Corner Office: Spot the Hype in Resumes

When Lily Tomlin observed, "No matter how cynical you become, it's never enough to keep up," she probably didn't have resumes in mind.

But you should, because too many people out there are, well, creative. Some submit resumes far funnier than anything you'll see on TV tonight.

If you doubt it, Robert Half, a veteran of the temporary staffing industry and an expert recruiter, collects what he calls "resumania." A few samples:

"Education: Married junior year at University of Florida, twins 10 months later."

"I have incredibly entertaining hair."

"I have mobile living equipment and can live on-site if needed."

Granted, few resumes are that entertaining. But they may not be very helpful, either. Remember that what you see as basic information the candidate sees as unabashed marketing. And marketing, as we know, isn't rich with truth.

Half reports that surveys done by his company, Robert Half International, show that 30 percent of job seekers lie on their resumes. Many of the rest exaggerate.

None of this gives you license to throw a stack of resumes down a flight of stairs and hire the people whose resumes get to the bottom. For one thing, enough resumes are totally legit to keep things interesting. For another, jurors are more kindly disposed to managers who hire using some sort of uniform rationale. Resumes are the best place to start.

Take Action

Give resumes a careful reading. Here's how.

Presentation counts. Give priority to resumes accompanied by a cover letter. Look for resumes that are typeset or created in a word-processing program (as opposed to handwritten carelessly), and printed on something other than an old napkin or the reverse side of a grocery list. Deduct points for changes made by hand or cute symbols like smiley faces.

Beware of hyperbole. Suppose, for example, a resume states "Set new sales record." It sounds impressive. But guessing all the things it might mean while still being 100 percent accurate could keep a frat house busy all weekend. "Set new record for lowest sales" and "set a record for new sales while losing all existing clients" are two that come to mind.

Beware of name droppers. If a candidate cites experience at a brand-name employer, make sure his or her experience is relevant. Flipping burgers or dressing as a giant mouse may not prepare him for the work you need done.

Beware of job hoppers. You want employees with ambition. But if a candidate has a history of changing jobs every 18 months, beware. Odds are that the employee wouldn't stay with you any longer, which means you'll never see a return on your investment in hiring and training. There may be instances when frequent job changes genuinely were beyond the candidate's control. If a candidate is otherwise topnotch, inquire about job changes in the interview.

Look for gaps.Candidates who drop out of the work force temporarily for legitimate reasons (a job search or protected leave) usually say so. If they don't, something has been omitted for a reason. Did the candidate spend time in prison as a convicted felon? Get fired for embezzling or sexual harassment? Spend a long time collecting unemployment because other people were smart enough not to hire him?

Beware of career students. Recent college graduates have reason to emphasize their education. Candidates who have earned a degree while working full time are justified for tooting their own horns. For everyone else, education should be given less emphasis than work experience. There's a reason they call life off campus the "real world."

Beware extraneous data. Sure, you want a well-rounded candidate, but that doesn't mean you need to know about their pets, voting history or must-see TV shows. It's helpful to know that she's joined professional associations to network or to hone her skills. It's less helpful for you to know about her membership in the Book of the Month Club or frequent-flier program.

Logic counts. Look for job history in chronological order. Organization by function or other order that makes you work to figure out job tenure and history has probably been packaged to conceal something.

Spot the top candidates by looking for the following:

Specific accomplishments. Are there concrete examples of what the candidate has accomplished? Or glittering generalities about their responsibilities? In sales, for example, look for dollar volume, market share, or increased percentage in sales. Market data and timelines are an added bonus: "As sales rep for one of five national territories, moved sales from lowest market share against four competitors to highest market share in 18 months."

Training. Does the candidate indicate any special training he has had? Depending on your business, anything from university extension courses to conference seminars could be helpful.

Customization. Has the resume been drafted for your job — or at least a similar job — or is it a generic one-size-fits-all resume?

Career progress. Has the candidate made job changes leading to progressively more responsibility and higher pay, or simply seem stuck? Does the candidate seem to have a career plan?

Does the candidate focus on the bottom line? Does he mention cutting costs or making money?

Stay Out of Jail

If candidates include personal information in their resumes, ignore it when evaluating their qualifications.

Keep all the resumes submitted in application for the job.

Be careful if you are fully reliant on resumes that have been scanned into databases. There have been legal challenges to resume scanning on the grounds the key words used adversely affect protected minorities.

Get More Information

Finding, Hiring and Keeping the Best Employees, Robert Half (John Wiley and Sons Inc., New York, 1993)

Hiring Smart!, Dr. Pierre Mornell (Ten Speed Press, Berkeley, Calif., 1998)

Smart Staffing, Wayne Outlaw (Upstart Publishing Co., Chicago, 1998)

Bob Rosner is the co-author of The Boss's Survival Guide (McGraw-Hill, 2001), along with Allan Halcrow, former editor of Workforce Magazine and Alan Levins, senior partner of San Francisco-based employer law firm Littler Mendelson. Rosner is also founder of the award-winning He can be reached via fax at (206) 780-4353, and via e-mail at: