Do Resumes Matter?

Hot take: I'm beginning to think they don't.

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When I have a question with no easy answer, I always ask Google:

I ask this question because I’m not sure I know what I learn when I look at someone’s resume.

Resumes are a way to advertise your skills. Most look pretty similar: a formatted set of past jobs with accompanying responsibilities. Some include education, some include a mission statement, but these are highly regimented documents that almost always follow a particular set of rules and styles.

I would argue that most people, when hiring for a job, don’t use a resume to filter out unqualified candidates, but they use it to make judgement calls on a person’s skills that may not be true or real. I would argue further that this is especially true in the service industry, where many of the skills necessary to be successful are social—and difficult to articulate.

This is a blanket statement for sure, but thinking about resumes reminds me of my past life as a teacher. When I worked in classrooms, one of the fundamental things we were told is that we have to give kids the tools to excel. If a student doesn’t understand an assignment or does poorly on a test, that’s on us. We were encouraged to use rubrics, or "a scoring guide used to evaluate the quality of students' constructed responses.” It’s basically a grid where students could see what qualified as doing an assignment well, doing it sort of ok, and doing it poorly. If we didn’t clearly indicate on the rubric what we wanted from students, then it was our fault—students can’t divine what we’re thinking about or looking for.

Sometimes I think that happens in resume writing. Employers are essentially asking potential employees to answer questions to a test they have no rubric for. So then language becomes coded, and folks who haven’t been around certain environments or maybe don’t know the rules to the game end up falling behind, even if they are the most qualified.

That’s a generous example of how judging folks based on resumes can be harmful. Studies have shown that resume readers tend to bring in racial biases, indicating that minorities who “whiten” their resumes tend to get more callbacks for jobs. This article encourages older applicants to leave their educational experience off a resume just in case they’re looked down upon for being older. A study done by the Harvard Business Review shows that small class cues on a resume, like high school extracurricular activities, are advantageous to men (and only men) when applying for summer associateships at top law firms. This study implies that there are ways recruiters read how a resume is formatted that translate to gender stereotypes—and then they penalize non-masculine forms of expression. A study done by Harvard’s Kennedy School of Business showed that resumes with an LGBT indicator (their phrasing) were less likely to get a call back than one without an indicator.

There are ideas I have about resumes that I couldn’t find data on, but I have to imagine that resumes also favor education and resources. They can favor education broadly, like the school you went to and the language you use to express yourself, but they also favor in-group education, like people know the right lingo or industry jargon to throw around. Side note—if you’ve read something about education bias in resumes, please send it my way.

I’m not saying that resumes are useless, but I want to question why they’re the first barrier to entry for most jobs. When I was a coffee shop manager, if someone asked if we were hiring, I’d tell them to drop off a resume. If I managed a cafe now, I don’t think I’d do that.

Instead, what I might consider is a questionnaire—something that lives on the internet, which gives a person time and space to work on it on their own. I’d also outline exactly what I’m looking for, and find ways to allow people to express themselves and show off their skills. Let’s say someone isn’t great with words—could they make a video? A gap in employment (which I would argue is totally bullshit way to judge a person’s work ethic but is something employers look for) could be explained easily through an open-ended question, as opposed to an employer making a snap decision based on a glance at a resume.

Eyetracking data shows that a person reading a resume only looks at the resume for seven seconds—so why do they matter? What can you truly learn that isn’t seeped in bias and discriminatory modes of thinking from a resume?

Again, I’m not sure getting rid of resumes is the answer—at least not without some other, better form of hiring that attempts to eliminate some of the biases outlined above—but I think it’s worth asking the question: do resumes matter? Or, better yet, should they matter?