Reading Between the Resume Lines

Mark administers testAlthough I have never hired anyone for a job, I have been very close to a few people who have, and I have witnessed the torments that these employers put themselves through when choosing someone to help build the company brand. While the favored solution is to ask a trusted friend to recommend a new worker, this cannot always be done. Sometimes the talents required are outside the employer’s current social purview, so the impaired business proprietor must expand his or her pool of talent and advertise.

Websites such as LinkedIn,, or become the hunting grounds for new talent. Employers advertise their positions, fleshing out their realistic expectations, and candidates respond with resumes projecting their ideal selves, and then, as these resumes pour in to the company’s office in numbers high enough to fill entire recycling bins, employers diligently review those resumes, sometimes spending as much as six seconds on each one.

No doubt, these resumes, submitted through snail mail on thick bond paper or through easy-to-use hiring sites with the names of contact people carefully researched and addressed, yes, those resumes, reflect a wide variety of selfless achievers who want nothing more than to serve at the privilege of the employer. Candidates from these pools will have all of the qualifications necessary to reinforce and expand the company brand. Using adverbs and adjectives like “really,” “very,” “honestly,” “energized,” and “excited,” they will also provide the proper indicators of drive and enthusiasm.

But only wise employers know that, these days, almost every job candidate, especially the college graduate, is well versed at how to write a good resume, sprinkling their curriculum vitae with a well-balanced mixture of achievements in project, money, personnel, and time management, whether they performed these tasks or not. Throughout a typical college career, the average student will gain much aid in this skill, encountering numerous books, career resource centers, and even specific upper level courses that can equip them with the tools they need to pull the wool over any potential employer’s eyes.

Sure graduates will be qualified, but who’s kidding who? Many student job seekers frequently pounce on every available job opportunity regardless of proper fit. Having forgone the extra study hours on that macroeconomics test to enjoy another round of drinks at the frat or sorority house, who can blame them? So as the gaps in a resume expand with each night spent with drinking buddies, such gaps must be puttied over with deft creative nonfiction writing, a deception that only the most dogged human resources manager can sniff out.

One of these techniques can be found in the overall organizational pattern of a resume. While the preferred method of resume construction is called chronological, tracing the candidate’s work and education whereabouts in reverse order from the present day to the age of fourteen, the use of a functional method can be used as a clever alternative, organizing the candidate’s career around specific skillsets, minimizing the impact of those missing six months when the misguided computer programmer or business associate veered off course and pursued a career as a hip-hop artist.

This contented student demonstrates the pleasures of filling out a job application.

This contented student demonstrates the pleasures of filling out a job application.

When employers see one of these functional resumes, they should always make sure to have the candidate fill out a chronological application on the day of the interview. Come to think of it, employers should have all applicants, whether they supply chronological or functional resumes, fill out an official company application. It’s always nice to see a potential hire’s script in the context of the company stationary with logo and tagline as framework.

Another impressive, effective, but slightly questionable technique used in resume construction is how the candidate makes every effort to subvert a show of self-interest. This begins with the absence of any statement about personal goals. Where once it was commonplace to find an “Objective Statement” beneath the candidate’s name, address, and phone number, this is no longer thought de rigueur. A statement such as “To obtain a position at a reputable accounting firm to further my career,” would be considered unrefined among today’s application etiquette. Instead, the old-fashioned and frequently revealing “Objective Statement” has been replaced with what are called a list of “Personal Qualifications.”

Personal qualifications are a bulleted listing of abstract notions that employers of abstract mind are likely to eat up. Items might include “Flexible team member and player,” “Efficient manager establishing weekly schedules and meeting deadlines,” “Detail oriented researcher and analyst,” “Innovative problem solver,” “Engaging and thoughtful communicator,” and “Native English speaker with fluency in Farsi, French, and C++.” In comparison to the once common “Objective Statement,” these personal qualification statements leave the impression that the candidate has no other interest than to sacrifice both mind and body to the prospective employer.

Another well-known way in which candidates mask their self-interest is under the section marked “Extracurricular and Volunteer Activities.” These indicators of self-abnegation are often displayed humbly at the bottom of the resume. Instead of realistic activities such as “Listening to music,” “Smoking hookahs,” “collecting tattoos,” or “spending countless hours on social media” the candidate will substitute “Captain of the varsity track team,” “Provider of meals for the homeless,” and “First Class Boy and Girl Scout.”

The most common technique, however, for disguising self-interest is the use of active verbs. Without a first person “I” who does something, statements made throughout the resume are not statements at all but sentence fragments, insulting the efforts of English teachers throughout history and giving the impression that candidates are already busy “managing,” “supervising,” and “budgeting.” Formerly, in past jobs, the resume will tell employers that those candidates also “directed,” “coordinated” and “produced,” but again without thought of their own interest. We have, it seems, created an egoless society.

Alongside this selfless posturing or sincere authenticity—I have no clue as to which—the candidate will heighten their abilities with a display of numbers and percentages designed to measure accomplishments. A quick glance at accomplishment statements such as “major driver behind reducing outstanding risk balances by 97%” or “saved the firm a confirmed 100 minutes per day by using LEAN tools to improve several processes” or “demonstrated ability to manage and maintain a 180-slip marina, 5 pools, kayak and boat rentals, and a staff of 25 lifeguards” will give the impression that the candidate produces measurable results, but also raises the question, who did the counting, measuring, and confirming?

