Past Issues

October 15, 2012

What To Do When Your Resume
Looks Like Bad News

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When Your Resume Looks Like Bad News...

By Jacquelyn Smith, Forbes Magazine Contributing Writer

Do you have a flawed resume?

I don't mean one with avoidable grammatical errors and misspelled words. I'm talking about a resume with red flags, like huge employment gaps, lack of relevant experience, lack of achievements, or too many short stints.

"Today's employment environment is extremely competitive -- more so then at any other time in recent history," says Greg Faherty, a Certified Professional resume Writer (CPRW) and owner of "Employers are receiving more resumes 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.

Here's what you can do to stay in the running, even when your resume looks like bad news:

Be honest. Don't lie on your resume. 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. Add a line or two, right at the top of your resume, that highlights your qualifications. The first 25% to 50% of the page is most critical to the hiring manager. Highlighting the positives at the top is a great strategy.

Address the issue. Use your cover letter, introductory e-mail or the interview to speak to the issue at hand. Bad news or red flags should never be addressed in a resume. The resume is not the place to explain. If anywhere, it should 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.

Format your resume 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. Then place what you've done over the years in each respective section. Make sure 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 resume. 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.

Too many different jobs. If you've jumped from job to job without an apparent strategy, this can look like a problem to employers. Consider removing a short-term job of less than a year from your career chronology, but keep it on your resume (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 resume.

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. 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 will show your age and expose you to potential bias. 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.

Jacquelyn Smith, Forbes Magazine Contributing Writer, began writing for Forbes in 2010, just as the economy was starting to perk up. Now she contributes to the Leadership channel, with a focus on jobs and careers-another hot topic in a time when people are vigorously hunting for jobs or desperately trying to hold on to the ones they have. She has a BA from the University of Arizona and a Master's Degree in journalism from Hofstra University.

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