Got a Minute? If So, Spend it Looking at Resumes

May 3, 2012
This article is part of a series called Opinion.

I recently read an article suggesting that recruiters only spend six seconds reviewing a resume to determine whether or not a candidate was a fit to the job they were attempting to fill.

6 Seconds?!

My initial thought was, “How can a recruiter get enough information to determine whether or not a candidate is worth talking to in such a sparse amount of time?”

Upon further investigation into the original research by TheLadders, it occurs to me that the study is little more than an attempt to sell its resume writing services and show that recruiters have an easier time reading TheLadders profiles than LinkedIn profiles. It suggests that if a recruiter is only spending six seconds reviewing a candidate’s resume or online profile, then it better be professionally written. And it has a service that can do that for you.

The fact that the study happened over a 10-week period and only had 30 participants is of concern to me. This can’t be an accurate representation of professional recruiters; however, the results bring up some interesting points having to do with the six-second reviews that are definitely worth discussion.

First, let me provide an overview of the research.

Thirty recruiters participated in the study over a 10-week period. They investigated three areas:

  1. Did recruiters perceive and process professionally written resumes differently than resumes written by the job seekers?
  2. How long did recruiters take to review each resume?
  3. What process do recruiters use to scrutinize online profiles?

Recruiters gave professionally written resumes a 60% higher “readability” score than candidate written resumes. Professionally written resumes scored higher from an organizational and visual standpoint. Recruiters were distracted from pertinent candidate information by ads and pictures on online profiles. The researchers used “gaze tracking” technology and determined that recruiters spent nearly 80% of their time reviewing the following items:

  • Name
  • Current title/company
  • Previous title/company
  • Previous position start/end dates
  • Current position start/end dates
  • Education

After looking at these six items, “recruiters did little more than scan for keywords to match the open position…” Consequently, the rest of the resume copy had little to no impact on a recruiter’s decision to move forward or not. This was where the six-second review came in.

Additionally, the research indicated that Ladders profiles were 55% easier to read than LinkedIn profiles due to the higher levels of visual complexity on LinkedIn profiles, and 19% of time was spent looking at LinkedIn profile pictures.

The net of the research was to use professional resume writers and omit distracting visuals. In summary, use the format that TheLadders uses.

There is certainly validity to having a quality resume, and in the spirit of full disclosure I employ a resume writer for the work I do with my private clients. I don’t have the skills to write a quality resume for them so I employ a professional. That said, she writes each resume based on what the client and I decide is best and will be most effective.

Who Were These 30 Recruiters?

After reading the results I wondered who these recruiters were, whether they do retained or contingent work, whether they are corporate or third party, and what types and levels of candidates they were screening. When I was recruiting full time, the only time I spent a mere six seconds on a resume was when it was total crap, and that was few and far between.

There’s a Bee in my Bonnet

Since the six-second thing had clearly put a bee in my bonnet, I decided to do a study of my own to see what results I would get. I asked three questions that would take about five minutes in order to encourage the greatest number of responses. Here are the questions I asked:

  1. How much time do you spend reviewing each resume? Is there a period of time in which you initially look at it and then read on or not? What are you looking for when reviewing a resume (keywords, past companies, education, etc.)? Please be as specific as possible in your response.
  2. Are you a third-party recruiter, or corporate recruiter? If you are a third party, please note if you do primarily retained or contingent work.
  3. How many years have you been a recruiter? Please only include time you were directly recruiting, not managing recruiters.

In hindsight, the one question I neglected to ask was the types and levels of candidates each respondent recruits. It would have provided further insight into the question of review time. I know a good number of the respondents and will provide my assertions to this missing question.

I kept the survey open for one week and had more respondents than TheLadders survey did.

In House or Agency

Of the total number of respondents:

Corporate Recruiter — 59%

Third Party Recruiter — 41%

Of the third-parties, 90% do primarily contingent work. The other 10% do primarily retained work, which included RPOs.

