Where a Screening Process Might Break Down: The Human Factor

Screening by Humans

The resume screening process can break down in a variety of ways. In this post, we’ll take a look at the human factor: how errors and bias on the part of persons involved in the screening process might affect your candidacy. 

Screeners who just “wing it.” There are a couple of common ways this might happen. First, if it’s a single person, it could be that he or she has sole authority over hiring and thinks: “I’ll know what I like when I see it.” Or it could be that a supervisor has asked a person or committee to do the screening without giving any clear guidelines. In these cases, it is likely that there will be some loose criteria, but unless the person or committee comes up with some that are clear, it’s pretty much like “shooting at the side of a barn.”

(Yes, employers are just as guilty of this as job-seekers!)

Sometimes bias comes into play. Sometimes screeners ignore stated criteria in favor of their own “preferred” qualifications. At other times, a “preference” may be factored into the equation. For example, some employers have a preference for hiring and promoting from within, or through employee referral programs. Some give preference to those that come directly to a human resource officer than to those entered through the web. Some may give preference to candidates who apply through the company over those forwarded by job boards. And some individuals might give preference to people who went to the same school, were a member of an organization they like, or who they know through social connections.

Sometimes, screeners are lazy or disorganized and skim hastily through the résumés. If it is because the person is lazy, there’s just no telling whether there will be a rhyme or reason to their picks. If it is because they are disorganized, they might give early applicants a more thorough review than those they review closer to the deadline.

So what can you do, in the face of human errors and bias? Not much, really.

  • If a screener is just “winging it,” that is an internal issue for his employer to deal with, and it is well beyond your control. You’ll really never know if this is the case, so don’t spend a lot of time worrying about it. When someone is just making it up as they go along, it doesn’t matter how you’ve presented your arguments. It’s probably a blessing to not work with people who have such a loose grasp on such an important role.
  • You can never control for a screener’s bias. In fact, there is always some sort of bias at play. In the best cases, the bias is toward a candidate with certain skills or experiences. In the worst cases, the biases aren’t stated, but internalized by the candidate, and it’s likely they justified screening a candidate in or out based on some other grounds. The best way to deal with perceived bias is to tightly align your arguments with a potential employer’s known biases. When reading job announcements, look for the terms “preferred,” “would a plus,” “desired,” or “ideal.” if you lack any of the skills or experiences listed with these terms, you will be less competitive than candidate who have those skills and experiences. The best you can do is argue for transferability of skills, aptitude, and motivation.  So write your resume toward related skills and experiences, and describe them in ways that accurately depict your strengths in other areas, and your motivation to close any gaps. This can be done through re-writing bullet points and/or the professional summary on your resume, and through the cover letter. The strategy is simple. Acknowledge the gaps quickly and show how you would fill them, while also showing strong foundational skills in other key skill areas.
  • You can’t control a screener’s laziness or disorganization. But you can apply early (as soon as you see a position posted), and organize your documents in a clear concise manner, that brings the most important details up front and early, so the lazy screener gets en0ugh information from pre-screening the document’s top third of page 1 that they don’t have to read any further to make an initial decision. Basically, make it easy for a lazy person to quickly see what you have to offer.

This post is part of a series adapted from my e-b0ok “7 Points to a Winning Resume.”  Next up in the series, we’ll explore the applicant’s role in the screening process, and how you can increase your possibility for  success.


Credential vs. Potential: Hiring "Diamonds in the Rough"

bigstock_Diamond_In_The_Rough_6613316In higher education, as in any industry, credentials and certifications are sought after by professionals hoping to get an advantage over their competition. In an interesting post that entered my tweet stream on Friday, Kenny Silva explored the weight we often place on credentials in the hiring process, in contrast to potential. This is especially pertinent at this time of year, when the academic year is beginning, and the hiring season slows to a crawl.

Back when I was working at Penn State, I often found myself in the  awkward position of filling a vacancy or two late in the summer. In part, this was due having an area mostly populated by upper-class students and more returning staff.  The priority spots in our large residence hall system was to make sure that the first-year areas were adequately staffed first. When approximately half of your 14,000 students are first-year students, and about 4500 of those live in one area, you must have priorities.

