Congratulations - You Were the Blandest Man for the Job

Remember when you first entered the job market - how you struggled with your rsum, hoping to make yourself stand out from the hundreds of others who were seeking entry-level jobs?

Maybe you selected a special typeface, added bullets, and underlined key words. Perhaps you chose a colored 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 11. As icing on the cake, you listed heavy-hitter references bound to impress the recruiters.

But say goodbye to the days where big companies value individuality. Today, as experts predict steep declines in corporate hiring, if you apply to a Fortune 500-size company your effort to separate yourself from the field could backfire.

The computer chooses

Thanks to technology run awry, it could earn you an impersonal "Dear Applicant" rejection letter. And if you're counting on a real person reading your credentials before you're dumped, dream on. Before that happens, your rsum 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 rsums into their computers. Then, with all the rsums converted to a common format, software programs look for "hits" of key words, weeding out thousands of applicants without human eyes ever looking at their rsums.

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 rsums personally. Merck, the pharmaceutical giant, received 30,000 rsums in a six-month period last year. Unisys gets 5,000 to 7,000 a month.

Curiously, when it comes to recruitment - a function that 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.

But by removing the human element from the screening process, the odds increase that people with special talents or unique backgrounds will fall through the cracks. Creative geniuses like Ted Turner or Bill Gates could be bumped out because their rsums are not bland enough to pass through unscathed.

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. To beat the computer and win the contest, like the wolf who donned sheep's clothing, job-seekers are advised to tailor their rsums 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.

Not everyone scans

On a more positive note, college-placement officials report that small and mid-size companies are refusing to jump on the scannable rsum wagon. To them, the time and resources spent reading and differentiating among rsums pays off. To be safe, then, applicants who want to hedge their bets need two very different rsums. And while companies like Merck publicize their use of scannable rsums, counselors report that many others 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 scan, forcing everyone to play by their rules or look elsewhere for work.

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, N.Y. He reports for HR News and the Hudson Valley Business Journal.

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