According to Glassdoor, a corporate job opening will attract an average of 250 resumes. Of those resumes, between four and six candidates will get an interview and one will get a job. That’s a lot of resumes to read. Even if you have a team of passionate and hardworking recruiters help you screen those resumes, you will need to look at a lot of resumes.
In this article, the second in a series on interviewing knowledge workers, I’ll share some of my tips on separating the wheat from the chaff in that pile of 250 resumes.
Drinking from the Resume Fire Hose
So let’s start with that pile of 250 resumes. Well, in the best of all possible worlds, it would be a pile. You would have all the resumes in front of you and you could stack rank them to identify the half dozen you want to talk to. But that isn’t what happens. It isn’t a pile of 250 resumes. It’s a stream of resumes that will trickle, or gush, into your inbox within seconds of your job posting going live.
When confronted with that stream, I prefer to review them in batches. Screening resumes is one of those important-not-urgent tasks that we need to do but never seem to find the time given the myriad of interrupts that fill our day. So I put time on my schedule to ensure it gets done. For me, when I’m actively hiring for a critical role, that usually ends up being a couple of half-hour slots a week. I take whatever resumes have queued up since the last review and start working my way through them.
Even though I review resumes in batches, I look at them individually. This isn’t the time to compare two resumes to determine which candidate is the best for the job. That isn’t why you’re looking at 250 resumes.
Effective resume reviews don’t just happen. You need to plan and prepare to use your time most efficiently and effectively — to get the best results out of the time that you have available to do the work.
My first planning step is to review the job description. Everything you are going to look for in a resume is documented in the job description. But not everything in the job description will be in the resume. Before I review resumes, I review the job description and identify the elements I expect to find in the resume. (You’ll learn more about those elements below.) This helps me guide my review. It also helps me later in the interview process to ensure that I have missed nothing.
To track my review activity, I have a spreadsheet. Of course I have a spreadsheet. In this spreadsheet, I list every candidate who’s resume I’m reviewing. I track the date that I received the resume and the date that I completed the review. I also have columns for each of the check boxes (Education, Experience, Expertise, Expression) where I record the result of my review. Finally, I record the result of the review — move forward or not. The spreadsheet helps me review my choices and lets me recalibrate if I need to. There is a link to a copy of that spreadsheet at the end of this article.
Check the Boxes
Why are you looking at 250 resumes? You’re doing it because you have a job in your organization that you need to fill. That’s the general reason. The specific reason is much simpler: You need to decide which of those 250 people you want to speak with about that job. To do that, you need not spend a lot of time reading and comparing resumes. You need to review the resumes in enough detail to identify those that check the boxes.
Actually, I don’t just check boxes. That is, my boxes aren’t binary: Yes/No. As you will see, not everything is black and white. Resumes, like the people they represent, are more nuanced. So I allow for a third option: Maybe. You’ll see some specific examples of the Maybe option shortly and I’ll talk about how I use it later in this article.
But first … the boxes.
The first box is education. Your job description will most likely have an education component. I didn’t mention it when I talked about job descriptions in my first article, but it’s there. So let’s talk about it now. The education requirement in the job description will probably look like this:
Bachelor’s degree, preferably in computer science, information systems or related field required.
For a more senior position, it might include a master’s degree or an MBA.
This is a pretty common expressions of education requirements for a knowledge worker in information technology. For a more senior position, you might have a master’s degree or an MBA. In a non-technology domain, you might see a different primary degree. But the core is the same: We are looking for a four-year degree in a specific field.
That’s an easy box to check. The resume either shows the degree, or it doesn’t. Next.
I’ll be honest. I am a stickler for that four-year degree. I know that many associate programs and trade schools turn out high quality technicians. I know that I’m probably excluding good candidates when I skip over them. But there are three things I look for in knowledge workers I find more frequently in candidates with four-year degrees. First is a learning mindset: a natural curiosity and the means to satisfy it. Knowledge workers need to learn. They need to want to learn and they need to be able to learn. Learning how to learn is a significant component of most four-year college programs. Second, is a diversity of thought and experience. The best problem solvers bring approaches and experience from different disciplines to bear. Because four-year programs encourage if not require students to get outside their majors, they expose people to other disciplines and subject matter and thinking. Finally, perseverance. Not all problems can be solved on the first attempt. Not all knowledge is gained quickly. That four-year degree tells me that the candidate can plan for the long term and stick to the plan to achieve a goal. So yes, I will require bachelor’s degree to check the box.
