Do you know the resume and cover letter red flags that should catch your attention as you review applicant resumes? In an earlier article, I identified five red flags in resume review for employers. These red flags are the mistakes, errors, and indicators that give you a great deal of information about the individual who is applying for your open job. Employers ignore these red flags at their own risk. They are early indicators that your potential employee may not be whom you expect.
In my comprehensive review of background checking priorities and procedures for employers, I covered how to spot fraudulent claims and credentials. Here, I’ll review five additional resume and cover letter red flags that should catch an employer's attention during resume review.
Note that these red flags may reflect the current job market, bad advice from career or placement experts, or desperation on the part of job searchers for their application materials to catch your attention. Resume review should encompass the applicant's entire employment history as the current situation may be abnormal. That said, certain flags, you cannot ignore. I would never hire an individual who lied to me, for example.
Resume Red Flags That Require Attention
In this article, I've identified five more red flags for employer resume review. Heed these five additional red flags when you review resumes.
Ignoring a Request for Salary History
It's an age old debate and employers weigh in on both sides about the usefulness of publicizing a job salary range when posting a job. On the one hand, when the employer may have potential wiggle room for the right candidate, the employer feels that posting a salary excludes potential, qualified applicants. Posting a salary range, makes any candidate who accepts a starting salary in the low to middle end of the published pay grade, feel underpaid at the start of a new job - bad. And, the employer wants to maintain the upper hand in any potential salary negotiation.
On the other hand, applicants believe that they will disqualify themselves for jobs they may well have accepted, not in good times, perhaps, but certainly during tough economic down times. Applicants also do not want to waste time applying for jobs that they cannot consider because the pay is too low. They do not believe employers will provide more than a 10% increase over what they currently make, so they hate to reveal the details of their current compensation package. Or, in another somewhat scam, advised by career experts forever, they provide information that values their entire compensation package rather than stating their salary.
Whatever position you support in the debate, the fact remains. If the candidate fails to provide salary information or salary information that is meaningful to your process for choosing applicants to interview, you can consider the failure a red flag and disregard the resume and application.
Resumes and Applications That Take Advantage of the Current Employer
A resume or application that is emailed from a current employer’s address is a red flag for employers. The applicant is not only thoughtless, clueless, and not very smart, she is probably job searching on her current employer’s time. Resumes mailed in the current employer’s envelopes, printed on the current employer’s stationery, and stamped on an employer’s mailing machine is another red flag.
In fact, this practice is so prevalent that at least one government agency, now refuses to consider such job applications. More difficult to pinpoint, but troublesome still, are applications, interview follow-up letters, and uploaded resumes and online job applications that appear to have been sent during work hours by employed applicants. If your online job application takes an hour to fill out, a 2:30 p.m. time stamp is another red flag. If they’ll take advantage of their current employer, you know they’ll take advantage of you.
Lack of Resume Customization for Your Job Posting
Failure to customize a resume and cover letter is a red flag for employers. The cover letter is an especially telling omission. First, applicants who are unqualified for positions, via their qualifications and work experience, tend to spam employers with resumes. They know that taking the time and energy to custom write a cover letter, when they have little chance of obtaining an interview, is a waste of their time.
Understand that their resume review is usually a waste of your time, too. When applicants include a cover letter that essentially says, my resume is attached, you know that they have skipped the most important opportunity that they had to capture your attention. Well-qualified applicants write a custom cover letter that draws a direct connection between the skills and experience you seek and the applicant’s qualifications. Anything else is a red flag.
The applicant’s objective is a telling sign, too. An objective, according to current thinking, should draw the applicant’s key qualifications and contributions to an employer’s attention. Assess the strength of applicants who still use generic objectives such as: “To obtain a position that will enable me to use my strong organizational skills, educational background, and ability to work well with people in roles with increasing responsibility and management potential.” Keep in mind that this objective, sent to every employer, is a serious lost opportunity for you to learn the applicant’s strengths.
