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Reading Between the Lines of a Resume: 4 Areas to Give a Closer Look

Business.com / Technology / Last Modified: May 22, 2018
Image credit: TaLaNoVa/Shutterstock

Many companies receive resumes with minor imperfections and automatically throw them away. Find out how to overlook those little flaws and instead examine context clues in order to find the perfect candidate.

The act of reading a resume is simple. But finding out what motivated the applicant's decisions or what prompted any job changes is what will make you a better hiring manager.

A resume is a biography in progress. It's a reflection of someone's professional and personal story to date, but it is useful only if you know how to read between the lines.

For hiring managers, it's extremely important to get the right employee and not miss out on someone due to a lack of context when evaluating a resume. Taking a closer look and really examining a good resume is similar to reflecting on someone's life story, so you should take into account more than just dates and company names. The next time you recruit employees, keep these ideas in mind when searching for a good resume.

1. Job-hopping

Many employers consider job-hopping a red flag. However, it’s important to consider context and consistency before dismissing a potential employee as a job-hopper.

Remember the financial crisis of 2008? Nevada, Michigan and California recorded double-digit unemployment. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, at the peak of the recession, there was a 44 percent decrease in job openings. This is just one example of how context plays an important role in reading a resume.

Job-hopping in the context of a bad recession may actually demonstrate that someone has an unshakable work ethic to do whatever it takes to support their family, even if it means taking a few side jobs between full-time employment.

When you see a gap in between jobs, look for a pattern of consistent employment before and after the gap. If the candidate does have consistency, it might mean they were out of work for a personal reason, such as taking care of a sick relative. In this context, a person's character and work ethic in difficult times could be more telling than what would have otherwise been assumed about a short tenure.  

For example, think of someone who accepted a job in 2006 and then got laid off in 2008. Out of work, they take the first (lousy) job they can get in a tough market and stay for two years. Then, as the market improves, they look for a better situation. Is that a job-hopper looking for their fourth job in five years, or did they do exactly what you would have done in that situation?

2. Promotions and job title changes

Being promoted is a key indicator of a high-potential candidate. If someone's current employer has thought enough of them to promote them at some point, it is a positive sign about their capabilities. Ponder this: You have two resumes in front of you from candidates with 10 years of experience. One has been promoted three times and the other not even once. That is an important data point.

However, job title changes often masquerade as promotions, and a trained eye can tell the difference. Often, a job title change is nothing more than an HR technique to give a normal salary increase without actually promoting someone to a higher position. If someone hasn't been promoted after 10 years at a company, it's worth asking a few extra questions to find out why. This might be a bad sign, but you can't know for sure without digging deeper.

Look beyond the title to the actual function. For example, someone promoted from Engineer 1 to Engineer 2 to Engineer 3 may not have changed functions at all. The key question would be, how did your job change after each title change? That can tell you a lot.

3. Company size

Continuing with the themes of context and consistency, you have to be careful when comparing recruits from companies of different sizes. A title has context only within a specific organization, and it's not so easy to transition from a small startup to a global enterprise or vice versa.

In the hiring process, it's easy to forget that it's just as hard to move from a global enterprise to a local startup; one doesn't preclude or qualify the other a single iota. Instead, consider the scope of resources that a candidate previously managed, including the number of employees managed. To put this into perspective, imagine a VP of HR at a 150-person company applying for the VP of HR at General Electric. Those are two very different jobs with the same title, making this a matter of scale.

These are the two factors to consider:

1. Span of control – How many people, dollars, resources, etc. does the person control?

2. Degree of independence – The top HR person with two direct reports at a small company has more independence that an HR manager with six direct reports who then reports to an HR director who, in turn, reports to a VP of HR.

4. Commuting

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the average travel time to work in the United States is 25.4 minutes. If you've ever had to commute over an hour, you might have been quickly motivated to seek new employment. Keep an eye out for commuting issues when you recruit, but remember that long commutes aren't necessarily a bad thing for some people. Some like them because they are an opportunity to decompress, for example. Commuting is a personal decision.

These are some questions you might ask as a hiring manager: Has the candidate ever commuted that far before? If yes, for how long? Have they ever left a job for a shorter commute? Commuting may be an issue for only a small section of recruits, so, again, your job is to find that context.

A good resume gives you a sense of a candidate's life before they even show up for an interview. Too many companies throw away resumes with small flaws or "red flags" because they are looking at titles and keywords without taking into consideration a person's life story. As a hiring manager, always look at the context, making sure that you're seeing the person, not just the paper.

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