It’s the specific degree that gives me trouble. It gives me trouble because of my interest in knowledge workers with a diversity of thought and experience. Why do we, when we hire knowledge workers in information technology, require a degree in “computer science, information systems or related field?” Why don’t we like English majors?
One reason to require a degree is because the degree provides a baseline level of knowledge to perform a task. It is a proxy for having knowledge and skills necessary to do a job. The assumption is that if I have a degree in geology; I know enough about rocks to be a geologist. That may be a valid assumption. But the opposite isn’t necessarily the case. Not having a degree in geology doesn’t mean that I don’t know enough about rocks to be a geologist. That problem is even more relevant in information technology. While specific requirements may vary, knowledge workers in information technology need to think critically, understand complex systems, and solve complex problems. Computer science, information systems, or related programs usually cover those skills. But other programs do, too. I’ve found them in candidates with degrees in engineering and mathematics, but also in biology and psychology. Even English and philosophy majors have proven to be excellent problem solvers.
Just because the major isn’t on the list, I don’t reject the candidate. So what do I do with those English majors? I want to understand if they have the knowledge and skills to do the job. I may want to talk to them, to find out. They get a Maybe.
The second box is experience. Again, you will find this in your job description. Again, it probably will not be as helpful as you might like. The experience requirement in the job description could be as generic as:
X years of relevant experience.
Better ones will include relevant industry or role or activity. This can be an easy box to check. The resume will either show the requisite amount of years of experience in the specified industries or specified functions, or it won’t. Or is that easy? I like to do a slightly more thorough review of the resume before I check that box.
First, remember that there is a different between five years of experience and one year of experience repeated five times. An experience requirement assumes that there is some learning, growth, or progression throughout the years. So I’m not just going to add up the number of years the candidate had that ticks the requirements. I’m looking to see that there was evidence of growth or progression in the career.
This is also where job-hoppers get spotted. I understand the concern. An employee is an investment. I don’t want to hire someone who will stay for a year and then leave. Many people will see a resume with X jobs over those X years of relevant experience and reject the candidate. I will not do that. First, mobility is more the rule in today’s economy than it was when I got started. People don’t stay with the same company for decades. Even if they do, they don’t stay in the same job at those companies. Different jobs, even at different companies, can be a sign of growth and development.
Does it appear that they are doing the same job in the same industry and just changing companies? Those I reject. Is there evidence that they are growing and gaining knowledge and skills and changing companies to do that? Those candidates I may want to talk with to learn more. They get a Maybe.
Third box: Expertise. Does the candidate have the knowledge and skills to do the job? I don’t expect to determine that solely by skimming a resume. That will happen during the interview. What I can do at this point is look in the document for evidence of expertise.
Job description again! And specifically the functional requirements part of the job description. This is where those parts of the job description that describe what the employee needs to do are useful. Not everything in the job description will be found in the resume. As part of your planning step, you identified the functional requirements that you would expect to find in the resume. This is where planning pays off.
Let’s revisit our hypothetical dog-walker. In the article on job descriptions, I articulated the following functional requirements for a dog-walker:
- A dog walker provides exercise, usually through walks, of a client’s dogs.
- A dog walker picks up and disposes of dog droppings during walks.
- A dog walker monitors the dogs’ food and water supply to make sure they meet basic needs after walks.
- A dog walker notifies owners and pursue veterinary attention for any dog that becomes sick or injured under their supervision.
Which of those requirements would I expect to see in a resume? I would love to see all of them. I would dance for joy if a resume crossed my desk that articulated all those important tasks. But I don’t expect it. Resumes are brief. A resume can’t include all the tasks and responsibilities associated with a person’s performance of a job. Given this list, the only thing that I would expect to see in the resume is the fundamental “provides exercise, usually through walks, of a client’s dogs” part of the job description.
Once you’ve decided, in the planning step, which aspects of the job’s required expertise you need to see in a resume, you can define what’s necessary to check the box. You can also decide what makes up a maybe response that may require further conversation.
