He who submits a resume has already lost
It’s been a while since I’ve looked for a job; for a while, I was on the other side of the process and had the opportunity to examine it from the no-pressure side of things. Now I’m back on the lesser side of the coin, experiencing once more the employment version of seeing an old friend only to be reminded of why you don’t hang out with them anymore.
I think the worst part of it so far is remembering that applications that start and often end with the submission of resumes exist. Because I hate them. I hate them an irrational amount, to the point where I’m actually seriously going to advise you that you should only take about 10% of this article seriously - the rest of it is a verbal manifestation of pure ire so salty you could pickle things in it.
A word of warning related to that: Because I both hate resume-first hiring processes and I’m talking about applicant-side problems, a lot of this is going to read as a condemnation of employers as a class - it’s not that, and I’ll explain why as we go.
Resume-first applications are poison
Imagine the following scene:
An applicant goes to an employer and asks for work. The employer explains that the only work he has requires a certain set of skills, and says:
“Listen - I’m a busy guy. I can’t listen to your entire life story; even if I could, I couldn’t listen to every life story of everyone who comes to me for work.
I know it’s a big ask, but could you write down everything you’ve ever done? I’m an expert on what it takes to survive in this job, and I will read it when I have time, then honestly tell you if you are in the ballpark of what I need. From there, we can both have a conversation with the assurance that you are a close fit - it makes sure neither you nor I waste our time, and benefits us both.”
This is a reasonable request, and as stated it’s the main reason we can’t get rid of resumes. Some significant percentage of applicants are delusional and nowhere near qualified; you have to weed them out somehow. And the actual honest-to-god boss of a company can honestly claim he doesn’t have the time to talk to everyone - he has to have some sort of filter or he drowns.
But the resume story above is the idealist teenager’s version of what’s actually happening. Here’s a more realistic picture:
An group of 50 applicants submit resumes for a job. 10 or so of them are delusional, and get cut. That leaves a field of 40 more-or-less qualified people who have at this point all committed a significant amount of time doing unpaid labor for a company to manage the company’s risk and hiring costs.
Of the remaining 40, 35 are rejected not because they are unqualified, but because the company wants to further reduce its costs. They are rejected by an HR person who has nothing to do with the role they are going to fill. Since the HR person is not familiar with the role beyond some bulletpoints they were sent, these rejection reasons are often unrelated to their ability to actually do the job. This group not only never sees an upside to their unpaid labor, but often weren’t even given fair consideration for the role.
This leaves five candidates - a hand-picked elite, a top 12.5% of qualified candidates. They will never demand the employer consider them elite, and will instead feel lucky to be allowed to do even more unpaid labor with uncertain rewards. The employer will never consider them a hand-picked elite, and will with every action and word indicate that the group of five completely qualified candidates should feel lucky to have gotten this far.
Four of those candidates will eventually be rejected, leaving a best-of-50 candidate who will be paid as if he’s barely qualified, with the expectation that he act overjoyed about this.
In the actual real-world model, all the obligations are on the applicant’s side, with no guaranteed benefit; they can’t even reliably count on a form rejection email. All the benefits are on the employer side - they save time, reduce costs, reduce company risks, and create an environment where they can reliably lowball candidates on salary.
Now that I’ve laid that out, I need to take a paragraph to be fair: First, I don’t think most employers think of this process like this - yes, they run it like this, and yes, the actual practical implications are like this. But they aren’t sitting around rubbing their hands together and gleefully cackling about screwing the little guy - like most forms of evil, the vileness of the resume-based hiring process is banal and often unintentional.
Second, I don’t think there’s always an alternative. If I have a random position open and my only option for filling it is to post an ad somewhere that’s going to draw in 500 applications, I don’t necessarily have any options that both keep my time outlay at a reasonable level and treat every (or any) applicant fairly. It’s shitty, it’s exploitative, and it’s 100% a more powerful party bullying a smaller, weaker person. But until someone invents an alternative, what’s to be done?
Nobody hires based on a resume
Imagine angels coming down from administrative heaven bearing a golden curriculum vitae; it is in every way a perfect resume. They touch it to your lips, which impart the very essence of the gestalt that is you upon the document. All who read it are filled with a subtle joy and come to know every intricacy of every skill you possess, all relayed to them in a way most flattering to you, and have their lifespan extended by five years.
That’s very nice, but assuming you had a pretty decent resume already, it didn’t increase your chances of getting hired at all.
This sounds fatalistic, but consider that everything the resume is supposed to do (illustrate that you are qualified for the job, give them an idea of your experience, describe your overall career and skills) is all stuff they are going to do again in phone screens, the interviews, and the reference checks. The employer is very, very clear in terms of everything they do that they don’t trust your resume even a little and give it exactly zero weight - else they wouldn’t waste manager time interviewing you to get you to rehash it.
