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13 Red Flags In Your Resume – And How To Fix Them

13RedFlagsInYourResumeAndHowToFixThem_KennedyExecutive_CareerBlog-460x170

Did you ever wonder what we external and internal recruiters check when we decide within 5-10 seconds if your resume is of interest to us or not? Which are the red flags in YOUR resume – the reasons you will not make it to the interview?

Here are the 13 most flagrant warning signals we might spot in your CV – and the solution to fix them:

  1. Unexplained gaps: It is OK to have a gap in the resume – if the explanation is good. PROBLEM: If we don’t understand its reason immediately, we will pass on. SOLUTION: This advice is unorthodox but if your last job ended four months ago, add a bullet point on top and call it “language course, move to another city, baby-break, taking care of a sick family member, business analysis to open a restaurant” or whatever. Yes, these are imperfect solutions but they are way better than… writing nothing. Alternative: meaningful executive education. See point 5 for more advice on this
  2. Inconsistency in professional choices: Every career will become flat at one point of time and when you change jobs at fifty, sideward steps are perfectly okay. When you are younger and applying in a fast-paced environment however, it should go upward and demonstrate dynamic evolution. THE PROBLEM: If you have had  the same job three times but in different companies, we might assume that you are not able to do more or lack ambition – and put your application aside (I know of course that the reality is that you can not always freely choose…). THE SOLUTION: Add information on job content if the title does not reflect an evolution. Or indicate that the company was bigger. You learn somethings new in every job. Make sure your resume reflects this
  3. Too many job changes: Careers where you retire in the very firm that hired you fifty years ago are over. Dynamic changes are part of a competitive profile – but not too often. THE PROBLEM: If you worked for three companies within the last three years, we might assume that you will not stay here either and not call you. THE SOLUTION: If you had good reasons for changing, add them (“reason for leaving: company went bankrupt” or “job was made redundant”.  “New management” is also perfectly plausible)
  4. Not enough job changes: Did I say before that careers in one only company do not exist anymore? THE PROBLEM: The “life” of a job is 3-5 years. After that period, some kind of evolution should occur or we might consider you being inflexible or not ambitious. THE SOLUTION: Even if you have been in the same job for the last fifteen years, your job has evolved since, hasn’t it? Break down your current function into different parts, for instance “Since 04/2011: same job plus the responsibilities X, Y and Z”
  5. Lack of formal education/ having an outdated one: The term “lifelong learning” is overused – but 100% correct. Returning regularly to school is an essential part of a competitive profile at the beginning of the twenty-first century. THE PROBLEM: If your last education dates ten years ago or more, we could think that you are not interested in advancing your skills or that your theoretical skills fall short. THE SOLUTION: This is an easy one: Take meaningful executive education. Choose wisely, as you send a message with the kind of module you have chosen. If you have been working in finance for the last twenty years, do NOT take something on finance but rather on strategy or leadership. Don’t have money to take a residential week at Harvard Business School or Stanford University? Have a look at Coursera and enroll in “Smart Growth for Private Businesses” at Darden Business School. Or why not “Competitive Strategy” at Ludwig-Maximilians-University, Munich, Germany – for free
  6. Fancy layout for non-fancy jobs: THE PROBLEM: You will shock no one with a plain layout and font but you might shock with strange colors or fonts in your resume. THE SOLUTION: No colors, make it plain and sober to be on the safe side
  7. Poor grammar or typos: No ecxuse with this one. THE PROBLEM: We might assume that if you cannot write your own resume without mistakes, you will not be able to put anything else on paper without errors either. THE SOLUTION: print out your resume, check it meticulously, run a spell-check and ask a friend or family member to proofread it one last time
  8. An unprofessional email address: THE PROBLEM: You can be 100% sure to make a bad impression with disco.fever@strangeprovider.peculiarending in a traditional white-collar context. THE SOLUTION: Call me narrow-minded but I cannot come up with any alternative to first name.lastname@trustworthyprovider.com. Also, do not change the orthography of your name: I know a “Francois” with an email address “Fancois” (his explanation: “Francois.lastname” was taken”). Eight in ten people will get it wrong when typing it or will simply think that you have escaped from the nuthouse…
  9. Vocabulary that lacks energy: THE PROBLEM: “Involved in”, “assisted ABC” or “exposure to” do not show that you were in the driving seat of your career. THE SOLUTION: use active, not passive words such as “implemented 123”, “driven the project XYZ” or “headed up 123” to show you were you in charge and made it happen
  10. Inability to get the message across: Again, you have got 5 seconds to make an impression on us… THE PROBLEM: … and if you don’t, we will file you. THE SOLUTION: use bullet points, talk about your achievements (“I created double-digit revenue growth for three consecutive years and built from scratch one of the top ten teams company-wide”). Be precise, clear and avoid jargon (a twenty-two year old intern could be the gate-keeper…). Your resume should be on two, maximum three pages. Make sure you put all essential information on top of page one, the part we see when we open your resume without scrolling down, for instance, by adding an executive summary such as “General Manager/ trilingual/ managed up to 100 million USD and 250 people/ service industry” on top. Because we might never scroll down if what we see does not click with us
  11. Bad structure: THE PROBLEM: We are used to reading many, many, resumes. And if yours is too different, we might not understand it – and pass on. THE SOLUTION: Use the following structure: contact data, executive summary, education, last job then downwards. Clearly indicate year and month of the respective job If the month is missing and you write for instance “2011: job A, 2012: job B”, we will automatically assume that you lost job A in January 2011 and found job B only in November 2012 – because if you had nothing to hide, you would have put the months
  12. Banalities: THE PROBLEM: we have read “accomplished leader”, “results-driven”, “excellent communication skills” etc. one thousand times before and won’t believe a word. THE SOLUTION: Don’t talk but show: Prove “accomplished” by demonstrating your seniority, “results-driven” through stating hard facts, “excellent communication skills” through plain and clear speech
  13. No contact data: THE PROBLEM: In twelve years in this industry, I have seen it all: resumes without email address, phone number or post address… THE SOLUTION: Check your resume once, and do it again


