Remember when you first entered the job market -- how you struggled with your resume, hoping to make yourself stand out from the hundreds of others who were seeking entry-level jobs? Maybe you selected a special bold typeface, added bullets and underlined key words. Perhaps you chose an unusual color paper or extra-heavy bond. Or, you might have stuck in a revealing tidbit or two -- like the time you appeared on Jeopardy, ran in the Boston Marathon or earned your pilot's license at age eleven. As icing on the cake, if you had them, you listed heavy-hitter references bound to impress the recruiters.
Well, say goodbye to the days where big companies valued individuality. Today, if you apply to a Fortune 500-size company, your effort to separate yourself from the field could backfire. Thanks to modern technology run awry, it could earn you an impersonal "Dear Applicant" rejection letter. And if you're counting on a real person at least reading your credentials before you're dumped, dream on. Before that happens, your resume will have to be among the small percentage that wins approval from a computer.
With increasing frequency, companies are using electronic scanners to force-feed resumes into their computers. Then, with all the resumes converted to a common format, software programs look for "hits" of key words, weeding out thousands of applicants without human eyes ever looking at them. The computer calls the shots in the first round of screening, recruiters explain, because companies get thousands of applications for entry-level jobs and don't have enough staff to review the resumes personally. The pharmaceutical giant Merck, for example, received 30,000 resumes in a six-month period last year. Unisys, another corporate colossus, gets 5,000 to 7,000 a month.
Curiously, when it comes to recruitment -- a function experts agree is key to long-term success -- corporate powerhouses argue they are too stretched to assign enough people to the job. Sure, they're still able to find millions for travel, entertainment and executive perks, but when it comes to selecting new employees, frugality rules. Besides, they believe it's just as effective to entrust the crucial job of reducing the candidate pool to an automatic computer pilot.
But by removing the human element from the screening process, even if a live recruiter goes back and spot-checks rejected resumes, the odds increase that people with special talents or unique backgrounds will fall through the cracks. Indeed, the downside to letting a computer decide is that creative geniuses like Ted Turner or Bill Gates will get bumped out because their resumes are not bland enough to pass unscathed through the scanner. Or if the scanner lets them in, the candidates' unusual attributes -- characteristics that may portend greatness -- fail to register on the computer's programmed hit list.
Looking for work in corporate America is turning into a high stakes computer contest with entry controlled by a computer scanner with a taste for only one flavor -- vanilla. Scanners reject resumes that are not on white paper, that have bold typeface or underlining, or that don't include enough key words that the employer programs the computer to pick out. You could be a Heisman Trophy winner, a renowned research scientist or an outstanding marketing prospect, but if you omit the secret words that the scanner is looking for, it will boot you out.
To beat the computer and win the contest, like the wolf who donned sheep's clothing, people are advised to tailor their resumes to the wishy-washy standards dictated by the scanner. And to increase the chances their credentials will be plucked from the pile and actually read, they're told to liberally salt their prose with key words that are likely to be programmed into the computer as hits.
On a more positive note, college placement officials report that small and mid-size companies are refusing to jump on the scannable resume wagon. To them, the time and resources spent reading and differentiating among resumes pays off down the road. To be safe, then, applicants who want to hedge their bets need two very different resumes. But while companies like Merck publicize their use of scannable resumes, counselors report that many do not, often forcing the job-seeker to make a calculated guess based on the company's size.
Still, recruiters for Fortune 500 companies say it's only a matter of time before all big companies will go scannable, forcing everyone to play by their rules or look elsewhere for work.
"If you don't get by the scanner, I can't help you," says Johnie Fennell, minority recruiter at Merck. "If you confuse the computer, guaranteed it's going to reject you."
In the long run, however, even if job seekers stick to the rules of the corporate conformity game, it remains to be seen how well companies will fare with a recruitment system programmed to catch oysters and pass over the pearls.
ROBERT J. GROSSMAN is a professor of management at Marist College in Poughkeepsie. He reports for HR News and the Hudson Valley Business Journal.