Why Sneaky Resume Tactics May No Longer Aid Job Hunters

by | March 10, 2009

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It's getting harder for job hunters to game the systems that recruiters use to identify potential candidates.

Ever since employers started using text-searching programs to sort job resumes more than a dozen years ago, savvy applicants have sought to boost the odds that their resumes will make the cut. The computer programs search for the skills, job experience and other attributes an employer wants and then rank candidates based on the findings. To trick the program to rank their resumes higher, some job hunters insert keywords that can't be seen by the naked eye.

But because of recent advances in resume-search technology, some of the sneakier tactics applicants have developed no longer work. What's more, the new technology can reveal the use of these methods, potentially sabotaging a candidate's chances of securing interview invites.

Two ways to conceal keywords in a resume are to use white type on a white background or to use type so small that the text looks like a solid horizontal line. In the case of online resumes, keywords can be inserted in Web coding that's hidden from plain view.

But many of the newer recruiter search tools can differentiate between a keyword inserted in a resume at random and one used to describe a person's work history. For example, when a recruiter uses Trovix Inc.'s search technology to find candidates proficient in a computer language such as Java, the results will be ordered so that the resumes of those with the most relevant experience are at the top, says Jeff Benrey, founder and chief executive officer of the Mountain View, Calif.-based company. On the resume, "if it's not associated with a job, then you don't get much credit," he says. "What matters is how long you did it for and how recently -- 10 years ago or now."

Trovix's technology penalizes job seekers who use keywords out of context by bumping their resumes to the bottom of the search results, Mr. Benrey says. Thus, while recruiters may never find out if extraneous keywords have been added to a resume, doing so can still backfire.

Search technology from VCG Inc. highlights keywords in resumes and shows how many times each one was used, says Patrick McCall, vice president of sales and marketing for the Roswell, Ga.-based staffing-software provider. As a result, "recruiters will know if white font or some other embedding technique is being used," he says.

Resumes with an overabundance of keywords are a turnoff for Jolie Downs, a partner at recruiting firm Paradigm Staffing of Santa Cruz, Calif. She recently received a resume via email from someone seeking a senior account executive position at a public-relations agency. A string of keywords was listed in plain view at the bottom. "It's unprofessional," she says. "I didn't call them."

Many job hunters use these tactics to get an edge over the competition, says George Rodriguez, a senior corporate recruiter at Sanmina-SCI Corp., an electronics contract manufacturer in San Jose, Calif. "People just want to get their foot in the door."

Cynthia Shapiro, a career coach in Los Angeles with 17 years of experience in corporate human resources, agrees. "You have to do whatever it takes," she says. "Otherwise your resume may never be seen by a human being."

Ms. Shapiro says job hunters may be able to safely increase the presence of keywords in their resumes by putting them in a summary of their skills at the top of the page. "It's a good way to add keywords without being gratuitous or tricky," she says. "And if a hiring manager only reads that, it will give them everything about you."

Mr. Benrey says Trovix's technology would treat keywords in a summary as being used in a natural context, though they wouldn't carry as much weight as keywords tied to a particular job.

There are other strategies that don't involve trickery. If there are several ways to describe the jobs you have held, include as many variations as possible, advises Don Weis, vice president of professional services for Spherion Corp., a staffing firm based in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. For example, programmers can also be called software engineers, program analysts and application developers, he says. Your have to find ways to include these different titles in your resume to ensure that a recruiter doing a search on just one will find you, he notes.

When responding to a job ad, it's a good idea to mimic the ad's language in your resume. "Hiring managers use the same keywords as in the job description when searching resumes," Ms. Shapiro says. "If you're replying to an ad that says 'must be passionate about customer service,' put 'I am passionate about customer service.' You don't have to worry about being overly obvious."

But only copy keywords that truly represent your qualifications, says Ms. Shapiro. "Listing false credentials may get you in the door, but it won't land you the job if you actually don't have them."

Some job hunters have come up with novel ways to flag their resumes. Vincent Granville, chief science officer at Authenticlick, a Los Angeles technology start-up, and the founder of a job board called DataShaping.com, has posted a resume that cites titles he hasn't held that are commonly used by employers to describe jobs that he has had. They're listed under a header called "You need a..." and each title is separated by a dash. Mr. Granville, who has expertise in data mining and Web analytics, says the purpose is to increase the odds of recruiters finding his resume when they search for resumes by job title.

In another section called "Ideally would like someone who worked with companies such as...," Mr. Granville lists the companies he worked for as well as companies that are similar to his former employers. Thus Google Inc. is on his resume even though he never worked there. He did work for CNET Networks Inc. which also offers Web searching services. Because of the wording of the header, he says, "It's not a lie."

Mr. Granville says he receives about 10 emails a week from recruiters about job opportunities. Though he isn't actively seeking new employment, he says he is open to hearing about career prospects. And he credits his creative use of keywords for the exposure his resume has gotten on the Web.

Filed Under: Resumes & Cover Letters

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