In this blog post, we look at what a manager is experiencing when they’re reviewing your resume, what red flags they might be looking out for, and how to avoid them ruining your chances at an interview.


Hiring: In a Nutshell

Before we start, let’s review the high level steps a manager goes through when hiring.

This will give you some key insights to what a hiring manager is thinking about when they’re looking at your resume.

It will also help you understand why it’s important to be mindful of what red flags your resume might inadvertently include.

Needs Assessment

This is where the manager identifies that they have a gap on the team (in skill or capacity), articulates what that need is, and gets approval to hire.

Marketing & Recruitment

Here, the manager creates the job description, markets the position to their network, and also canvases their network for potential candidates.

Candidate Screening

In the screening process, the manager reviews resumes, interviews candidates, and performs background checks on the candidate.

Offer & Acceptance

Once the manager has selected their candidate, they create the job offer, get it approved, extend it to the candidate and enter into negotiations of the offer details.

The Candidate Screening Process

Since this blog post is about possible red flags on your resume, we are in the Candidate Screening part of the process.

This happens after the manager has already canvased their network for potential candidates, advertised the heck out of their job posting, and received all the candidate submissions for the posting.

The time gap from the manager’s initial Needs Assessment and sitting down to review resumes could take at least a month–even at small, nimble companies.

Their team is already starting to feel the pressures from not having this new person join the team. Whether they are missing a critical skillset or have more work than they can handle, they’re all eagerly awaiting more help.

Not only is the hiring manager under pressure to fill the position quickly, they also need to find the right person to join the team.

The work to hire and onboard someone takes a lot of time and effort, and bringing the wrong person onto the team could have long-lasting negative impacts to the team’s culture and productivity.

They also don’t have a lot of time to conduct the interviews, so managers need to be careful of who is selected for the interview itself.

My Background

In the span of 6 years, I created and staffed two teams at one of Canada’s largest P&C insurers.

This happened while Big Oil in Canada saw a contraction, and as we entered and exited the global pandemic.

Needing to fill dozens of roles in project management and leadership, I waded through countless resumes to find just the right person to bring onto my team.

The following are the top 3 red flags I came across over and over again.

Of course, not all managers may have the same “top 3”. But I also assisted peers in recruiting, and guided leaders on my team when they had to recruit–and these three always came up.

So let’s take a look at what they are, why they scare us and what you can do about them.

Red Flag #1: Multiple Short Tenures

What it Looks Like

Managers understand that “stuff” happens.

Maybe you’re in an industry that has been hit with staff reductions multiple times, no matter who you work for. Or maybe you’re just out of school and had trouble landing in the right niche. Or maybe life was…well, life, and had impacts to your ability to stay in a position or company for long.

No matter the reason, managers will notice these things right away (and not in your favour!):

  • Back-to-back jobs at different companies for a year or less
  • Changes to industries and roles (e.g. staying within marketing in different industries would not be a red flag)
  • Different titles within a company for less than a year

Why it Scares Us

Managers get that life happens, but multiple short tenures will cause us to pause because we’re wondering:

  • Will they stay for more than a few months?
  • Are they just looking for a paycheque until they find something better?
  • Will they make enough of an impact while they’re here?

Even in the shortest timeline, most managers don’t expect their team to benefit from your skills and experience until 4-6 months after they realize they need someone like you.

So when managers see multiple short positions, they may be concerned that they won’t be able to keep you long enough to benefit from you being part of their team.

The Fix

If you took any of these positions as short contracts (i.e. they only intended to have you there for a few months), make that extremely clear in your resume.

For example, a simple notation after your title can explain why you were there for that period of time:

For more complicated scenarios or ones where it could be easily explained in a few sentences, this is where you will want to include a cover letter.

I highly recommend you address it upfront, so they don’t feel like they spent time reading the summary of your skills, only to be caught with a “by the way…”.

Here’s an example of the placement of the explanation:

Do not assume you’ll have the chance to explain short tenures or gaps in employment at the interview.

Remember they don’t know you–so if the hiring manager is even a little iffy about what they see in your resume, they may not take the risk to spend time on you with an interview.

Red Flag #2: Too Much Jargon

What it Looks Like

Whether it’s acronym-soup, buzz-terms or industry-speak, too much of it can make a resume un-readable at best…or worse, cause a manager to suspect if you actually know what you’re talking about.

This can look like:

  • Acronyms without explanation
  • Lots of buzz terms, catch phrases and fancy-sounding words
  • Using words that are common in another company or industry…but only there and nowhere else

Why it Scares Us

Some people love using jargon because it makes them sound like they know what they’re talking about.

This is fine if you’re actually trying to bamboozle someone.

But if you’re trying to convince someone that you can do the job, this could work against you.

When managers see a lot of jargon, we ask ourselves:

  • Do they really understand the work, or did they just Google a bunch of job descriptions?
  • Will they be able to explain things clearly to others?
  • What does this even mean?

The Fix

The acronym fix is an easy one: spell it out!

Even if you’re 300% the acronym should be known by everyone in your industry, it’s better to assume otherwise.

Most managers won’t even notice that you spelled it out for them, but the ones who need it will notice that there was no explanation.

For all situations, I always recommend having a friend or family member who doesn’t understand what you do to review your resume.

Ask them to point out anything they don’t understand, and take the feedback as an opportunity to clarify and simplify your language for anyone.

The unfortunate reality is that if a manager can’t figure out what your skills and experience are from a quick glance, they’re unlikely to spend much effort trying to figure it out.

Make it as easy as possible for them to know exactly what you bring to the table.

Red Flag #3: Way Overqualified

What it Looks Like

This one always surprises people when I tell them!

Many job-seekers think that managers would prefer someone who is over-qualified than under-qualified.

While that may be the case a lot of the time, someone way overqualified might get filtered out faster than someone who is only missing one or two items from a manager’s perfect-candidate-wish-list.

Examples of being too overqualified:

  • Someone with 10+ years of experience applying for an entry-level position
  • Multiple previous titles that are one or more levels more senior than the advertised role
  • Recent experience in a job family much higher than the job being applied to (e.g. a Product or Program manager applying to be a Tester, or the Head of Marketing applying to manage social media campaigns)

Why it Scares Us

Managers love experience, but also hate risk.

When we see that much of a gap between your experience and our needs, we may be tempted to bring you in, but also worry:

  • Will they only stay while they try to get a more senior, higher-paying job?
  • Will they do the job I need done, or the more senior work they have done before and enjoy?
  • What if they want my job?

The Fix

I’ve talked to many people who legitimately want to pivot from a more senior role to a more junior one.

Whether it’s for better work-life balance or they’ve simply done the senior work and are okay with something less demanding, many mid- and late-career professionals seek to let others take on the more challenging work.

If that’s your situation, make sure you include a cover letter explaining your situation.

This is your opportunity to calm an otherwise spooked manager long enough for them to get excited to bring all of your experience to their team.

In Summary

You have valuable skills and experience to bring to any team, and circumstances beyond your control may introduce red flags in your resume that you didn’t intend to.

A strong cover letter, an impartial resume review and being mindful of your language can easily set a hiring manager’s mind at ease.

Remember that few hiring managers are risk-takers when it comes to hiring. And most of us won’t spend the effort to figure out what you’re saying if someone else does it more simply.

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