Hiring isn't always foremost on your mind when you're immersed in the endless task of keeping your business running smoothly. Hiring may be an infrequent need, and you may not do enough of it to become comfortable with the process. But, for obvious reasons, finding and keeping good employees is vitally important to you.
If your organization is large enough to have human resource practitioners who screen resumes and perhaps even conduct screening interviews, you might not be overly concerned about questionable information. But if you screen resumes and set up your own interviews, you'll find it helpful to identify the questions they raise. Having done so, you can more readily decide who to interview and what questions to ask.
Before describing resume trouble spots that should raise serious questions, consider this precaution about resumes overall: Although estimates vary widely, it's likely that as many as half of all resumes include exaggerations and misrepresentations and a significant proportion include outright falsehoods. With this in mind, consider the following trouble spots that should encourage you to question what's on paper.
Gaps in chronology. When you review a resume, you should be able to track the individual's work and educational history so you can reasonably account for what the person was doing at most times. A gap of a few weeks here and there may be normal, but a lengthy gap—say, for example, two or three years—should raise questions. Reasons for a long gap may be legitimate, but often a prolonged gap can mean something the person wishes to hide, such as a prison term or an employment that ended in being fired serious misconduct.
Indefinite dates of employment. This appears on many resumes and is often an individual's way of concealing gaps or making it appear that he has more experience than was actually the case. The person who claims employment at “Ajax Company, 2005-2006” is either a careless resumes writer or is hoping the reader will assume this means two years experience when, in fact, it might have been as brief as two or three months. The better resumes show at least month and year for the start and finish of each employment.
Description of educational qualifications. Formal education is often expressed in a manner meant to make the busy reader assume the person graduated when, in fact, only a portion of a program may have been completed. A sketchy entry like “State University, Chemistry, 2004” should always raise questions. Even supposedly complete information should often be questioned and educational qualifications should routinely be verified; recent estimates suggest that as many as 10 percent of job applicants claiming college degrees do not actually hold degrees.
Inclusion of forbidden information. In this age of anti-discrimination legislation, employers are forbidden to base employment decisions on personal information (age, gender, race, marital or family status, etc.). Yet there's no prohibition against applicants putting personal information in their resumes. This is occasionally done for two reasons: to influence a hiring decision (for example, “sole supporter of disabled spouse”) or to set the stage for a discrimination complaint (for example, “They didn't hire me because they know I'm pregnant”). Any resume that's loaded with personal information presents a risk; once you've seen this information and know it's there, no matter how good you are at keeping it out of your decision process, someone can always claim you were biased by this knowledge.
A resume too obviously tailored to your specific opening. Many resume writers know that it makes sense to emphasize those specifics of background and experience that best match the requirements of the job. But this customizing can be taken too far. When you see a resume that matches all of your requirements right down the line, you can be certain it contains a great deal of “puff”—unless the person has been working in an identical position elsewhere.
There are a few other turnoffs that may be encountered occasionally. One is the lengthy resume with many pages of detailed experience and accomplishments. A resume is a door opener only, and most managers who review resumes like to see them limited to two pages at most. Another is the applicant's photograph attached to a resume; an employer can't legally ask for a photo, and supplying one is supplying prohibited personal information.
What to do when some of the foregoing trouble spots appear in a resume? That's entirely up to you. You might wish to pursue an interview, using the inconsistencies you observe as the basis for thoughtful questioning. Or, if two or three of the more extensive trouble spots appear, you may want to pass on that resume and move to the next.