We have, it seems, created an egoless society.

Even words, yes, simple words and phrases, can be inserted or tweaked to suggest just about any level of competency that the candidate would like. A glance at the previously mentioned statement, “Demonstrated ability to manage and maintain a 180-slip marina, 5 pools, kayak and boat rentals, etc…,” may give the impression of competency. However, more likely, the qualifier “demonstrated ability” indicates that the candidate just managed to keep things at the marina together for an hour or so one afternoon when the full-time manager stepped out for a sandwich.

With candidates possessing so many tools of deception, potential employers who read through such masterfully constructed resumes, but can’t separate the resume facade from the structure, may want to give up the employee search completely and take on all the extra work themselves, or distribute that work equally among existing brand managers.

To avoid hiring the craftiest con-artist rather than the most qualified candidate, I would suggest that employers add a layer of testing to their selection process. This level of scrutiny would occur during the personal interview. As forms of torture such as waterboarding are prohibited by the articles of the Geneva Convention, I’d advocate for the less effective but still useful polygraph test. Polygraphs are widely used in hiring security and law enforcement experts, but I would expand their use to civilian jobs—business owners cannot be too careful when it comes to protecting their brands.

Although the practice of detecting lies by polygraph receives criticism from time to time—people have been known to beat such tests—every layer of scrutiny that a human resources manager can add to the procedure of hiring will help narrow the field. And surely, only candidates who are willing to endure the endless hurdles that a company places in their paths, and who are willing to crash through these barriers, deserve to be awarded jobs.

The polygraph is excellent at detecting misstatements in the resume. During the personal interview, the employer or human resources manager may take claims about education and career progress, remove the qualifying language, and reframe these claims in a yes or no or multiple-choice format. “Did you or did you not,” the interviewer may ask, “‘manage and maintain a 180-slip marina, 5 pools, kayak and boat rentals, etc?’” With the lie detector’s pen tracking a candidate’s heartbeat rate, blood volume, and galvanic skin response, an answer such as “um, in a way” will not suffice. As tensions rise from such inquiry, the field of candidates begins to narrow.

Of course there is an alternate school of thought that employers should consider when reviewing a resume, one that rewards a candidate for possessing the sleight of hand that I have been arguing against. Many employers, for example, may look for how well an applicant practices the techniques of obfuscation and tale spinning, especially when the applicant knows next to nothing about a specified subject matter.

Some employers find this ability to spin tales a valued skill, a talent essential to the success of the company and brand. There may be many times in the course of an employee’s career when a client puts the employee in a tight spot, asking if the business can perform a certain task that they don’t yet know how to do but would like to. Being able to answer such a question in the affirmative, using only the shakiest supporting evidence, but making that evidence appear as solid as bedrock, could mean the difference between company growth or shrinkage.

I myself once worked for a company that often advertised and sold services and products that they had not yet developed, an understandable position for a business I should think since why make a product for which there is no market? Better to identify and create the market, sell the product, and then produce and deliver the result as needed. So whether employees are having job candidates spin tales about things that those candidates know next to nothing about or having candidates answer yes or no questions, the idea is the same: find an employee who doesn’t fold under pressure.

These potential Googlites dress down to impress potential employers while visiting Google headquarters in Washington D.C.

These potential Googlites dress down to impress potential employers while visiting Google headquarters in Washington D.C.

Regardless of what direction a company takes in the realm of resume review, polygraph, or long answer testing, my take is that a business needs a highly skilled person to identify cleverly constructed resume language and apparently measurable achievement. As I have crafted a few resumes of my own and several for others, allow me to submit my own qualifications for such a post. Aside from the resumes I’ve crafted, I have also graded and improved upon hundreds of student resumes when coaching my business-writing co-eds.

Who better to unveil impostors more interested in eating, marrying, having kids, and sleeping under their own roofs than in supporting a company brand, or who better to reveal a future company star, one capable of weaving a tale of business acumen to potential clients than me, a business writing teacher who has worked alongside and tutored so many con-artists. As a tracker of sophistry in all its forms, I am expert at identifying qualifying language and jargon, contextualizing seemingly impressive numbers and percentages, and pinpointing gigantic gaps in career and education chronology.

While I blog frequently about my desire to write for a living, for a reasonable fee, I would be more than willing to take a temporary reprieve from these ambitions and apply my expertise to protect employers from frauds and swindlers or, should the circumstances so indicate, promote the gifts of these frauds and swindlers—whichever tack the employer prefers. My purpose is simply to help business owners find the right fit for the job. Alternatively, should a well-capitalized company or agency prefer to keep this work in-house, I am available to train a small group of Charney-certified mercenaries in the fine art of word manipulation and bullshit detection, skills that could end up saving a company valuable time, money, and embarrassment.

Note: This article was written with the assistance of Rhonda Serendip, a marketing and management consultant at “Serendip Business Marketing and Management Consulting.” Ms. Serendip has over 25 years of experience helping businesses deliver valued and scalable products and services to an elite clientele while actualizing their business profit potential with forward thinking actionable strategies. Ms. Serendip is also a valued employee at Macy’s.

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