I must admit that I was hoping for more responses from the retained folks I sent this to, as I think it would have provided more comprehensive results.

Nearly 41% of respondents have greater than 15 years’ experience, and 70% have greater than 10 years’ experience recruiting.

The table at right compares the percentage of respondents in each “years of experience” category:

And below that table, is a look at the time spent in resume review (click to enlarge any of these).

Quick Decisions on Fit

There were some commonalities for both corporate and third-party recruiters. The more recruiting experience a recruiter had, the more time they tended to spend in the initial review. The only exception to this were corporate recruiters with 3-5 years experience; they spend less time in review than corporate recruiters with <3 years experience. There were exceptions on each end of the spectrum for both types of recruiters that skewed the data a bit, but I did not exclude it. For example, in all but one experience category for corporate recruiters, there was one respondent who reviewed resumes for less than 10 seconds.

The most interesting finding was that corporate recruiters consistently spend less time in resume review. Given this information, I will assert that corporate recruiters, by and large, have a much greater number of open requisitions they work on concurrently than third parties; consequently, they don’t take as much time reviewing resumes because they don’t have the time. It’s also likely that they are trained to look for certain skills for their companies. This theory also holds true with third-parties. I know some of the respondents spending the smallest amount of time in resume review and they are reviewing lower level candidates. They can determine “fit” in a small amount of time. Those who generally spend more time in review are looking for more complex qualities, skills, and abilities, which take a bit more time.

3-Second Scan

My assertions were confirmed by the feedback I received. Here are some examples:

“I wish I had more time to go over each resume but I can get 100s in a day sometimes.”

“ … very specific requirements and if they have not been this type of admin before, they are disqualified.”

“I am recruiting for 15 top priority openings, so I have to be as speedy as possible…”

“If it has the right buzzwords in the first summary paragraph I can say in three seconds I’ll decide to continue reading.”

“In six seconds I’m able to scan for companies, position, education, and keywords.”

“I look for education, keywords and past companies.”

“When I am reviewing a resume I am scanning for keywords, education, minimum requirements, preferred requirements, and dates of service.”

“I look for key experience and education upon first review of resumes.”

“I review current position and if it is a match of skills, I continue looking at past work history to see how many changes they have made in their career.”

“I look for relevant buzzwords, relevant companies to my current searches and most of all — very specific accomplishments.”

“I pay no attention to long lists of keywords or functional paragraphs at the top of the resume that are not in context of company.”

“I look at companies listed, are they known, Tier 1, etc. I typically pass on a resume with no tier 1 experience.”

“Keywords are CRITICAL.”

It is clear from these responses that the common denominators are keywords, education, companies, and skills. These comments confirm what TheLadders’ study indicates: 80% of time is spent on these items. These qualities are important, but I have to wonder if this isn’t limiting/excluding quality candidates who may not have the “right” words on their resumes. What if a candidate has worked for a company that is a great match but the recruiter reading it isn’t familiar with the company? Will it get discarded because it doesn’t have the “right” companies on it?

Ultimately, this is a far more complex subject (there’s just not time or space here) and it loops back to the processes that companies have in place to attract, recruit, and retain talent. Too many companies merely look to duplicate skills and abilities of their successful employees without looking at the common denominators of all their people, which includes cultural fit. There is no clear alignment between talent strategy and business strategy. Clear alignment and a talent process that supports it opens a window into what companies truly need to be looking for. If you are committed to making a difference at your company and with your clients, take the time to talk to your decision-makers and offer to help them do this. It will increase revenue for you and them in the long run. 

Got a Minute?

Given my results, I now feel more skeptical of the research done by The Ladders as well as its validity; however, in case there are great numbers of recruiters out there spending an average of six seconds to determine candidate fit, I’d like to request that you commit to more time. There may be candidates who could be perfect for you who haven’t gotten a resume professionally prepared. Make an attempt to read between the lines. Candidates are far more than just a resume. Think of how you’d want to be viewed. Take an extra minute or two.

This article is part of a series called Opinion.
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