Your Résumé Isn’t Saying What You Think It’s Saying About You

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You spend hours fighting with the formatting on your precious résumé, and then you send it off into the world, trusting it to speak for you. As my colleague Jesse Singal wrote last spring, the résumé-and-cover-letter tradition isn’t just a frustrating piece of the job-hunting process; it’s inefficient and probably unfair, too, and the information it does provide probably isn’t as useful as we think it is. 

Now a new study suggests that a job applicant’s résumé may not even be a reliable way to judge his or her personality — even though recruiters often use the personality traits they infer from the document to decide whether an applicant would be a good hire. The research, led by Gary Burns of Wright State University and published in the Journal of Business Psychology, was recently highlighted by Alex Fradera at the British Psychological Society’s Research Digest.

In one experiment, 122 human resource professionals evaluated résumés from 37 MBA students, rating 77 aspects of the document in terms of what psychologists call the “big five” personality traits: openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. The MBA students also completed scientifically validated personality questionnaires, allowing the study’s authors to compare the HR pros’ assessments of the students to their “real” personalities, as measured by the questionnairesAs it turned out, the HR folks were not great at divining personalities based on résumés: Among other misjudgments, they tended to rate the students higher in extroversion and lower in conscientiousness than what the questionnaires revealed.

I’m focusing on extroversion and conscientiousness because applicants who scored high in these traits were the ones the HR employees were most likely to deem worthy of hiring. (Weirdly, the trait that was least likely to be associated with hireability was agreeableness. Nice people never win.) Résumés that were attractively laid out, and/or that contained mentions of “exciting/adventurous” hobbies, were most likely to lead to high ratings of extroversion, for somewhat obvious reasons. And résumés that included references to volunteer activities and salary scored higher in conscientiousness — being well organized, more or less — for somewhat mysterious reasons.

It’s easy to see how these sorts of wrong judgments could lead to poor hiring. You think you’re getting someone who is orderly and outgoing based on their résumé, and they turn out to be neither of those things. But perhaps we shouldn’t be all that surprised that a document that’s so carefully curated — and often exaggerated — isn’t the best way to judge a person’s true character. Either way — seriously, let’s just kill the résumé

Your Résumé Isn’t Saying What You Think