Bullet Point to the Head

Jul 30, 2009
This article is part of a series called Opinion.

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 part of a series called Opinion.
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