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The Curse of the Combo

September 9th, 2011

Recently I met a candidate with a piece of paper that nearly stopped the interview. John Sanchez, I’ll call him, was well dressed and well spoken. I liked him. However, he handed me a resume that was dense with words, like an impenetrable thicket. It was top heavy with grand adjectives. I asked him for his work experience.

John pointed to the last five lines on the page. His 20 years of work history was listed simply by years, company and position title. No duties, responsibilities, or accomplishments were associated with any one of his actual jobs. The years overlapped. I was supposed to be impressed with the general duties listed in excruciating detail above the work history. But the duties were liberated from time and place. Was he an executive at one company or three? For how many years was he a bookkeeper? Was he ever promoted?

Employers prefer chronological resumes. However, “functional” and “combination” resumes are flooding the internet. (John has a “combo” resume, with three quarters devoted to “skills” and lofty generalizations such as “Fifteen years of advanced bookkeeping.”) Tucked in at the bottom of a combo is the chronology that employers need and read.

There is something to be said for the use of keyword-rich resumes as internet door openers. Keywords can get you past the screening software. Computers don’t care where the keywords are on the page, just that they are.

Employers do care where the keywords are located. We read resumes from top left to bottom right in a few seconds. From that fast scan we form an impression and decide whether or not to proceed.

Details such as skills, experience or titles do enrich job histories as long as they are verifiable. Anyone can claim to be an “advanced bookkeeper” or an “executive”. To be credible, skills must be demonstrated in a context. What accounts did John keep? For whom? What made his function “advanced?” How long was he in position?

Because John was already in my office, I built up his accomplishments from high school to the present. He really did have impressive experience. It took us 15 minutes to reconstruct his background so that I could understand it. What I can’t understand, I can’t use. Had he not been in the room, I would have rejected his resume. In the end, he lacked the background I needed and his unprofessional resume undermined his professional appearance.

Job seekers with problems use functional resumes. They may have employment gaps. They may hope to change careers. They may live out of state. Functional resumes try to fool the employer. Functional resumes may open doors, but, in the light of full disclosure, they may doom the candidate. Combos are barely one step above functional resumes on the transparency scale.

For better results, avoid the curse of the combo.

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