Best Practices for Using Resumes in the Recruiting Process

Best Practices for Using Resumes in the Recruiting Process

Most HR thought leaders agree that at least in the foreseeable future, resumes will continue to be the standard format of candidate data used in the employment arena. We all experience the resume as the preferred format of candidate data exchanged between candidates and employers, HR and hiring managers and recruiting agencies and their clients. Even online application processes that require completion of a detailed online application form also prompt for a resume to be uploaded.

Given the length of time resumes have held the position of being the standard data format, the inconsistencies in how employers use resumes in the recruitment and selection process is surprising. Here is some background on the relevant issues surrounding resumes and tips on how to effectively use resumes for identifying and hiring the right candidate for the job.

What a resume is and what it isn’t

A resume should be thought of as a summary of what a candidate wants you to know about them. It is a candidate’s own version of the positive aspects of his or her background and capabilities with the potentially negative aspects omitted or re-worded to read as positive. For example, the reason for leaving a position stated as “left the position due to a corporate downsizing initiative” in reality might have been a situation where they were the only person laid off out of a team of 12, or worse, terminated.

Resumes are not neat packages of objective candidate information designed to make your employee selection decisions more effective. Treating them as such will likely lead to disappointing results. A resume should be treated as an introduction to the candidate, like a written substitute for an in person meeting where you might ask them to summarize their work history and education. The information provided is not necessarily correct or complete.

Lying on resumes appears to be a quite common practice among candidates.  As part of a recent study by SHRM, 70% of college students surveyed said they would lie on their resumes to land their dream job.  There are even resources available that coach candidates on constructing fictional resumes. Derek Johnson, former executive recruiter, has written a guide and launched  He claims that lying on your resume is necessary to compete for your ideal position and provides guidance on how to do this and evade detection.

HireRight’s analysis of aggregate screening data (2007) revealed that over 30 percent of all resumes it reviewed contained discrepancies about work experience or education history, demonstrating the lengths to which some applicants will go to land a job. The following areas of misrepresenting themselves in their resumes top the list:

  1. Inaccurate dates of past employment —  It’s extremely common for applicants to lie about their dates of employment. Candidates often do this in an attempt to cover gaps in employment they may not want to explain or to cover a pattern of “job-hopping”.For example, a candidate screened by HireRight extended his end date at his previous company by six months in order to hide the fact that he spent those six months serving a jail sentence.  Candidates may also fabricate jobs like “independent contractor or consultant” to cover up would-be gaps in employment even though they performed no consulting or contract work during that period.
  2. Falsifying degrees or credentials earned — With a reported 20 percent discrepancy rate in information provided by candidates regarding their education qualifications, it’s important that companies understand the variety of ways applicants lie to claim unearned degrees. In many cases, candidates will attend classes, but not graduate, as was the case for an applicant claiming to be a doctor who actually dropped out a few quarters before completing his degree. Even if a candidate has earned a legitimate degree, the applicant may lie about what they majored in to enhance their qualifications. Marilee Jones, former Admissions Dean for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), fudged her credentials, claiming to be a “scientist with degrees in biology from Rennselaar Polytechnic Institute and the Albany Medical College,” and to have her doctorate. Jones said in a statement she “did not have the courage to correct my résumé when I applied for my current job or at any time since.”
  3. Inflating salary, title, or work details — It’s hardly surprising that a candidate might exaggerate these important facts to get a better job or a higher salary. That’s why employers should contact previous employers to verify positions held by the candidate. Salary verification can be more difficult since many companies will not reveal this information. In such cases, asking the candidate for previous W-2 forms  (or T4 in Canada) as proof is a wise step.

It is a best practice to always contact previous employers to confirm job titles. Obtaining salary history is also an important step. In some cases, employers will provide it. However, other times, they will not, and the hiring company can instead ask a candidate to provide a W-2 (T-4 in Canada) form to confirm salary. Confirming this information allows the employer to not only negotiate the appropriate package, but to also help ensure the candidate’s honesty and integrity.

