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5 Resume Red Flags, and How to Find Them

Posted by Adam Robinson on July 25, 2012

This just in:  People lie on their resumes

It's long been said that resumes are nothing more than marketing documents designedlying on resumes to tell employers what they want to hear (Remember the Yahoo! mess?). And given the talent shortages hitting many industries, it's easy to see why hiring managers want to believe everything that they read about Joe or Jane Superstar.

I recently overheard a comment by a CEO of a well-known search firm where she stated that, in her opinion, 40-50% of all resumes contain either "substantial puffery or outright lies" about a person's professional experience.  That comment inspired me to do a bit of online digging, but, amazingly, I was unable to find any research that substantiated any claims to that effect. Most of it is anecdotal and comes from folks in the search industry.  

My experience tells me that this "40% analysis" is spot-on.  About half of the interviews that I've ever conducted result in my finding a false truth or misstatement on the candidate's resume.  Most of them are seemingly benign, like slight overstatement of sales production or describing the job as having a bit more management responsibility than it really did.  A few of these lies are downright egregious - like lying about a college degree or hiding the fact that they were fired for theft.   You don't want this person on your payroll. 

Most of these falsehoods can be caught in the very first stage of the assessment process:  the resume review.  In this post, we're going to take a look at the five most common resume red flags, and how to find know them when you see them.  Identifying these potential issues will enable you to target your telephone screen accordingly, and will prevent you from wasting your time and money chasing after bad apples. 

Red Flag #1 - Gaps in employment

Everyone tells me that this is an obvious one, yet I am constantly reminding our customers that they need to dig, dig, and dig into employment gaps until they are satisfied that they're getting a straight answer.  Gaps in employment on a resume can only mean one of three things:  

1. The person was either laid off or fired.  Now, being laid off doesn't mean that you're a bad employee (far from it), nor does being fired indicate malfeasance.  It does, however, mean that as a candidate you have a lot of explaining to do.  How big was the layoff?  How many rounds of layoffs were there?  In what round were they let go?  Being the first one to go is not as strong as someone who was kept on until the last possible moment through four rounds of layoffs which culminated in a company Chapter 11 filing.  If they were fired...why?  Was it a disagreement with their manager, or did they violate a company policy?  Did they break the law? 

2. The person quit without another job lined up.  It always surprises me how many people tell me in interviews, "I quit to focus on a full-time job search."  As much as I really want to believe it, this explanation defies human nature.  Would you give up your paycheck to look for another job?  Or would you rather keep your job while looking during off hours?  What I find during the reference check process is that the person was either laid off or fired about 80% of the time.  If this person is in the 20% for whom this explanation turns out to be true, I'm not sure I like what that says about this person's pragmatism.  It's just another data point to analyze within the broad context of "is this person the right one for this job?"  

3. The person quit for some personal reason, or the company went out of business.  Sh*t happens, and family tragedies and company implosions are in that category.  Be delicate when exploring the family tragedy side of things.  Fire away when it comes to a company implosion.  Why did the company fail?  What would you have done differently? 

There is a reverse-red flag here, as well, and that's when people extend out their reported dates of employment in order to cover up gaps to avoid the questions that we just discussed.  This issue underscores the importance of doing a thorough reference check. 

Red Flag #2 - No graduation date

When candidates fail to provide their graduation date on their resume, I immediately suspect that this person is trying to hide their age.  They're either a recent graduate who has a ton of work experience and is afraid to tell people that they're only 22 years old, or they're a late-career candidate who's afraid that they'll be seen as too senior for the role.  Or they never graduated.  If there's no date, I will ask the question, "In what year did you obtain your degree from XYZ University?"  If their answer indicates that it was a while ago, I then go to the last experience listed on their resume.  50% of the time I find that candidates who omit graduation dates also omit 5-10 years of work experience so as to appear "younger."  If their answer was, "I didn't graduate," and their resume was written so as to give the apprearance that they did, cut them and move on. 

As an employer, make sure that you obtain and review college transcripts before you make a hiring decision.  Period, no exceptions. 

Red Flag #3 - Title Creep

Title Creep is when a candidate has clearly embellished the nature and scope of their role to make it sound like they did more than they actually did.  The first clue that Title Creep may be present are long bulleted lists that describe broad responsibilities but omit performance details.  For example, a person claiming to be the Vice President of Product Development might say that they "managed a team of 20 designers" and "led the launch of new products and services."  Your resume radar should be sounding pings at that point, alerting you that more details are necessary.  Describe the team to me.  How many of them did you hire personally?  Describe the last product launch that you led.  What was your specific contribution to that project?  What worked well, and what didn't? 

Red Flag #4 - Companies No Longer Exist

This one is a close relative of Red Flag #1, and occurs whenever you attempt to research a company listed on a candidate's resume and find zero information out there.  If the company listed was Enron, or some such high-profile bankruptcy, fine.  But if it's a company that nobody has ever heard of, I want you to start thinking about all of the reasons why no information is available.  Most common reason:  it was the candidate's sole proprietorship or small corporation, and they dissolved the business.  People may be embarrassed to disclose a business failure, and you need to know whether your candidate is comfortable discussing failures.  Most entrepreneurs I know wear failures like a badge of honor.  Suffice to say, most of them also make terrible employees.  Which is why they started a company (it's why I did!) 

Red Flag #5 - Goofy resume file names

This one is my personal favorite.  Next time someone sends you an electronic version of their resume, look at the file name.  If it's JoeSmith_Resume.doc, it passes the "no goofiness" test.  If it's titled JoeSmith_MarketingResume.doc, then you should go into B.S. Detection Mode.  Why does Joe Smith need to put "Marketing Resume" in the file name?  Because Joe is applying for a bunch of different jobs, and is tailoring his resume based on the type of role.  I'll bet my left hind quarter that Joe also has one called "JoeSmith_SalesResume.doc" that he uses for sales jobs.  What's more, this is the one error that most resume cheats don't even realize they're committing.  They're just trying to keep all of their resume versions in order, and the only way to do that is with the file name.  Keep an eye out for this one - it's subtle but incredibly predictive. 

In summary, I want to stress that all candidates are presumed innocent until it's confirmed that they lied on a resume.  That can only be done with smart, targeted questions asked during the telephone and in-person interview stages. These five red flags can alert you to potential issues, and can tell you what to focus on. 

Adam Robinson is the CEO of Hireology - a web-based tool that provides customized interviews, job profiling, and one-click background checks to help companies hire the right person. Start your free trial at www.Hireology.com today!

Learn how to spot red flags on sales resumes:

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Adam Robinson

About the Author

Adam co-founded Hireology with the mission to help growing companies make better hiring decisions through data and better technology. Adam is passionate about entrepreneurship, donating time to a number of organizations that support the entrepreneurial cause. Adam completed his undergraduate study at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and received his MBA from DePaul University in Chicago, IL.