What’s Wrong With Using Resumes For Hiring? Pretty Much Everything

Jul 16, 2012
This article is part of a series called Opinion.

If you’re getting low quality hires, it’s time to realize that the blind and uneducated use of resumes may be a main contributing factor (note that earlier this year I completed a similar analysis on interviews, the second major contributor to low quality hires). Resumes are the currency of recruiting. Job sites, recruiters, and hiring managers all require them and use them to screen both prospects and candidates in or out.

Because at least early on, resumes are the sole determinant as to whether a candidate moves forward or not in the hiring process, it’s important to understand their strengths and weaknesses. Many authors, (including myself and recruiting thought leader Kevin Wheeler) have been forecasting the demise of the resume for years. But despite their many faults, resumes have remained an essential part of the candidate assessment process. The premise of this article is that if you are going to continue to rely so heavily on resumes, everyone involved needs to be aware of each and every one of the many weaknesses and problems associated with using them.

The Top 30 Problems Related to Using Resumes for Hiring

The flaws, the weaknesses, and problems associated with resumes are many. I have listed the top 30 problems, divided into five distinct categories.

The top five factors that most negatively impact the quality of hire

Of all of the flaws, these five have the highest impact on new-hire quality.

  1. 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. The bias and selective memory of the candidate frequently results in a less-than-accurate description of what actually occurred. Obviously because resumes are essentially job histories, they don’t tell you anything about the person’s character, how they would act in your job, and their potential.
  2. Resumes frequently contain untruths and half-truths — the next-most-serious problem with resumes is that if you rely on them, you are likely making decisions based on falsehoods. Everyone that has researched them agrees, in fact, that as many as 80% of resumes contain misleading statements. And on average, 53% contain actual lies (The biggest offenders are college students, where 92% of them admit to lying on their resume). Even CEOs lie on their resumes (e.g. at Yahoo). And because references are not usually checked until the end of the hiring process, many candidates will likely move forward based on this false information. Those who are 100% honest may actually be penalized (or even screened out) because recruiters and hiring managers often “discount” what they find on resumes by as much as 30%, to take into account the expected “half-truth” percentage. Individuals in science, the law, or finance would simply laugh at any process that consciously makes decisions based on reports that are known to be so exaggerated.
  3. Negative information is omitted — in addition to inaccuracies, resumes have many omissions. The most significant omission is that resumes almost universally contain no negative or non-positive information. Even though everyone has made errors and bad decisions in almost every job, they will certainly not be prominently found in any resume. If someone has been convicted, flunked out of school, had a bad performance appraisal, gotten fired, or failed on a project, it will almost never be found in the resume. Even though this information may be found out later, many early-stage recruiting decisions will have already been made based on this incomplete information.
  4. Resumes do not cover the future or your firm — resumes are 100% historical, so at their very best they only cover what you have done in the past at other firms. However, those making the hiring decision need to project into the future. They need to know how you will act in this job and at this company when you are faced with this firm’s current and future problems. But unfortunately, resumes don’t include forecasts or projections on how you would act differently in this job and working environment.
  5. Requiring an updated resume will restrict applications — most companies absolutely require an updated resume in order to apply for a position or become an employee referral. But most employed individuals (the so-called passives) do not have an updated resume readily available. So, requiring one in order be considered for a position will eliminate many top potential candidates who simply can’t find the time in their busy schedule to update their resume. To further compound the problem, some individuals feel that updating their resume is an act of disloyalty, so they won’t take that action until they have made the final determination to leave (meaning they won’t apply for your job until they have updated their resume). And even those who have decided to leave may be leery that providing a resume may put their current job unnecessarily at risk if their boss were to find out (note: an alternative approach is to let the recruiter use a LinkedIn profile).

Content-related resume problems

What you include or don’t include in your resume will dramatically impact your score.

