing services offer something valuable other than for the R-W company? In addition, seekers are constantly told to tailor their resume to the job specs making their ostensibly initial investment worthless.
    E) You complain about poorly-written resumes. One “baseline” resume may have morphed into 100 tailored ones. I understand it. Job-seekers complain about the borderline illegible (yes, illegible though typed) job postings riddled with poor English and contradictions.

    Your article makes an attempt at humor. I found it offensive and a reason why so many good recruiters don’t remain in the field very long.

  • Joshua Letourneau

    Sheri, you got me thinking in regards to one of your comments about titles. What are your thoughts on the following?
    I’m an Exec Recruiter, so I don’t operate in an Internal Recruitment capacity, however . . . if I was in a leadership position internally, I would see value in utilizing ‘different’ titles than the same jobs at my competitors. Why? Because I would understand that many Recruiters would look right past them in their search for the *same* (or *extremely similar*) title. Simply shifting a title would reduce the probability that someone would be sourced or contacted by the competition. It would take more time and thought to make the association, so ‘screeners’ (who are different than real recruiters) will keep on going and going and going . . . screening for same or similar titles. Screeners aren’t paid to think – they’re paid to screen, which is why the Sourcing industry is dying off; well, I mean the Sourcing industry that doesn’t want to pick up a phone and actually recruit anyone. Technoloyg, in large part, replaced this approach. Screening content on the web is now commoditized and is a fungible skill.
    There are people in our space making good money today by consulting in regards to title permeation . . . within the Defense industry. Large Defense Firms often have somewhat cryptic titles . . . although they are all basically the same role (obviously the applications are slightly different, such as working on a fixed-wing versus rotary-wing aircraft, etc.)
    Just something to think about . . .

  • Joshua Letourneau

    P.S. Sorry, I mean ‘Technology’, not ‘Technoloyg’ . . . however, ‘Technoloyg’ sounds a little funnier and could probably a some dual meaning somewhere:)

  • John Hennessy

    I’m not sure whether to laugh or scream in response to the original article and the comments. Maybe I will do both and drop a barbed hook in the water…

    In the old days of break-bulk cargo and longshoremen, to get hired for a day’s work you turned up outside the dock gates with everyone else. The gang bosses stood up on soap boxes and picked the people they wanted. Everyone else wandered off home or to the bar. Seems to me that the modern methods differ only in placing the gang boss out of direct reach!


  • Todd Lempicke

    This post seems to have a life of its own!

    If it wasn’t for the fact that employers want people with certain educational backgrounds, years of experience, locations, titles, salary histories, skills, experiences, awesome track records, personal qualities, a super high energy level and whatever other intangible quality that can be imagined, recruiting would be a total piece of cake. Just show up at the dock, point to someone and get a check. :)

  • Darrin Grella

    I performed some recent research on this topic for a book that I am finishing up on Interviewing and it is interesting the statistics we saw.

    43% of 2000 people surveyed said they spend one minute or less looking at a resume and 14% spend less than 30 seconds reviewing them.

    For a document that so many people put so much time, effort, energy and money into, it sure does not create a big leverage point.

    Thanks for posting.

  • Gerry Crispin

    Darrin, not surprising. 57% that responded more than a minute (on average) are either inefficient or reluctant to tell you the truth. I’m of the opinion that 30 seconds is too much for an initial scan ( and that is for the ones that appear from a search of the ATS that they have all the criteria requested).

    If you were a recruiter handling 30 openings in your in-box in some stage of closure(assume you fill 120 openings a year) and a flow of 300 resumes per opening is average 9conservative), how would you structure your initial scan of approximately 40,000 resumes a year into your daily full life cycle tasks? Remember to leave some sourcing time to woo various passive candidates with no resume to submit and application.

    Assuming you can digitally search the stack, most build a set of hurdles so that the final candidates get serious time devoted to their profiles.

    I’m surprised your data is so high. Whenever I “watch” someone work, it never takes that long.

  • Darrin Grella

    Gerry – I completely agree. I was shocked at the outcome of the survey. Out of the 2000 surveyed some people consisted of recruiters, HR professionals and actual hiring authorities. My assumption of the data was that hiring authorities may invest more time into a resume when they are about to interview a person. Obviously they are not looking at 40K per year but more than likely 10 – 30 per year / give or take.
    Does that make sense? That is my take on it. But I do agree with you, any more than 10 second on a resume is time wasted.
    Thanks for you insight.

