Win Over HR Screeners With the Right Resume

In the current job market, many senior-level candidates are learning that great backgrounds, terrific interviewing ability and stellar references don’t guarantee success.

So how can you break through the iron curtain that screens most job candidates from managers who can hire you? Instead of trying to circumvent the human-resources department, you must accommodate it in your thinking and be sure your resume is “HR friendly.”

What does it mean to have an HR-friendly resume? As an HR executive for more than 20 years, it’s my sad duty to remind you that many HR people, including corporate recruiters, have traditional likes and dislikes concerning resumes. While you may see your varied and successful background as a darn-near-perfect match for a position, the HR person working on the assignment may have a different view of your credentials.

An HR person usually is the point of entry for resumes arriving by mail and e-mail. His or her job is to narrow the candidate field to a reasonable or “interviewable” set of applicants. So the typical approach is to weed out people, not keep them in. Imagine an HR person reviewing a huge stack of printed resumes or a long list of e-mail messages late at night or on the weekend. What’s his or her motivation? To shorten that pile or list and then to interview only a few top candidates.

Casting Directors

Picture a casting director at the rear of a theater, watching actors audition for a new play. As much as the casting director hopes to catch every nuance and expression and use his intuition and sensitivity to identify the next Meryl Streep or Kevin Spacey, the reality is that within a few hours, he’s overwhelmed.

Toward the end of the day, auditions become shorter, and the casting director gives each actor less time before shouting “Next!” Too many actors, many looking and sounding the same, want the part, and only one can get it. So the director becomes very selective to hasten the winnowing process, seeking just a few specifics in each audition. This is what HR people do with resumes.

For starters, HR people like simple stories. A resume that shows a traditional progression of experience, e.g., from marketing assistant to marketing coordinator to manager to director to vice president, makes a good impression. An HR reviewer will expect this process to have taken about 10 to 15 years.

If you made some unusual jumps along the way that helped build your knowledge and savvy — perhaps into sales, product development or even manufacturing — your resume may confuse an HR screener. Your background will seem quirky, so even if you’re an incredible find, you may be rejected.

Make the Connections Clear

What’s the remedy? For each nonlinear job listed on your resume, add a sentence or a few bulleted items to show how the move strengthened your skills in your current line of work. Cite an example of how your stint in purchasing reinforced your understanding of sales, for instance. Add a bullet point mentioning that when you moved into sales from marketing, the company’s marketing vice president specifically asked you back to the marketing group because of your new sales knowledge. Make these connections clear — don’t expect the HR person to see the value of your skips and zigzags across functions.

Experience across a number of industries is another trip-up for candidates looking to stay on the HR short list. In staff functions such as information technology, finance or HR, crossing industries is often viewed as a neutral or mildly positive characteristic. Such candidates bring a new perspective to each industry based on the processes, metrics and philosophies they’ve gathered on the journey.

But for jobs in “line” functions like engineering, manufacturing or sales, many an HR person will balk at candidates who didn’t gain most of their experience in the company’s industry sector. To overcome this, tell a story in your resume — don’t expect your brief cover letter to describe the full picture of your experience. In the body of your resume, show how your financial-services experience translated into value for your next employer in the manufacturing arena. Then add a bullet describing what your manufacturing stint brought to your next job in retail. And so on.

Resumes are underused as story-telling vehicles, because we tend to view each job summary as a snapshot. Instead, think of each job assignment as a stone on a garden pathway, and use brief paragraphs or bullet points to make the connections between them clear. This way, you’ll convey the wisdom, flexibility and acumen that you’ve acquired through your varied projects, rather producing a “billiard ball” effect (think of a billiard ball careening from corner to corner, and you’ll understand why HR people get skittish about nonlinear job histories).

In Defense of the Screeners

Now let’s say a word in defense of HR screeners, before we label them as uncreative drones. They insist that the real reason they stick to “easy” candidates (those least likely to raise eyebrows when the hiring manager receives their resumes) is that hiring managers prefer them. I wish I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard an HR person complain, “Why won’t my hiring managers accept a candidate who isn’t the cookie-cutter norm?” So HR people can be your allies if you can help them along by making your resume easier for them to sell internally.

Now take a look at your resume. Is it HR-friendly? Does it require a companion audiotape to explain your path? If so, you’re leaving yourself open to the quick flick of the wrist that moves your resume to the no-thanks pile. Take a hard look at your job progression, and try to paint a picture that brings out the inimitable and priceless qualities that make you a terrific candidate.

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Hiring, HR, Resumes