Conclusion:

There are many valid reasons to do things differently than outlined here. Whether you agree or not with the above, bear in mind that an average reader will spend no more than 5-10 seconds on your resume before deciding whether to spend more time on it or not. You are a valid candidate, right? Help us to understand this fast – and ensure that we call you for an interview if you are the right fit!

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Jorg Stegemann
Jorg Stegemann - Headhunter, Certified Coach and Business Writer - is head of Kennedy Executive Search. Apart from running Kennedy's company blog, he writes for Forbes, BBC and other media.
  1. Martin Ellis Reply

    Hi Jorg. Another good ‘un. Interesting perspective on number 3. A client said they were not bothered by lots of jobs “The world has changed. We want people with energy to change, not the lack of energy to stay static”. I’m certainly becoming more aware of this view becoming more widespread, although it’s not in the majority yet.

    • Jorg Stegemann
      Jorg Stegemann Reply

      Martin, Thanks for the comment. You work in UK, I work on the continent and there are huge differences between our markets. I try to be universal but maybe this one has to be seen in its’ context – at least for junior profiles. However, the higher you climb on the corporate ladder, the more important is consistency and a saying goes “a manager will take one year to learn the ropes, the second year to get solid results and the third one to confirm everything before moving forward”. My feeling is that this is the same in most markets.

  2. Hilary Reply

    Jorg, as a college career counselor who works daily with students on their resume development, this is excellent information for me to pass along! Students often wonder why they are not selected for interviews, and while I can give feedback from a career coaching standpoint, nothing beats hearing information from the mouth of a recruiter! Thanks for posting

    • Jorg Stegemann
      Jorg Stegemann Reply

      Thanks for your comment, Hilary.

  3. Nigel Reply

    “7. Poor grammar or typos: No ecxuse with this one.”

    Do I detect humour?

    • Jorg Stegemann
      Jorg Stegemann Reply

      Yes, you do. Heppy you noticed

  4. Nigel Reply

    I thought I’d mention another red flag, certianly in our office here (we saw one this afternoon).

    We call it the “Wall of Text”. It’s related to your “11. Bad structure” point, but even with everything in the right order an excess of text dooms your CV.

    I’ll make the admission that I am sure we have overlooked very talented and able candidates due to this problem. I’ll even make the admission that in the future, we’ll overlook more. As Jorg says – 5 to 10 seconds – in that time I can pick out salient bullet points on single lines. I’m sorry but I don’t have time to read your version of War & peace…

    • Jorg Stegemann
      Jorg Stegemann Reply

      Good comment, Nigel. I thought I had mentioned it but good to know that you proofread. Thanks

  5. Simon Reply

    Thanks Jorg. Doing some Career Transition Coaching at present and your advice aligns with a lot of what we have been exploring in regard to resumes. Always good to have it from another source.

  6. Nico Reply

    Hi Jorg, somehow I only came across your website today – fortunately rather late than never! I find your topics loaded with practical and meaningful advice and after reading about these red flags I am off to do the immediate repair work on my CV. Thanks for the pointers!

    • Jorg Stegemann
      Jorg Stegemann Reply

      Thanks for the feedback, Nico. Happy it helps

  7. Charles Caldwell Reply

    Great article and agree with all points. I would add: Inconsistency between resume and online presence (i.e. LinkedIn profile, etc.) It’s another area where career gaps can creep in and suggests a lack of attention to detail. Particularly important in today’s social media environment.

    • Jorg Stegemann
      Jorg Stegemann Reply

      Charles, this is a great comment. Indeed my job is all about finding consistencies (between a candidate and a job) and inconsistencies (alarm!).

  8. Enrico Reply

    Great article Jorg. I always follow your posts and this is one of the greatest. Let me tell you that I tried with an online coursera course and feel it is a great tool. Thanks from Chile!.

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