Do you ever see a job description that doesn’t include “Excellent verbal and written communication skills?” I don’t. And I definitely don’t interview for jobs that don’t require excellent verbal and written communication skills. To me, the resume (and cover letter if there is one) are the first opportunity to determine if a candidate in fact has excellent written communication skills.
First rule: I have zero tolerance for spelling mistakes in resumes.
Let me repeat that with emphasis: I have zero tolerance for spelling mistakes in resumes.
There is absolutely no excuse for anyone to submit a document with typos or spelling mistakes with the writing tools available today. Okay, maybe one. But a resume with spelling mistakes or typos will not check the “excellent written communication skills” box.
I have slightly more tolerance for grammatical errors. But not much more. Microsoft Word does a passable job of identifying basic grammatical errors. Grammarly (www.grammarly.com) does a better job and offers both free and paid plans. My choice is ProWritingAid which also offers both free and paid plans and has some features missing from Grammarly. I ran this article — all of my articles and much of my business writing — through ProWritingAid for grammar, style, and tone before being published.
Resumes are tricky from a grammar standpoint. They tend towards fewer sentences and paragraphs and more towards bullet points. But tools like Grammarly and ProWritingAid can identify potential issues. And you can ignore their recommendations if they make little sense in context.
So this is an easy checkbox:
- Spelling mistakes: No.
- Grammatical errors: No or at best a Maybe depending on the number and severity of the issues.
Something Extra — The Optional Box
Experience tells me that when faced with a pile of 250 resumes, I will reject a fairly high number. They will not check the boxes. Maybe they don’t have the education or the experience. Maybe they’re lacking the expertise. Maybe they just aren’t doing a good job of expressing themselves. It rare for me to pass more than a few of those resumes through to the next step. But I allow for the possibility that I need something else to winnow the pile.
That’s when I look for the something extra. This is hard to define. Sometimes I see it in a candidate with a unique degree or combination of degrees. Sometimes I see it a candidate with experience in a broad number of industries or a unique combination of industries. Sometimes I see it in a candidate with a unique expertise. I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it. So I allow for it in the resume review process. You should, too.
Review to Reject
You’ve just reviewed a batch of three or six or sixteen resumes. You’ve updated your tracking spreadsheet with the results of your review — marking Yes/No/Maybe in each of the four check boxes. What’s next?
Now you review those results and determine which candidates move forward. My algorithm for doing that is simple: You need to check all the boxes to move forward.
Yes. That’s right. You need a check in all the boxes. Well, all but the Something Extra box. That’s optional. And you’re about to see why.
The goal of the resume review process is to decide which of the 250 candidates you want to spend at least 30 minutes speaking with. You are weeding them out, not welcoming them in. So if there is a candidate who doesn’t check all the boxes, you need to reject.
What about the Maybe? That’s your wildcard. It also a benefit of tracking progress and making the Yes/No decision after reviewing a batch. I have the option to say Yes to a resume with Maybes. If I’m looking at a batch of resumes and nobody checks all the boxes, I have the option of saying Yes to a candidate with a Maybe. I’m probably not going to say Yes to a candidate with more than one Maybe though. But I’m willing to take a chance.
What about the Something Extra? If I don’t have enough candidates who check all the boxes, I can use the Maybe result to bring more in. If I have too many, I can use the Something Extra to narrow the field. Between the two, I can manage the flow of candidates to ensure that I’m talking to the right people from the pool.
No process is perfect and continuous process improvement is a key pillar of organization excellence. So we need to monitor and tune the resume review process to ensure that we are being effective in bringing in the best talent. This is another reason for keeping that tracking spreadsheet. It provides the data you can use to adjust your process. You can do that after you’ve made your hiring decision or during the process itself.
Open up your tracking spreadsheet and look at how you are performing.
Are you not interviewing enough candidates? Maybe you are being too strict on what it takes to check the box. Are you interviewing too many and not getting to one who can hire? Maybe you aren’t being strict enough. Go back to your planning step and determine if changes to what you look for or how you assess a resume could improve your results.
Now that you’ve identified a person or two or ten who you want to to talk to, to interview, it’s time to get ready to conduct those interviews. That’s what we cover in the next article: Asking The Right Questions.
In the meantime, grab a copy of my Resume Review Tracking spreadsheet. And let me know how you manage your stack of 250 resumes.
Asking The Right Questions