  • John Hennessy

    well it just keeps on…

    I just had a screening interview and it brought this thread back to mind. The screener told me she had 6 people to talk to and that there would be a real interview for those that got through the screen later this week. Now I can believe that there are 5 other people as qualifies as I am for this job (technology startup, marketing, exploration industry, Canadian) – but can any of you professionals help me understand what value the screener brought to the process? As far as I can see, all that happened was a paid impediment to the company principals getting to talk to the real talent.

    OK I am biased and bitter, but the thread makes me believe that resumes are a waste of time – if they are more than 20 words long – and that the fate of industry often rests in hands that are very poorly qualified to direct it!


    (p.s. – on the subject of hours – any job I’ve ever excelled at required MINIMUM 60 hours per week, being paid for 37.5 of them…)

  • Toni Gatlin

    To the last comment (John Hennessy)– I can understand your frustration, but the screener’s value is to the client, not to the candidate. Now a screener/recruiter who is doing their job well won’t treat you like a commodity, but nevertheless, our job is to find the right talent and simply filter out the rest.

  • John Hennessy

    Well, I would agree, except that the post in question requires a knowledge of a lot of technology, a lot of marketing, a lot5 about the oil business and a lot of start-up experience. If there are only 6 candidates abd each gets a ten mi8nute call, what value is thsi (external, consultant) screener adding? Believe me the person in question has no knowledge of any of the fields I listed – so why on earth are they between me and the company? I am asking this in all honesty – I simply cannot see the value.

    As an aside, to counter my questioning value, I will also tell you that I think the true value of consulting in my game – marketing – is $75/hour and that anyone asking for more will soon be in for a shock!


  • Joshua Letourneau

    John, your post here brings up an important point of what the screener is actually doing. Let me provide a high-level overview of what is occurring. As a candidate, you have the right to know how hiring processes play out, and more importantly, knowledge is power. If you know what is being evaluated by the recruiter/screener, you have a stronger probability of positioning yourself properly.

    At screening stage 1, the screener is culling through the resumes that happened to make it through the ATS (Applicant Tracking System) due to keyword filtering logic. In 10 seconds or less, they’re making a determination if the system had a hiccup or not. It’s more QA than anything else. In screening stage 1, the screener’s value is mitigation of opportunity cost in regards to the Hiring Manager. Even if they are paid the same amount (hourly, annually, etc.) as the Hiring Manager, there is opportunity cost involved. As you can tell, it’s not a perfect solution, and in my estimation, screening stage 1 (QA) is in significant decline as technology improves and systems ‘learn’ from themselves (I’m mainly speaking in regards to semantic technologies).

    At screening stage 2, which is where you are currently situated, the screener is providing more value than at stage 1. The reason is because there is actual 2-way communication occurring. Keep in mind that it is at this stage that the screener is trying to qualify candidates based on criteria that may not be listed in the job description. For example, perhaps “Oil Industry Experience” was too broad and many good candidates (on paper, or at stage 1) did not have the specialized Oil sector experience that the Hiring Manager was really looking for. This goes to the validity and accuracy of the initial job description, which is a whole other bag of beans. Most job descriptions are created on the fly, with copy & paste taking a front seat so the Hiring Manager or Recruiter can “knock it out as soon as possible.”

    It’s my humble opinion that GIGO is at play here – the necessity for multiple steps of screening, interviewing, etc., can often be reduced greatly through a proper job description. Kudos to Gerry Crispin for his ongoing efforts to create a standard along with SHRM – I would have liked to have been involved, but am already spread too thin and knew it would be an injustice to be involved with little to no time to spend contributing.

    To get back on track, screening stage 2 is all about identifying what the recruiter/screener is looking for (meaning the competencies and skills not listed in the initial job description). If it’s a highly critical or pivotal role, Great recruiters will have an initial discover session with the Hiring Manager prior to publishing the job description . . . however I see this occurring less and less in our space. Again, GIGO, but I digress. The best thing you can do early in the initial phone screen (stage 2), is to specifically ask “what the organization is looking for in the ideal candidate.” If you don’t do this, John, the probability of you having a ‘super’ phone screen is slim to none. Ask the question and don’t leave this to chance. In fact, once they answer, ask, “What else?” At this point, the recruiter/screener will realize you’re a player in the game . . . and most candidates tell me they can hear a shift in tone and substance as soon as that follow-on question is asked.

    I wish you the best of luck, John. Interviewing is a game, or better, a dance of sorts. If you know the steps, you’re less likely to fumble and step on your own (or your partner’s) feet.

  • David Lynn

    Good article, Matt! Maintaining your sense of humor will serve you well as you continue your search!

