Ask the Headhunter: Why you can’t win the keyword resume game

A U.S. military veteran applicant holds his resume at a hiring fair for veteran job seekers and military spouses at the Verizon Center in Washington April 9, 2014. U.S. job openings jumped to their highest in six years in February and there was a significant decline in layoffs, more signs of a steadily improving labor market.   REUTERS/Gary Cameron  (UNITED STATES) - RTR3KMGQ related words: job search, jobs, resume, job fair, networking

You never know which keywords will trigger a positive response. It’s like buying a lottery ticket, says job guru Nick Corcodilos. Photo by Gary Cameron/Reuters

Nick Corcodilos started headhunting in Silicon Valley in 1979 and has answered over 30,000 questions from the Ask The Headhunter community over the past decade.

In this special Making Sen$e edition of Ask The Headhunter, Nick shares insider advice and contrarian methods about winning and keeping the right job, on one condition: that you, dear Making Sense reader, send Nick your questions about your personal challenges with job hunting, interviewing, networking, resumes, job boards or salary negotiations. No guarantees — just a promise to do his best to offer useful advice.

Question: I like your frankness. In the column I just read about Clark Kent (in my case, I suppose it would be Lois Lane), “Employers, stop trying to hire a superhero,” you mentioned a couple of times in the comments section that employers use keywords to screen out job candidates. I’ve written job letters that are burdened down with keywords, but maybe I am choosing the wrong ones. What is the game with keywords anyway, and why do employers or screening agencies keep playing if it doesn’t work?

Nick Corcodilos: Employers rely on keywords when judging job applicants, because that’s what the job boards and the Applicant Tracking Systems tell them to do. Human resources departments have gone so far down this silly, reductionist, “more is better,” automated recruiting path that HR is now totally out of control. (See “How databases trick employers and job seekers alike.”)

I’ve had HR managers tell me they have no budget or time to actually go out and personally recruit people. There’s no money to take anyone to lunch, to go to professional events to find and meet prospective hires or to do anything on a one-on-one level to recruit. It’s all done en masse. It’s all done with those little keywords. It’s all done in databases.

It seems HR will buy anything these “services” sell them, because HR isn’t measured by how effectively it hires. It’s measured by whether it keeps the ball rolling, so HR pays to outsource the most important job a company has — hiring great workers.

This system relies on strings of characters — keywords — in massive databases that hold not just your resume, but ancient resumes of people who aren’t even in the job market anymore. “More is better!” That’s what they’re selling, and it’s what HR is buying.

You never know which keywords will trigger a positive response. It’s kind of like buying a lottery ticket. If this sounds far-fetched, consider that according to the Solman Scale, there are over 19 million Americans looking for jobs — that includes the officially unemployed, involuntary part-time workers and anyone who says they want a job, no matter how long it’s been since they last looked. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are around 5.6 million open jobs.

You never know which keywords will trigger a positive response. It’s kind of like buying a lottery ticket.

Meanwhile, HR claims there’s a talent shortage — that there’s not enough people to hire. Even if you allow for a certain number of lazy, uneducated, unskilled, unmotivated people (and I don’t think there are really that many), there are still plenty more talented people to choose from than there are jobs. There are loads of people who are smart, motivated, willing and able to learn new things quickly, ready to get to work. Employers just need to consider letting the talent reveal itself on the job — by offering some training (often, just a smidgen is necessary) or a short learning curve.

But employers seem to want perfect candidates. People whose keywords match 100 percent of a job’s keywords — even when nobody in the company knows how to describe a job with keywords. It’s really a mess — and it’s indefensible and unforgiveable.

I’ve mentioned many times in this column that Wharton School of Management studies show that employers have virtually stopped spending money to train anyone anymore. They want the perfect hire — or keywords. (See “Unemployment — made in America by employers.”)

That’s how it works. So if it’s so obviously silly, you ask, why do HR departments do it? Why, indeed? It’s because they get paid to.

I’m sorry to be so cynical, but the hiring system really is broken. You can use any keywords you like, but there’s no telling what the software algorithm is looking for. (I suggest that people just copy and paste the entire job description into their digital resume — maybe that will trigger an interview! Will all the keywords be there then?) If you use the tools and rules of the job boards and Applicant Tracking Systems, odds are they will reject you. The employers behind these systems never really know whether you can do the job — and that you might be their best candidate.

The solution is pretty obvious. If a system doesn’t work, don’t use it. Refuse to use it. Go around it. Find your interviews and jobs through personal contacts. Because, while HR and employers have no time or money to go meet people, that’s exactly where you should go and what you should do to beat them at this silly keyword game. (See “Ask The Headhunter in A Nutshell: The Short Course.”)

Studies show again and again that most jobs are found and filled through personal contacts. I’m sure you already know that. So it’s time to use your noggin and trust your good judgment. If it’s clear to all of us that this doesn’t really work — HR’s complaints that employers can’t find the talent they need prove it — then just stop.

That’s a lot of work, but so is hiring great people. We all have to learn to do it again.

Dear Readers: How do you decide what keywords to put in your resume? Do keywords work? Or, how do you land a job?

Nick Corcodilos invites Making Sense readers to subscribe to his free weekly Ask The Headhunter© Newsletter. His in-depth “how to” PDF books are available on his website: “How to Work With Headhunters…and how to make headhunters work for you,” “How Can I Change Careers?”, “Keep Your Salary Under Wraps” and “Fearless Job Hunting.”

Send your questions to Nick, and join him for discussion every week here on Making Sense. Thanks for participating!

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