Do you have a flawed résumé? I don’t mean one with avoidable grammatical errors and misspelled words. I’m talking about a résumé with red flags, like huge employment gaps, lack of relevant experience, or too many short stints or unpaid internships.
“Today’s employment environment is extremely competitive – more so then at any other time in recent history,” says Greg Faherty, a Certified Professional Résumé Writer (CPRW) and owner of A-perfect-resume.com. “Employers are receiving more résumés for every open position than ever, and they are looking for any reason to weed out people they don’t want to interview.”
It’s true; these issues can seriously hurt your chances of landing a job. But don’t fret. All four résumé experts I spoke with said a problematic track record isn’t necessarily a deal breaker.
Here’s what you can do to stay in the running, even when your résumé looks like bad news:
Be honest. Don’t lie on your résumé. For instance, if you’re applying for a job that requires a college degree and you don’t have one, don’t say you do. The employer might be willing to overlook something like this if you’re otherwise fully qualified and a strong contender. But if you’re not honest and the hiring manager finds out, you’ll probably be written off completely.
Emphasize the positives. Laura Smith-Proulx, an executive résumé writer and the principal of An Expert Resume, suggests adding a line or two, right at the top of your résumé, that highlights your qualifications.
The first 25% to 50% of the page is most critical to the hiring manager, says Tina Nicolai, an executive career coach and certified résumé writer. So highlighting the positives at the top is a great strategy.
Address the issue. Nicolai says you should use your cover letter, introductory e-mail or the interview to speak to the issue at hand. For instance, if it has been three years since you last held a job because you took time off to raise your children—briefly explain that you left the workforce by choice. “Acknowledging the ‘elephant in the room’ may help the situation,” Nicolai says.
Ann Baehr, a Certified Professional Résumé Writer (CPRW) and president of Best Resumes of New York, agrees. “Bad news or red flags should never be addressed in a résumé. The résumé is not the place to explain. If anywhere, it would be included in the cover letter. Even then, be brief and use your discretion about discussing it during an interview.”
Don’t make excuses. While you want to address the issue by offering a brief explanation, you never want to make excuses or justify the problem. “You’ll need to be careful to focus much more on your qualifications and unique personal brand, than on any reasons for a potential red flag,” says Smith-Proulx.
Format your résumé accordingly. If your issue is that you’ve held 15 jobs in 7 years, in all different occupations and industries, “you will want to make lemonade out of lemons by breaking it all up into functional sections with headings, such as ‘Customer Services,’ ‘Sales Support,’ ‘Project Coordination,’ ‘Marketing and PR,’ etc.,” Baehr says. “Then place what you’ve done over the years in each respective section.” She says to add a line under ‘Professional Experience,’ that reads, “The following is an overview of broad based experience working in diversified positions from 2005 to 2012.”
Network. We all know the importance of networking today. Find someone with a connection to the company, and ask him or her to make introductions, recommendations or to pass along your résumé. When you’re referred by someone internally, there’s a greater chance the hiring manager will give you the benefit of the doubt, despite any red flags.
Here’s how to deal with specific issues:
Big employment gaps. Having a gap in employment is no longer rare (due to layoffs, downsizing, mergers, or family situations). Your best bet is to ignore short gaps of a year or less, but give a name to longer periods such as “Family Care,” “Volunteer Experience,” “Employment Search,” or” Graduate Studies” in your work chronology, says Smith-Proulx. “In this case, you can give a single-sentence description that helps employers review it, and then move on.”
Too many different jobs. If you’ve jumped from job to job without an apparent strategy, this can look like a problem to employers, Smith-Proulx says. Consider removing a short-term job of less than a year from your career chronology, but keeping it on your résumé (perhaps in an ‘Additional Positions’ section at the end of your work history). Be sure to include it in your formal application, as it will be verified on your background check. That way, you can discuss the role, without letting it become an area of focus on your résumé, she says.
Unrelated experience. You’ll get better traction by connecting the dots for employers, so they can see why you would be applying to this specific job, says Smith-Proulx. This is especially important if your current job title is somewhat vague. “For example, if you hold the position of Financial Specialist, but you are pursuing an accounting role requiring knowledge of ERP systems, you could add skills alongside your current title (‘Financial Specialist – Accounting Skills Including Payroll, ERP, & Oracle’) to make the connection.”
Too much work history. “Those 30 years of experience you’ve touted can not only show your age and expose you to potential bias,” says Smith-Proulx. “It also makes you look as if you’re dwelling on the past too heavily.” Most employers are interested in what you’ve done during the past 10 to 15 years. Older roles beyond that point can be listed in an ‘Additional Experience’ section at the end of your work chronology, with a one- or two-line description of the relevant expertise used in each job.
By Jacquelyn Smith