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Wondering what to look for in a resume? Not these 5 things

Nikoletta Bika
Nikoletta Bika

Nikoletta holds an MSc in HR management and has written extensively about all things HR and recruiting.

Duped investors are the obvious victims of the corporate scam allegedly devised by Theranos CEO, Elizabeth Holmes – a story now told in a new HBO documentary – but they’re not the only ones. While investors spent millions of dollars on claims of revolutionized blood-testing technology, Theranos employees were being unknowingly stigmatized by association with the scandal.

This was recently reported in news media: ex-employees are running into obstacles in their job hunt. Many companies are disqualifying these candidates due to their closeness to Holmes’ alleged deceptions.

You can’t blame employers for trying to ensure they won’t make the wrong hire. But when it comes to what to look for in a resume, these criteria are too arbitrary to be effective. And they aren’t just about scandals; in fact, prompted by the plight of Theranos employees, we present five things you shouldn’t look at when screening resumes (and why):

1. Association with scandals

Tainted by association – it has happened before. Workable’s one-time VP of Customer Advocacy and veteran recruiting expert, Matt Buckland, reminisces his recruiting days amidst the Enron scandal:

When the Enron scandal hit, [executives in my company] said that we should disregard all candidates from Enron. One of the reasons they gave was that the scale and scope of the scandal meant you must have known about it and you must be complicit somehow.

This reasoning seems flawed from the get-go. You can’t be sure what someone knew or not, especially if they were low-level employees. “If you were the janitor or the receptionist, you weren’t fixing prices, were you?” says Matt.

But even for higher level executives, their position and function in the hierarchy matter. Can we be sure that a VP of operations or a sales director knows what financial scams their company is involved in? “It’s very easy to disqualify these people. Everyone says there’s a war for talent, but there’s loads of people. There’s always another one,” says Matt. “Yet, by rejecting someone so easily, you could be saying ‘no’ to your best future employee.”

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Matt adds that we should consider whether we’re punishing the individual for the criminality or wrongdoing of a company, when deciding on what to look for in a resume when hiring. “Think about what scope that person had,” Matt explains. “Nick Leeson’s case at Barings Bank is a good example. He destroyed the whole of Barings Bank and triggered a global financial crisis. Are you going to hire Nick Leeson? No. Should you not hire anyone who worked at Barings Bank? Well, no, you’d still hire them.”

Also, there’s the element of empathy. We need to empathize with people who didn’t do anything wrong but still found themselves tied to a scandal. This could potentially happen to some of us, too.

Beyond the madness and the media hype is a very mundane story of an everyday guy coming in and doing a job, says Matt.

2. Employment gaps

Easier and less morally charged: “employment gaps,” those periods of time in a candidate’s resume where it appears they weren’t doing much. This often matters when thinking about what to look for in a resume as an employer and recruiter. Some studies indicate that long-term unemployed workers may be up to 45% less likely to be called to interviews than “newly unemployed or currently employed people who look just like them.”

This might be an attempt to avoid a costly hiring process for someone who will be rejected at the end. In this case, periods of unemployment are used as proxies for the ability to work diligently and effectively. This may originate from an unspoken rule many of us follow unconsciously: you need to always be working to be considered talented and motivated, and employed workers (or passive talent) are definitely better professionals.

Yet, there are a lot of perfectly acceptable reasons why someone chose not to work, or took time off to study or volunteer for some time. Maybe they were sick, or caring for a loved one who was sick; but they wouldn’t – or haven’t – put that in their resume or cover letter. Perhaps they wanted to spend time with their families and decided to take a break from the world of work. Maybe they just wanted time to travel and read, or they were laid off and couldn’t find work right away due to a tough economy. As Rob Long, Workable’s VP of Partnerships and former recruiter, says, “Good people look for jobs, too.”

Employment gaps don’t say anything about a candidate’s skills or suitability for the job. You can ask about those gaps during a screening call, but don’t treat them as major criteria during your hiring process. If the subject is sensitive, candidates might not want to reveal their reasons during a screening call; be prepared to accept “I wasn’t working for personal reasons” as an answer. Even the most talented professionals among us may have been unemployed at some point, but they might not feel comfortable explaining why to a potential employer.

3. Prestigious schools

Favoring job candidates who went to specific schools is one of the most arbitrary and ineffective hiring criteria. In the wake of bribery scandals regarding admissions to Ivy League colleges in the U.S., we may have more cause to distrust the value of educational backgrounds. In fact, according to an article in the Washington Post, the game of admission to elite schools has always been rigged in favor of the wealthier kids — not the smartest or hardest working.

That’s not to say that an Ivy League school graduate can’t be the most qualified candidate for the job. But, there’s an equal chance they might not be. Looking into those candidates seriously limits your applicant pool and makes it less likely you’ll find the best possible candidate.

So consider not paying attention to where a candidate studied. Look at more specific elements of their educational background, like what courses they took, the study groups they may have been part of, or the topic of their dissertation or graduate thesis.

