Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Please Hire Me: Your Resume and the Great Document Structure Lie

Did you hate history class when you were in school? Perhaps you had one of those classes where they made you memorize dates. Maybe you found it frustrating that each year they would teach you the same stuff they taught you about last year. As someone who found myself in a lot of history classes in college, I can sympathize with your frustration and your boredom. For me, a good history class isn't about dates, it's about stories. One of the best classes that I took retold the story of history through cultural history. It was an amazing class.

The problem with telling a story through dates and places isn't just that it's boring, it's that it isn't really a story so much as a sequence of events. As an example, let's take the story of the Titanic. While most people could tell about what happened and include details drawn from a variety of cultural or historical references, what you probably would not get are dates and times nor any sense of importance of dates and times. So why does everyone expect your resume, the story of your career, to be structured as a listing of dates and places?

The Chronological Resume as an Industry Standard
One of the things that got me started on this topic thread was a recent conversation with a colleague that uses a slightly unconventional resume structure. The colleague had signed up for one of those job services with a resume review, and this quote essentially sums up the review that they received.
Let me start by saying that the organization of your resume's content needs a complete overhaul! The format you are using (called a functional or skills resume), is one that is loathed by executive recruiters and line management for several reasons...
The irony of this evaluation is that my colleague scored several interviews within a week or so of receiving this review and tells me of conversations with recruiters where they expressed unprompted enthusiasm for the structure of the resume.

For me, the resume reviewer's comment reminds me of the old days as a Mac user when you found yourself in a PC environment and PC users that could find no rational explanation for your use of a Mac. It's like a religious adherence to a concept of the status quo that makes it impossible to see the art or the utility of an alternative design. But if most of us have such a dislike for history and memorizing dates, why would so many people feel compelled to use a chronological resume structure? To get a better understanding, let's analyze a few of the reasons what recruiters like chronological resumes and some of the reasons why they don't like other formats.

Here are a couple of the reason's cited by my colleague's professional resume reviewer for not using a functional or skills-based resume structure:
  • They have to read the entire thing before they can get a feel for you, and I guarantee they will not do this. 
  • Employers are left to try to figure out when/where/how you did the things you have listed in the top section of your resume. Employers will not do much work on your behalf, so it is not wise to leave it to them to try and 'figure it out' like a puzzle.
  • This format originated years ago to help people hide a history of job hopping so the mere appearance of it makes recruiters cringe.
While the reviewer attributes the purpose of the skills-based structure to hide job hopping, I always connect it with not having many actual jobs in your career history.  Either way though, there is an inferred message associated with this structure that you are trying to hide something.

This also points to an unstated aspect of the resume process, recruiters and resume reviewers as investigators and content validators. What they are basically saying is that people lie and misrepresent themselves in resumes, and that the recruiter's job is to ensure that liars and suspected liars don't get through the process. To that end, dates and places are can be easily validated.

Data structure is probably another driver behind the standardization around this format. As the world has moved to the internet and a database driven infrastructure, many of our data structures have standardized. By dividing up job history into a segments of when, where, and what, a consistent data structure can be applied to everyone in the database with far less complexity that trying to map data around something like skills.

Selling to Specification-based Buyers
While fact-based history is something that most people consider important, what's missing from fact-based history is the story and the why -- the differentiation. It's similar to many technology products where buyers make decisions on technical specifications. "Forget about the datasheet -- that's all marketing BS. Just let me see the spec sheet."

One reason that specification-based selling is so popular is that it provides a standardized ruler by which things can be measured. The downside of specifications-based selling is that for many me-too products, all that is required is the ability to meet the spec. Or, exceed the spec -- even if it's just turn-of-phrase -- and you have differentiated yourself. "It's just as good as an iPhone", or "it's better than an iPhone, it has a fill-in-the-blank." Often people will also use specifications to justify a second-tier, lower quality or less expensive choice.

For many of us, this focus on specifications over other qualities transcends the hiring process and carries over into work environments, product decisions and more. That's not to say it's good or bad, simply to note that if you find yourself in a spec-driven hiring process and that makes you uncomfortable, there are probably larger spec-based culture issues that you will struggle with if you are hired.

Should You Use A Chronological Resume?
If you're reading this and you still have questions or doubts about what resume structure that you should use, then yes, you should be using a chronological resume structure. Not only will that structure work better with 90% of the automated resume submission systems, you'll never face a situation where someone will question your resume structure or simply rule you out for using an unusual structure.

If, however, there are aspects of your story that are best told in unique ways and you have weighed the different structural approaches, then don't be afraid you use a less conventional resume structure. This is particularly true if you are targeting smaller organizations or positions where your unique story will be appreciated. Keep in mind that most people in a hiring role are expecting a chronological employment history, so you probably need to provide an easy path to that information. But beyond that, if you can elevate your resume, you may find that it becomes a selling tool that differentiates you.

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