Working with first-year students is, in general, more exciting to many staff, because, well…they need you in a different way. It’s more validating. Upperclassmen don’t get in nearly as much trouble, and mostly, they want to be left alone to do their own thing. So there were several occasions when someone left or was transferred to a new area or got promoted when we had to fill a vacancy post-haste and pronto, and many of the more highly credentialed new hires had already been placed. These are the times when it is especially important to look for potential.

In my time as Assistant Director, I cared more about potential than credentials, and honestly, I still do, because, for the most part, my least credentialed staff were easiest to work with, related better to students, and were more motivated to prove themselves. I always appreciated that perspective, because I have always had to prove myself.

I was the last male resident assistant hired at Clemson my junior year, and they put me on the top floor of a building where no one ever went unless they had a reason to be there. I went in knowing they expected me to fail and that I had a lot to prove. I made the most of it, and went on to win programming awards and have a generally good reputation on campus. Eventually, I made Student Affairs my life’s work. Along the way, I met different mentors and colleagues who kept giving me chances. Like a “diamond in the rough,” polishing up my portfolio and earning credentials took some time.

When I decided to leave the university setting, I had to sort through the value of becoming credentialed as a certified coach, and recently, as a professional résumé writer. I worked with college students for 15 years, had a master’s degree already, and had been coaching young professionals and colleague on their job search materials and strategy the whole time. I didn’t really think I needed a couple more pieces of paper to prove I could do this, but I got them anyway. I did so because that is the way our field works for some people, and I felt that the credentialing would remove some potential obstacles from my path.

Oddly enough, I can’t remember a single time I’ve been practicing when a client even asked about my credentials. Instead, they ask “how can you help me?” and “what benefits will I see from working with you?” And they weigh these against other options, many of which are free or available at a lower cost. I end up working with many of people who inquire, and when I don’t, I know that I haven’t distinguished myself in the right way, or shown the value of the relationship. When I do get a new client, it’s because they believe I can help them, and because we connected as people who potentially could work well together.

As Silva points out:

“Our ability to succeed in any endeavor, whether it’s a business or non-profit, is dictated by potential, not credential. It is only potential energy that can be tapped into in order for us to push forward. If you don’t hire the right people to bring that potential energy into your business, you will not move forward.”

I’ve always told my student leaders aspiring to go straight into student affairs that the time period we are currently in, from mid-August to the end of September, is a great time to look for a job, if you work hard to show your potential. Time and again, this worked for me as a supervisor, and I got some great staff members out of the deal.

If you still have staff vacancies, do yourself and the universe a favor: take a chance on a candidate you have a good gut feeling about. Look for the “diamonds in the rough” and help them learn to shine!

Support Hiring for Hope

image001Have you heard about Hiring for Hope? It’s a grassroots, nationally recognized 501(c)3 public charity, conceptualized as a Life Management Community (LMC) designed to help people manage and overcome all the obstacles associated with family building and/or career management challenges.

I heard about this group a while back from Johann Lohrmann, who wrote a guest post on mind-mapping your job search. He put me in touch with Tegan Acree, Hiring for Hope’s Founder and President.

Hiring for Hope offers assistance with:

  • Career and Family Building Management
  • Financial Assistance
  • Online Networking/Support
  • Workforce Solutions

Hiring for Hope is made up almost entirely of volunteers committed to their mission. I’m excited to be volunteering for a Career Connection Forum event on July 26th in Marietta, GA. This is my first time volunteering for the group, and I am really excited.

Unemployment is such a huge problem in Georgia these days, and I see the impacts of this almost every day. I live in a neighborhood with a mix of rental properties and single-family homes, and many of my neighbors are unemployed. I’ve offered to help a few of my neighbors with coaching and résumés but some of them have been out of work so long they have given up.

Groups like Hiring for Hope combat the very real problems of unemployment and that lost sense of hope that sometimes goes along with it. I’m glad to be doing what I can to contribute. And I’d like to challenge you to do the same.