In a resume-first hiring process, your resume is at best a raffle ticket that might pay off and grant you admission to the actual hiring process. That’s it. That’s all.
A weird resume is a death sentence
Everything I’ve been describing so far assumes that the person submitting the resume is what I call “tracked” - they are an individual that went to high school-then-university and then got into relevant-to-the-new-potential-position work and maintained it right up until the date of their application.
This particular golden child thus can submit a resume that is parsable by even the dimmest of bulbs as being clearly relevant to the job. If the job is piano-polishing, there’s no confusion that they are anything but a piano-polisher, and every entry makes that clear.
But say you are trying to change your career trajectory a little (or, god forbid, a lot) - what are your chances of squeaking by HR now? I have like 15 years of poverty experience that says “basically none”; like, I know it’s possible, I know people have done it. But going the conventional route with a weird resume is automatically in the “send out hundreds or thousands of applications, hope you get lucky” realm of things.
Again, this isn’t supposed to be me calling out hiring managers and bosses everywhere - I’m not sure they have a choice. But that doesn’t change the fact that limiting yourself to resume-first hiring processes is about the worst deal you could possibly take - the fact that it feels normal doesn’t mean it’s good.
Skipping to the middle part
I’m as convinced as a person can be that the resume-first hiring processes are just marginally worse than doing nothing at all. I spent 15 years tweaking resumes, writing cover letters, and generally taking all the very good advice I got only to have it never turn a cent of profit for me.
What finally got me out of that pattern was a really odd situation where one of my articles got just enough heat on it that I was allowed to circumvent the middle part of the interview process and go straight to hiring manager interviews. And it was a whole different ballgame because I was now talking to someone who had both the power and desire to hire someone for a position, as opposed to someone whose biggest goal was keeping sufficient people away from that stage to keep them out of trouble.
And make no mistake, that middle part is where the hiring happens. Some hiring managers still look at your resume once you are there, but my experience is that look is on the glance-ier side of things. It can be, because at the middle part of the process you get into actual conversations, actually take the measure of the person, and often subject them to actual tests of ability that at least somewhat track with their general capability.
From the applicant’s perspective, this means that all the advantages lie with skipping as far past the resume as they can, in making it an afterthought if it exists at all.
The most traditional way to do this is by knowing someone who can vouch for you. Case in point: I’ve put in a few applications recently, all of which were for jobs that were almost entirely writing, and all of which mentioned that I’m for better or worse pretty verifiably OK at that particular skill. This has been completely ineffective because nobody cares if you can actually do the work at the resume stage.
Contrast that with what happened when one pretty good internet friend said “Hey, I know a guy is pretty good at writing and you have been talking about hiring a writer - want to talk to him?”. I didn’t end up getting the job, but I got fairly close with very little effort - the recommendation let me skip straight to the middle part, and that’s where what you actually can do matters.
I don’t want to say it’s easy, but it’s actually surprisingly doable to skip to that part. A year or so ago I got pretty close to another job at better pay by asking someone for advice on how to grow my blog; that person happened to work at a company that needed a writer1. And when you get in that way - as a human being considered as an individual as opposed to "the lucky one" who doesn't end up entirely unrewarded - it's just a better experience all around.
I think there’s probably an argument to be made that while the chances of getting a job by cold-emailing CEOs and asking for one are pretty low, the chances of getting a good job that way are likely higher.
I know none of this is particularly new intellectual ground, and there’s tons of exceptions to what I’m talking about. We just got out of a period of time where basically every engineer had their pick of the litter jobwise, and even though things are now “tougher” it’s still not impossible for good engineers to find work when they need it. Some people just have skills that are developed or rare enough that they really can consistently negotiate from a position of power.
There’s a reason people sometimes get very serious about networking; for the most part, that’s how good jobs are found. And in defense of the employers of the world, it generally takes very little to shake them out of their funk - a word from a person they trust is often enough, as is some small amount of novelty in approach. It’s not like they love Indeed-style hiring; as far as I know, they hate it too. But they lack options.
I think the main takeaway here is just how shocked I am to remember how bad hiring as a whole is on the applicant side. Every part of how we do it is geared to give companies an advantage at often significant costs to applicants; there’s no place in the “conventional” path to getting a job that indicates anything close to an even power dynamic. It’s in your best interest (and mine, at the moment) to do anything you can do to get around it.
Authors note: I think this is going to be the last time I talk about work/job stuff for a little while, so don’t despair too much if it’s getting old. I have a guest post at Wonderland Rules this weekend that’s more in the “not whining about jobs” style, and I think next week I’ll have something about using Craigslist to buy things.
The tech recession started being a news story during this process and the company initiated a hiring freeze, or I’d probably be there now.