In 2001, George O’Leary, former Notre Dame Football Coach divulged his lies about his academic and athletic backgrounds. He claimed to have a master’s degree in education from New York University and to have played college football and earned three letters while doing so. Contrarily, O’Leary was a student at NYU but did not earn a degree, and while he played football, he never earned a letter, let alone played in a game.

The bottom line essential step for evaluating resumes is to verify all important resume information. This is a small investment in your time that will help mitigate a large part of the risk involved in hiring. Verifying resume information allows you to ensure the candidate’s honesty, integrity and level of competency for the position’s responsibilities as well as giving you the ability to negotiate the appropriate compensation package.

Best practices for using resumes in the selection process:

An employer’s “resume review” should serve as an initial assessment of whether a candidate meets the basic qualifications for the role. It should also identify areas to probe and verify during later stages such as in a phone screen interview, an in-person interview or a reference check. It is the first of many steps in the hiring process.

In my experience, the most important rule to follow when evaluating resumes is to set your decision criteria BEFORE evaluating resumes. Decide what the basic qualifications or “must have’s” are for a specific position and review resumes using these as the decision making criteria for who progresses and who doesn’t. Although it may be tempting, don’t change the criteria by lowering or raising the bar partway through a group of resumes. This will not only reduce the accuracy of your screening, it may expose you legally because you are effectively treating candidates differently.

A recent DBM survey asked hiring managers what they look for when they reviewed a resume. Here are the top five points they mentioned:

  1. Relevant skills and qualifications – Does the candidate possess the core skills required for success on the job? Do they have the education, certifications, or licenses required? Does the resume indicate how they have used these successfully on the job in the past?
  2. Functional experience – What has the candidate done in the past that relates to the position they’ve applied for? Are they prepared to handle situations that might arise on the job, and have they been successful in dealing with them in the past.?
  3. Employment history – Who has the candidate worked for in the past? What professional culture preferences might this indicate and how well they might fit in with the organization?
  4. Industry experience – Although not a “must-have” in many cases, does the candidate appear to understand the dynamics of the industry? Have they had success in facing problems similar to these they would face on the job?
  5. Measurable accomplishments – Does the candidate demonstrate through concrete examples and figures that he or she is better than average and has made a positive contribution to the organization?

Using Assessments in Conjunction with Resume Evaluation:

Fortunately we have methods at our disposal to collect objective information on what candidates are really like, that dig deeper than the resume data they choose to share with us. Psychometric assessments are the most effective way of getting to this objective information and getting an accurate view of who candidates truly are.

Assessments serve to level the playing field across candidates by providing an identical set of criteria for which to measure their fit to a specific role. The three main areas that a quality assessment battery measures: abilities, personality traits, and interests can be used to corroborate resume data or to give us clues as to which areas of a candidate’s history should be probed into.

Here are some ideas:

  1. Personality Traits – Do personality assessment results align with work history? For example, if a candidate’s work history reveals frequent job changes does this align with low conscientiousness scores or low emotional stability scores? If not, what were the reasons for the job changes?
  2. Abilities – Do scores on ability tests align with education history? For example, if a candidate scores low on verbal ability, a degree in English literature would be suspect.  If a candidate scores highly on cognitive ability but lacks formal education have they educated themselves in important areas that are not on the resume?
  3. Interests – Do a candidate’s previously held positions align with their interests? For example, if a candidate has worked primarily in sales and customer service, does working with people top their interest results? If not, why did they choose to work in these roles?

As long as resumes continue to be the standard currency in the employment market we need to ensure that our use of them puts them in their proper perspective. Though biased, they are an effective first glimpse at candidates and their overall profiles. Though it’s tempting to do so, we shouldn’t base our hiring decision mainly on the resume. If we use the proper tools and methods in the hiring process such as assessments, we’re on the right path to making the most informed and best possible hiring decisions.

Written by:
Stephen RaceBA, MSc. (Occupational Psychology)