I’ve signed up to be an online fundraiser for Hiring for Hope and have set a $1000 goal. Please donate what you can, and help give hope and practical assistance to those in need. Click on the badge below to go to my fundraising page. Thanks for helping in whatever way you can.



Salary Negotiation and Poker: Start With the Hand You’re Dealt: Unique Value Propositions


Salary negotiation is a really hard process, and one of the top concerns of job-seekers in any industry. It’s the “poker round” of the hiring process, where both sides try to set aside their enthusiasm for working together and think in their own best interest, cards closely held to their vest, and wait for the other to either show their hand or fold. It can be gut-wrenching and nerve-wracking, because nobody ever wants to leave money on a poker table.

Before I go any further with this analogy, I want to say a couple of things. First, I am a lousy poker player and in many ways, a lousy negotiator, because I’m not motivated by money. I’m usually motivated by fear of losing money, and a desire to win. And I struggle with both, and can be frustrating to play poker with, as a result. I am usually the one to fold early, and I have a lousy poker face. Other players can usually tell when I have a winning hand, and they will fold early rather than fork over a lot of money. So take my advice about poker and about negotiation at your own risk! I usually end up leaving money on the table, or having others walk away out of sheer frustration.

But come along for a moment, and let’s break this down, using the poker game analogy, because I think many people can relate to it.

When you are dealt a hand in poker, you know what it is, and depending on whether you are playing stud, or draw, you either know your hand outright, or you can make a couple of trade-outs for fresh cards, to see if you can find a hand worth playing.

If you are playing stud poker, you know your hand from the get-go, and can make your bets based on that hand and your perceptions of the moves others around the table are playing, and whether they are betting, calling or holding.

If you are playing draw poker, you may place an initial bet, based on your gut feeling about being able to cobble something together worth doing, and then raise, call or fold, again based on the moves that other players make in response.

In the salary negotiation process, you also have to start with the hand you are dealt. It starts with your Unique Value Proposition. This is the where you describe your knowledge, skills and experience in ways that show your potential fit into a position. The keys to putting together this UVP (also referred to in the business world as a Unique Selling Proposition or USP) is that you have to explain who you are, what you can bring to the table, and why you are the best person to do so.

Let’s put a formula to negotiation, using your Unique Value Proposition:

  • First, describe who you are, in terms of current education, skills and experience.
  • Second, differentiate your education, skills and experience from other candidates.
  • Third, describe, in terms as concrete as possible, the value that you will add to the employer’s bottom line, that others cannot. (i.e., how you will solve their problems.)
  • Fourth, be ready to fold and walk away when the stakes get too high.

As I mentioned before, I am a lousy negotiator and this does affect my bottom line. I’m going to be spending more time in the near term explaining the Unique Value Proposition for this site and for my coaching programs, trainings and consulting services.

In the process, you’ll see content on this site, and the nature of the free and paid programs that go with it, change. I’m doing this for two reasons: so you can clearly see the value offered, and so that I can tweak the business model so that it results in sustainable business. In short, because being a good coach and a lousy businessman isn’t sustainable, and I really want to win, for the sake of my family and all they’ve sacrificed over the last couple of years to help me build my sites and my business.

It’s basic economics in action. Let’s return to what I learned in ECON 201 when I was actually listening to Dr. Benjamin’s lectures in Sirrine Hall my sophomore year at Clemson, when I wasn’t sleeping off the night before, or checking out the cute sorority girls who wouldn’t really even tell me the time of day.

Transactional business is driven by the concept of marginal utility. The success of any business model hinges on the perceptions of price in relation to utility of the product or service. In business transactions, people (including employers) don’t pay for experience. They don’t pay for history or content. They pay for value.

When utility (perceived value) outweighs price (i.e., risk), people will pay more (by upping their ante.) When price (risk) outweighs utility (perceived value), it’s easy to fold and walk away.