  1. Resumes contain no statement of accuracy — resumes are not an official document. In fact, resumes are not signed and they contain no statement from the candidate attesting to their accuracy and completeness.
  2. The information is not verified by the firm where they worked — as an employee leaves a firm, their manager or HR department will not likely ever see their resume, no less approve the content that is provided by the exiting employee. This means that an employee can say almost whatever they want without fear of contradiction. And because it’s common practice to limit job references to dates of employment, the flawed reference process will, in many cases, make it impossible to verify the actual content for a particular job. And unlike job application forms, resumes do not even contain a statement authorizing a firm to check an individual’s references.
  3. Applicants are not told what information to include — even if an applicant wanted to include all of the needed information, unlike an application form, hiring firms do not provide direction to them as to what information they need included in a resume in order to make a hiring decision. As a result, resumes are written 100% from the candidate’s perspective and candidates are forced to guess what information to include and exclude for each job.
  4. Resumes do not include information on all of the key assessment criteria — candidates are generally assessed on four criteria: 1) are they qualified? 2) are they available? 3) are they interested? and 4) do they fit? Because most resumes are really simply job histories, they thus only address the first criterion … are they qualified? But resumes do not contain information relative to the candidate’s current interest in this job, their relative availability for a new job, or their fit. To make matters worse, resumes generally do not cover other important differentiating criteria, including the candidate’s expectations, goals, motivators, energy, or innovativeness. Although this information might be in the cover letter, many recruiters never bother to read them. If you ask candidates a simple question — Does your resume accurately reflect what you are capable of doing? — the answer is almost always no.
  5. Many candidates are unaware of the powerful impact of keywords — some applicants have become key word experts. As a result, their resumes score higher when assessed by the ATS system, even though their skills and experience are identical to other applicants. If the applicant doesn’t fully understand the importance of using keywords in their resume and as result they take a casual approach toward including them, their resume will automatically be ranked lower. The key word problem can be further compounded if the individual applying comes from another industry, where completely different words are used (even though their words might mean the same thing, the ATS or the recruiter might miss them). Individuals who submit shorter resumes because of bad career advice may also suffer a keyword deficit.
  6. The candidate’s job results may be impossible to verify — many candidates fail to include the results and quantify their accomplishments, making the quality of their work difficult to assess. Others include results and numbers that may be exaggerated. Unfortunately, in most cases it is simply impossible for the resume reader to verify the accuracy of these numbers. To further compound the problem, with so many firms merging and going out of business, verification of any resume facts may not be possible because the firm no longer exists.
  7. The candidate’s contribution may also be exaggerated — from the writer’s perspective, a resume is essentially a “brag sheet,” so in addition to including business results, resume writers routinely try to expand their role or contribution to the results of a project or task. Even though the individual may have been part of the team, it’s impossible using the resume alone to accurately ascertain the actual role that this individual played in the task or accomplishment.
  8. Illegal and inappropriate information may be included — not every applicant is an HR expert, so some will inadvertently include illegal or inappropriate information (i.e. their picture, their age, hobbies, personal information, etc.). Using this information will cause legal difficulties but expunging it may be difficult and time-consuming.

Non-job related factors may impact the quality of the submitted resume

Regardless of your actual capabilities, there are many additional factors that will affect the assessment of your resume.

  1. Writing skills impact their content and their assessment score — even though a particular job may not require much or any writing, the writing skills of the applicant will dramatically affect the content and the impact of their resume. Even if you were a top performer, you likely won’t get full credit for it unless your writing skills are powerful.
  2. Help, resources, and repetition impacts their content — individuals who spend a great deal of time learning the elements of a great resume through coaching, books, or the Internet may become “resume experts.” As a result, they are much more likely to produce a resume that gets “high scores.” In addition, the resume of someone who has been rejected numerous times may eventually become significantly more polished than the resume of an individual with superior job skills, but rustyresume skills. In the case of resumes, practice does make perfect.
  3. Most candidates only have a single resume — because writing resumes is time consuming, most applicants only have a single resume to present. Unfortunately, the information provided in the standard “one-size-fits-all” resume may not match the specific information that is needed for an individual job. Individuals with the time to tailor their resume and keywords to a job and a company will often score higher than others with the same job skills.
  4. Employed individuals may be at a disadvantage — currently employed individuals are forced to limit the details that they provide in the resume about their current job (because of trade secrets and in case their current boss sees their resume). It’s also harder for them to polish the resume because they can’t freely post it or send it to many firms to get feedback.
  5. International applicants may be at a disadvantage — international applicants are more likely to include illegal or inappropriate information that may cause them to be rejected. There are also more likely to use unique or different keywords that might confuse recruiters or the ATS system. Language difficulties may result in bad grammar or misspellings, which is often the No. 1 cause of immediate resume rejection.

Format-related resume problems

The format used by the candidate may by itself cause difficulties.

  1. Accomplishments and skills may be omitted in some formats — many resume writers view resumes as merely summaries of their previous job responsibilities. As a result, they exclusively include only the duties and responsibilities from their job descriptions. However, this format will cause them to omit information on key assessment factors like skills, tools, and accomplishments (according to Careerbuilder, 30% of recruiters will reject a resume that doesn’t include a list of skills).
  2. There may be a bias against the functional resume format — in many organizations, there is a bias toward the chronological resume and against the functional format. Because under the functional format it’s often more difficult to find job experience at a particular company and work dates, some recruiters and hiring managers may give up prematurely when they can’t immediately find the information that they require. Others may make the assumption that functional resumes are used to “hide” job gaps and negative work experience, so they may also quickly reject candidates that use this format.
  3. The CV format may hurt some candidates — individuals who follow a CV format (curriculum vitae or curriculum life) may overly focus on their education, rather than the broader range of factors that will be assessed. As a result, using the format may mean a lower score for their resume.
  4. Paper resumes cause problems — at most corporations, individuals who submit paper resumes by mail or at career fairs cause problems because they must be scanned into the system. This adds costs and time to the recruiting process and the scanning process may result in scanning errors or the misreading of keywords. 