When resumes and cover letters are customized, applicants have the opportunity to tell you that they have researched and understand your company and your business. They exhibit knowledge of your customers and products and know how they can contribute to your organization. A recent candidate told an interview committee that he “hadn’t had a chance to visit the company’s website but he was certain that his development skills would enhance the company’s product.” This applicant should never have become a candidate and his interview wasted the employer’s team’s time. His lack of knowledge and research would have been obvious in effective resume review.
Sure, in a tight job market applicants will apply for jobs for which they are overqualified. You walk a fine line in selecting such a candidate for your jobs, however. Your organization will benefit from their long term experience and the knowledge they bring to your workplace. But, any new workplace invests employee time and money in training even an experienced person. Employees build relationships and your workplace is always disrupted when an employee leaves.
And, that is the problem with an overqualified candidate. The employee may leave – and leave quickly - depending on the success of his or her job search. Their lifestyle, expenses, and family budget were developed with the expectation of a higher salary. Depending on your organization’s size and needs, you may not have a higher level position or better paying job available for quite some time. So, an employee who was overqualified for the position in the first place may be a short term employee. In fact, they may continue their job search after accepting your offered position. This is the downside to employing an overqualified person in your job.
Overqualified applicants are flooding company email boxes and filling out online job applications in record numbers. These applicants need a job – any job – in this tough job market. Employers need to decide whether the candidate’s likely short term tenure is offset by the value they will bring to your organization. To make this decision, add in the cost of an entire search for another new employee, and the cost of the loss to your workplace.
Try to ascertain, during your interview process, whether the candidate is sufficiently attracted by your job, workplace, industry, or company culture to take a job for which he or she is overqualified. If reasons other than immediate employment are on the candidate’s mind, and key in his or her choice of jobs, perhaps you should consider hiring an overqualified employee. Go in with your eyes open, however. Your decision is always a risk.
Unusual Employment History
Another red flag for employers is an unusual employment history, and especially the explanation that your prospective employee offers for their unusual history. Just as an employee with an employment gap is encouraged to offer a viable explanation on the resume or in the cover letter, an applicant with an atypical job history is expected to do the same. In my earlier red flags article, I covered employment gaps. These are additional red flags for which an employer needs to watch.
Job hopping does not carry the stigma that it did in the days of the corporation man. Employers are no longer as loyal to employees as they were in another era either. Medium performance is not a guarantee of a job and loyalty and familiarity do not trump contribution. A series of short term positions is still a red flag to examine.
In my most memorable experience, we discovered after hiring, that an employee had only put half of her recent jobs on her employment application. Their number, as supplied, was a red flag; had we known the additional places of employment, we would never have hired her, no matter how scarce her skills. (The tipoff? She legitimately injured herself on day two on our job – we had a video that showed the incident. When I told her that I had to report the injury to workers' compensation, she begged me to not file the papers.) I soon discovered that she had filed workers' comp claims at her last seven employers, all employers within the past five years.
But, fraudulent applicants aside, other employees with short term employment at several jobs may have had legitimate bad luck in choosing employers who downsize or go out of business. They may also still be searching for their best career or choice of employment as evidenced by multiple shifts in careers and employment. I respect employees who quickly decide that a company, a job, or an industry may not fit their interests and aspirations.
When you consider a senior employee, multiple career and job shifts need an explanation for each. Prospective employers need to comfortably question potential employees about any details in their application materials that raise red flags. Probe and listen carefully to the candidate’s answers. You’ll be happy you did. With increased experience in interviewing, resume review and candidate selection, you’ll develop a sixth sense for when a candidate is telling you the truth. Trust your instincts.
Review a Human Resources Job Search Resource
Websites, job boards, job search tools, and books help people successfully find jobs in Human Resources. If you’ve searched for an HR job, you've likely used these in your job search. So, you've encountered job search resources that you've liked and you've encountered job search resources that haven't done the job. Here's your opportunity to tell us about your Human Resources Job Search Picks and Pans