Key questions to consider in preparing for negotiation:

  • How are you presenting your value?
  • How are you contrasting your unique value against other options (other candidates, or starting over with a search.) This might also be seen as overcoming objections to price.
  • How comfortable are you in protecting your unique value, by folding (walking away)?

Once you get these points down, you’ll be ready to not only play, but to win.

So are you going to up the ante, call, or fold?

Hate my analogy? Love it? Tell me in the comments!

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QR Codes: Like Poop on Your Résumé

This week, I’ve been putting out articles on Interview Ecology, and exploring the risks and benefits of introducing the “new and shiny” into the process. We’ve considered whether bringing a iPad into an interview is akin to bringing an invasive species into an eco-system.

This ecosystem approach relies heavily on the idea that anything that distracts or disrupts may destroy the delicate balance of a search process, and bring up dissonance in respect to person-environment fit, resulting in a candidate not getting a particular position.

Which forces me to bring up a particular pet peeve of mine: the all-the-sudden popular and ugly-as-sin QR code. I hate them, because like many fads, most people rushing to use them don’t understand how to make sure they add value to the experience. In general, I feel that most people might as well take a poop on their résumé as put one of these on it, because adding a QR code without adding something of value to the “interview ecosystem” is well…just a load of crap.

I’m already anticipating the response from candidates and tech geeks who think these things are cutting edge and allow a new layer of interactivity that wasn’t possible before. Well, I call bullshit. Scanning these blotches into a smartphone just allows lazy people to avoid typing a URL into their browser, as if the 20 seconds of time spent doing so will add up, like all the partial pennies Richard Pryor dumped into his bank account in Superman III, and will result in the résumé screener having a richer, more exciting , and complete view of the candidate.

Bullshit. Bullshit. BULLSHIT.

The same can be achieved by pointing someone toward a regular URL or hyperlink. QR codes only add new functionality to a paper résumé, which you probably aren’t viewing anyway. And anyone with half a salt lick of sense in their head can run a long URL into an URL shortener. So if space on the résumé is your major concern, that’s no argument, either.

Now, I will admit upfront to being a résumé geek and a purist. I don’t believe all the hogwash people throw around about résumés going away. Advances in technology and social media are just changing how they are delivered. And nothing takes away from the basic truths at play:

  • Your résumé needs to be targeted toward your industry, level of experience, and the level of position you are seeking.
  • It needs to be scannable (visually scannable)
  • There has to be a sense of logical and visual flow that draws a reader in, and keeps them reading and scanning. And…here’s the big one…
  • It needs to be attractive and not full of distracting bullshit.

I had a client recently work with me on his CV and he had a QR code on it, at top right. I asked him why it was there. He replied that he wanted to show himself as cutting edge and tech savvy. So I asked him where the QR Code goes, and what value was added by putting it on there. And…wait for it…it went to an online pdf copy of his CV!

We talked a bit and I told him I didn’t see the point of having it there, if it only went to his CV. He was really tied to keeping it there, so we came to a compromise position. He had also been updating his LinkedIn profile, which had some great recommendations on it, and some other links to relevant information. So we decided to point it there, because doing so added some value to the equation. The result: the QR code went from being poop on his résumé to being rich compost instead.

My criticism of his strategy should not be equated with a critique his level of technical savvy or his readiness for the type of job he was applying for, and I’ve told him as much. In fact, I think he’s a great candidate, or I wouldn’t be working with him. I don’t work with clients I don’t believe in, because that’s not fair to people on either side.

Ultimately, I’m grateful for the perspectives his situation has given me, and what it allows me to share with you.

Here are the big take-aways:

  • New technology is great, and showing comfort with it is just fine. But using tech badly could actually hurt your candidacy. Make sure that your use of technology is appropriate and that there is a clear point to using it (like adding interactivity or pointing to recommendations or portfolio work.)
  • If using a new way of doing things distracts from your design, content or flow, you really need to weigh the risks of using it against the value added. And if you can’t do this on your own…
  • It pays to talk this sort of stuff out with a trusted friend, advisor, or career coach.

What do you think? Tell me in the comments.


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