Twelve items to leave off your resume and cover letter
You're working on your resume, trying to give the recipient an idea of what a determined, hard worker you are, and you drop in this sentence.
After my wife and I arrived from Germany at age 35, I trained my son to play piano at our church.
You're showing that you're a committed family man with strong roots in your heritage, that you have the skills to raise a child, and you're active in your church community, right? Wrong. You're making the person reading the resume very nervous, and probably excluded yourself from a job. That one little sentence covered five bits of information that reveal your membership in various protected classes against which it's illegal to discriminate in the United States.
- Are you married?
- What country are you from?
- How old are you?
- Do you have kids?
- Do you go to church? Which one?
Providing information that is not relevant to the job, or would get me, as a hiring manager, in trouble if I asked for it, makes me very nervous.
The rule to follow is: If the employer can't ask you, then don't volunteer it.
I once got a cover letter that started "As a proud black woman, I am..." It immediately went into the discard pile. Not only was it foolish for her to put her gender and race on her resume, because I was not legally allowed to ask it, it made me wonder why would she tell me those things. Could I expect someone with a big chip on her shoulder? If I didn't hire her, would I get accusations of racism and sexism?
The following items should never be mentioned on your resume or cover letter, or discussed in an interview, even indirectly:
- National origin, birthplace, ethnic background
- Marital status
These are the big eight that are just absolute no-nos, and that most people know are illegal. Nobody reading this article is being cast in a movie that needs a 65-year-old wheelchair-bound Jewish man, so none of those are bona fide occupational qualifications, or BFOQs.
Sometimes unscrupulous employers can ask questions that get at this information. For instance, if you answer the question "when did you graduate high school?" with "1984", he's found that you're roughly 39. By extension, you should leave dates of high school off your resume.
Other items that may not be illegal, but may cause problems, include:
- Appearance, including photo
- Sexual preference
- Political affiliations
- Clubs or groups you belong to, unless professionally related
There may be exceptions in certain cases. For example, my friend Tom Limoncelli is socially and politically active. In 2003-2004, he worked as a sysadmin for the Howard Dean presidential campaign. In this case, working for Dean is valuable work experience that should be noted on his resume, and it directly relates to the work that he's known for.
Clubs and groups may not be obvious red flags, but are best left alone. To you, it might be cool that you race motorcycles on the weekend, but someone reading your resume might judge you as having a hobby that's detrimental to the environment, or overly risky. Your weekend volunteer work at Planned Parenthood could be a black mark in the eyes of someone strongly pro-life.
The type of outside work is relevant, too. Handing out literature for an activist group has no place on a resume, but that might not be the case if you overhauled their web site using PHP. It partly depends on what job you're applying for. You might exclude your Planned Parenthood website work if applying to a Catholic school, but include it when applying to Ben & Jerry's. This is another example of why there's no such thing as having "a resume", a single static document you send around.
In general, follow the rule that if something does not directly relate to your skills, and how you would perform the job in question, leave it out.
You might think "I wouldn't want to work for someone who would discriminate against me because I fit into group X," but that's not the point. The issue isn't overt discrimination as much as the perception of the possibility of discrimination. I wouldn't discriminate against a black woman, but I did immediately exclude someone naive or foolish enough to mention being one.
Finally, even if all this verboten information is available on the web with minimal web searching, it's not OK to put on your resume. The issue is what you present as yourself, not what people can find.
And don't think employers won't search Google about you extensively before interviewing. But that's a topic for another article...
For more information about hiring discrimination, see the EEOC website.