    But, it looked (for a moment) like Josh was going to try to contend with you on who put forth the funnier observations. Just as you represented the corporate recruiter perspective, he weighed in on behalf of the ever popular everyone-who-has-never-been-a-corporate-recruiter-but-thinks-they-know-how-to-do-the-job-better types with his witty comments like “Newsflash/Reality Check: This job is cake.” What a funny guy!

    Josh was on a roll (he made a number of other hysterical comments) but lost the momentum with his assertion that “if I was in a leadership position internally, I would see value in utilizing ‘different’ titles than the same jobs at my competitors. Why? Because I would understand that many Recruiters would look right past them in their search for the *same* (or *extremely similar*) title. Simply shifting a title would reduce the probability that someone would be sourced or contacted by the competition.” Funny? Absolutely. But if it sounds familiar, it should.

    It was done (in mass public circulation) several years ago by…Catbert and the Pointy-Haired Boss in Dilbert. In recruiting terms, I believe that’s what’s known as being priored.

  • Joshua Letourneau

    David, glad I could make your day. My comment about this job being “cake” is in comparison to positions that are not; positions that I reference such as being a doctor with a dying patient on the operating table and/or a Marine Infantryman on patrol in Iraq. Relatively speaking, it’s my contention that this job is “cake”. That doesn’t mean you have to agree – most Recruiters don’t. We’re adults; We can agree to disagree.

    In regards to Catbert, nobody here is claiming anyone to be an “Evil Director of Human Resources”, however I might ask how why this character was created in the first place. In addition, how did he become so popular? It sure wasn’t my doing.

    Based upon what I can understand about Crosswind Ventures, it would appear that you’d agree with some of my points. I can tell you one of your own that I agree with, posted here on ERE, on the value of actual conversations with candidates:

    “Truly great recruiters are outstanding in how they deal with real people, in live conversations, in real time.”

    In recruiting terms, I believe that’s what known as being inconsistent.

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  • Cindy Kraft

    As a career coach (who also writes resumes) and works with candidates rather than companies, I’ll jump in the fray knowing I’m in the minority.

    Matthew, your article was quite funny … and … your flippant and dismissive attitude is also why candidates continually bad-mouth the recruiting industry. You talk about how resume writers are vultures preying on the unemployed; however, please remember we are on the side of the job seeker. I dare say, many in your industry ignore any candidate who can’t ensure they get a big fat corporate commission.

    Now, on to more civil matters. For the record, very few of my clients are unemployed. I specialize in working with senior finance executives and almost all of them come to me in anticipation of making a move. They know they have value, but they are numbers guys, not marketers, and they need help gaining that clarity. Just like all recruiters are not the same, neither are all resume writers. While a client typically comes to me for a resume, what he really needs is an understanding of two things: 1) what does he have that a client is willing to pay to get, and 2) how does he get on the radar screen of his target market.

    There’s an old story about a guy who took his car to the garage to be fixed. When he looked at the $300 bill, he saw it took a $1.25 part to fix it. When he asked about the reasonableness of such a high total invoice, the auto mechanic looked him in the eye and said … the value is in knowing which part and where to put it.

    It’s the same for us … we bring an outside perspective of how to best market our clients and while they come to us for a resume, we also deliver a very valuable intangible … an understanding of how to clearly articulate their marketable value proposition.

    I force my clients to get clear about their differentiation and the audience they want to serve. That ensures that they do not waste time playing the posted position game trying to be all things to all people, nor do they need multiple resumes. Rather, they know their niche and their target and they can execute a focused and effective search strategy.

    I work closely with several finance recruiters because they recognize that when their candidates look great, they look great; and because I have the quality candidates they are seeking.

    Your writing is witty, Matthew, and we will just have to agree to disagree on the value of quality career coaches / resume writers.

    Cindy Kraft, the CFO-Coach

  • Jonathan Duarte

    After hearing that Matt’s post was one of the most commented on ERE in 2009, I decided to take a 2nd read, and reveiw the comments.

    As 2009 comes to a close, I wonder how many job seekers have actually read this article. I doubt many, so I’m going to republish and put a link on my blog.

    I encourage others to do the same as well.

    Happy 2010!

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  • helping you hire

    Hi Matt, I am a recruiter as well providing Staffing Solutions and Staffing Services and I truly enjoyed this article; it is absolutely hilarious and quite accurate!! I find myself falling into many of these habits while sourcing candidates (and may even be guilty of forwarding some badly formatted LinkedIn profiles to Hiring Managers!) This gave me a chuckle and brightened my day.

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