Problems with the typical resume assessment process

In addition to the resume itself, the resume screening process also has many serious flaws in most organizations.

  1. Resumes cannot be thoroughly read in six seconds — the average time that a recruiter spends reading a resume is a mere six seconds. Given the limited time spent on them, many key content elements will simply be missed. And to make matters worse, individual recruiters are not measured or ranked on the accuracy of their resume screening. Many firms use ATS software to analyze and rank resumes, so if the system is not programmed correctly and with the right keywords, a large number of errors can occur.
  2. There is no scoring sheet or documentation — because there is normally no standardized process for reviewing resumes across a corporation, individual recruiters and hiring managers may assess resumes in any manner they like. Even though reading and assessing a person based on their resume is a “test” in the legal sense, resume readers are seldom required to assess them based on a weighted job requirement scoring sheet, which would provide a higher level of consistency. Without a consistent process, a resume for the same job may be rejected one day but accepted the next! And in most cases, no documentation is retained as to why the individual was screened out or moved on in the process.
  3. Inappropriate knockout factors can be used — resume assessment is often done in private and without formal resume assessment training. As a result, it’s possible for individual recruiters or hiring managers to use non-job-related or even illegal factors to “knock out” the resumes of qualified individuals (i.e. estimated age, or sex, or race, the school that they attended, their zip code, etc.).
  4. The information is not in a standardized order for easy comparison — unlike application forms, the information provided in one resume will not be in the same order or format as the other resumes. This makes easy side-by-side comparisons of resumes for the same position extremely difficult.
  5. Multiple languages may make assessment difficult — if you’re conducting global hiring, you will receive resumes that are written in many different languages. Unless you specify a particular language, it will be extremely difficult to compare resumes written in different languages, even if you use a computer scanning or translation system.
  6. No feedback hurts your brand image — no firm that I have encountered provides candid feedback if they are rejected at the resume stage. This lack of feedback frustrates candidates and makes it difficult for them to improve. This lack of feedback degrades the candidate experience and your firm’s employer brand image.
  7. No resume screening metrics — no organization that I have been able to find uses formal metrics to assess the efficiency, validity, and reliability of their resume assessment process. And literally no one in HR checks to see if those with the highest-rated resumes (or interview scores) turn out to be the top performers on the job. Obviously it is also expensive to maintain a resume data base that meets legal requirements.
  8. No formal training — only a small number of firms actually take the time to train or educate all recruiters and hiring managers on how to accurately assess a candidate’s resume. This lack of training may have a major impact on the quality hires.

Possible alternatives to resumes

You might be curious about alternative or supplemental approaches that some firms use. These alternatives include:

  • An application form — formal application forms that everyone must fill out are superior because they specify the needed information. And because the information is in the same order and format, applications can be easily compared side-by-side.
  • A LinkedIn profile — LinkedIn profiles are available for most professionals and they do provide enough information for early assessment. Using this profile means that the individual doesn’t have to find the time to update their resume and because LinkedIn profiles can be viewed by so many, it’s also much more difficult to include inaccurate information in them.
  • A portfolio — a portfolio is either an electronic or a paper compilation of samples of the individual’s actual work. They are superior because “actual work samples” are almost always a better assessment device than the short “narrative description” of the work that appears in a resume.
  • Find their actual work on the Internet — in many cases it is possible to find and assess a candidate’s actual work on social media sites, on YouTube, or on the Internet.
  • Give them an actual work problem — asking them to solve a real-world work problem that they will encounter on the job (either in person or remotely) is perhaps the best assessment tool.
  • Contests — use online contests to identify and assess prospects by having them work on a real problem (example: IGN banned the submission of resumes and instead used it’s Code-Foo Challenge to assess and hire).
  • Technical tests — one underutilized tool that is beginning to see more use in organizations is technical skills or knowledge testing.
  • Interest and skills questionnaire — a candidate’s self-assessment of their own skills and interests can tell you if they are a good fit for your job and company.

Final Thoughts

In my experience, the often reported demise of the resume is once again premature because their use is simply too deeply entrenched. However, the way that most hiring professionals currently use resumes does deserve criticism and a reassessment. To start out, if your organization don’t have a formal process for avoiding the numerous resume weaknesses outlined above, at the very least an audit should be undertaken of your resume assessment process (for example — one large firm put the disguised resumes of their top five engineers through their own ATS screening process and two of the five were screened out).

Another step to take is to educate your recruiters and hiring managers so they know and fully understand each of their potential problems listed here. And finally, you should consider supplementing the use of resumes and interviews by giving top applicants actual work problems to solve. This is because actual solutions tailored to your environment are almost always superior predictors of on-the-job success to written or verbal narrative descriptions of the past.

This article is part of a series called Opinion.
Get articles like this
in your inbox
Subscribe to our mailing list and get interesting articles about talent acquisition emailed weekly!