Depending on the job, you may not have to look much at education credentials at all. You probably need someone to have a degree in biology or chemistry if you’re hiring for a lab scientist, but is it equally important for a salesperson to have a degree in business or even an MBA? Probably not. There’s value in hiring non-traditional candidates. We find similar insight in Stack Overflow’s 2018 developer survey where about 20% of professional developers who responded don’t have a college degree. So, be open-minded and focus on the actual skills the candidate brings to the table.

4. Controversial industries

To clarify, we’re not talking about anything extreme. If you’re hiring for an accounting role, and you passed on a candidate who handled the finances of a drug trafficking ring, I wouldn’t blame you. But, in other cases, the (legal) industries featured in a candidate’s resume shouldn’t be a reason to reject them.

For example, think about someone who was the sales manager at a marijuana company. There’s no real reason to disqualify them based on this. A job in the legal cannabis industry is a job like any other. This sales manager may even have an advantage against other candidates because they have a successful track record of selling products that are heavily stigmatized or regulated by law.

Same goes for a developer who worked at PornHub, the popular adult pornography site. There’s nothing wrong with having a legal job at a legal online platform – the experience you gain is the same as in every company (or even greater, when you’re trying to maintain a site flooding with users during Facebook down times and at the end of marquee sports matchups). In fact, there’s an oldie-but-goodie joke about what a PHP developer at PornHub should be truly embarrassed of:

5. Criminal background

Admittedly, this is a tough one. Out of all the candidates you’re afraid to take a risk on, convicted criminals are the most worrisome. You know they’re capable of ‘bad’ behavior. And having them on staff can potentially tarnish your company’s reputation. Matt clarifies: “If you hire someone who was fixing Libor at Barclays, what message does that send to the rest of the market and your investors?”

But, there’s something to be said for the necessity of rehabilitating convicted criminals who have paid their dues. “In UK law,” says Matt, “you have the notion of spent and unspent convictions. If I was a drunk driver and I had gone five years with no further incidents, this conviction is spent.” Also, laws in countries like the U.S. may have legal restrictions on how much you can use criminal records to make employment decisions.

Some companies do hire convicted criminals, and they may have good reasons to do so. You might hear it’s because it’s a great pool of untapped talent, or because of altruism, which would be to a company’s credit. Of course, ulterior motives may also be at play:

When the candidate has a niche skill set the company wants, people can disregard loads of stuff this person is personally guilty of. For example, I know of a trader who was convicted of fraud – and the company knew that – but was hired anyway. Did they hire him out of some altruistic motive, because he deserves a second chance? Or did they hire him because he’s a great trader and he’s gonna make them big money? I’d like to think it was the first, but it was probably the second.

Also, the concept of corporate social responsibility may have something to do with these hiring decisions. “Ex-offenders become like an archetype for the company’s virtue signaling,” says Matt. “‘We hire felons’ is often the same as ‘Here’s my CEO planting a tree, we love the environment.’”

The reality is, sometimes, a convicted criminal actually has the skills you need and they do deserve a second chance. If you talk to them and you’re satisfied they can be valuable employees, you can take a risk. Although, Matt warns, don’t forget to take risks in other ways, too. Combating unconscious bias is a difficult process that will demand attention and, maybe, getting out of your comfort zone.

You might be tempted to take a risk on a convicted trader because they could make you a billion dollars. Well, taking a so-called ‘risk’ on someone who’s in an underrepresented group, like a black woman or a first-generation immigrant, can also make you money by helping you take advantage of diverse perspectives.

Be as objective as possible when determining what to look for in a resume and discuss with the candidate. It helps if they’re upfront about their convictions and how their crime came about. In the end, if you’re not confident about the candidate’s repentance, you could reject them.

Recruiters, be brave

The main problem with all these arbitrary criteria, though, is that they usually come from hiring managers or executives. Recruiters are often unable to navigate these perceptions.

“The recruiter is a tool used by a hiring manager – certainly they are in their early career,” explains Matt. “Hiring managers tell you things they wouldn’t say publicly like; ‘Don’t hire anyone from this company’, or; ‘They went to X University, that’s terrible.’ And you would have to deal with that.”

Even when hiring managers don’t tell you directly what to look for in a resume, they might introduce bias in the process through their reactions. “If, for example, you give a hiring manager a resume of a great candidate who worked at Enron, you might see the hiring manager go ‘ugh, Enron.’ Then, you’re probably not going to show them any more of these candidates,” observes Matt.

So, hiring managers should also be careful not to subtly introduce such biases into the hiring process. But, it’s also a wake-up call for recruiters who should learn to push back to these reactions and, occasionally, to blatant orders.

Matt emphasizes the importance of giving candidates the benefit of the doubt before considering their candidacy based on potential bias-triggering elements in their CV or resume.

Open communication with the candidate during the process is absolutely key here.

“If one of these controversial candidates comes along, ask them about their experience with a scandal, their employment gaps or their educational background during the interview,” he says. “‘Oh my god, Theranos – what was that like?’ Just ask them.”

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