Moving words around won’t boost resume

When I ask a job seeker to send me a current resume, it’s not uncommon for my inbox to fill with a half-dozen or more versions, each with a notation about the specific market it’s intended for.

That’s an amusing twist from the pre-computer days when no one would dream of having more than one resume — but we printed them 100 at a time, just to be sure we’d have enough copies.

The thing is, I think job seekers might have been better off in those old days. Despite advice to the contrary from most of the job search industry, I’m not seeing the return on investment for tailoring each document before sending it out. The investment in this case being time, and the return being interviews.

Put more simply: It doesn’t seem to be working. Customizing resumes for every job opening doesn’t seem to be reaping more interviews for job seekers.

If it doesn’t work, why does the advice persist? One reason might be the feedback given by HR professionals who receive job seeker materials that don’t reflect an ability to do the posted job.

But in truth, a lot of job seekers do customize their resumes for the posting; they’re just not getting chosen for interviews. So if HR is clamoring for customized resumes and some job seekers are sending them, why aren’t they getting interviews? I have three theories, all of which support my strong bias against customizing documents for each opening.

First, I believe that many job seekers do a poor job of customizing their materials. When I receive multiple resumes from a single candidate, they often differ in only one or two small respects.

A second reason this strategy doesn’t work is that even when the tailoring is done well, shifting information on the page can’t make up for missing skills. If the resume does not reflect the criteria on the posting, moving things around will not hide that fact — particularly if it’s a computer doing the reading.

The third and most compelling reason that tailoring resumes for job postings doesn’t work is that the activity signals an underlying search strategy that is poorly designed. I think of it as fishing in the wrong pond, using the wrong bait, in the wrong season.

But what about HR and their demand for customized resumes? With no disrespect intended, HR’s requests aren’t my primary concern. My concern is to communicate with the department manager in my candidate’s field that he or she can do the work. Which means the resume should identify the worker’s key skills in their chosen industry (the right bait) and be presented to department managers (the right pond) before jobs are actually posted (the right season).

I have never seen so much effort expended on such a fruitless activity as I do with candidates who keep moving words around on their resumes. If you want to make a real impact with your documents, try this instead:

1. Identify the main grouping of employers you are trying to impress. Are you a retail salesperson? Then target your resume to retail sales managers. If you’re a software engineer, then target the IT manager, or the product manager, depending on the type of company you’re going for.

2. Learn what managers in your target grouping generally need in their employees.

3. Build your resume for human eyes: easy to navigate, with information frontloaded that the manager cares about.

4. Send resumes directly to managers with a letter expressing your interest in working for them — regardless of whether a job is currently posted. Customize the letter, not the resume, by telling them what attracts you to their company. Remember that many jobs are filled without ever being posted, and this is how it’s done.

And finally, heed this advice: If you can’t resist responding to Internet ads, limit your effort on each application. The return just isn’t there on your investment of time.