When faced with the daunting task of summarizing themselves, whether on paper in a resume or face-to-face in an interview, job hunters often fall into the trap of trying to encapsulate everything into a few simple, pithy phrases. I’ve seen these chestnuts far too often:
- I'm a hard worker
- I have a strong work ethic
- I'm reliable
- I'm a good listener
- I work well with others
- I take pride in my work
The hiring manager’s mental response, assuming his eyes haven’t glazed over, is likely to be “You and everyone else, pal.” Is there anyone out there who would not feel justified in using all of the assessments above to describe themselves? (I certainly hope that you wouldn’t be foolish enough to vocalize it if not.)
When you’re in a job that makes you unhappy, it can be easy to start thinking about making a move elsewhere. Maybe the work’s not as fun any more, or you’re not advancing when you should be. While there are plenty of good reasons to leave, there’s one that shouldn’t enter your mind: Not liking the people you work with, even if it’s your boss.
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.
As I sit here on this Labor Day weekend, I ponder who it is we labor for. I want you to as well.
Most of us in the computer industries are lucky enough to be doing what we love. Programming, system administration and the like are in our blood. We've done it as a hobby, and now we're getting paid relatively large amounts to do it. Plenty of other people don't have it nearly as good as we do.
And yet, so many of us are unhappy with where we're at. We work with jerks, or the companies we work for have Mickey Mouse rules that treat us like children, or even worse, hourly workers. Maybe you're in a company with motivational posters on the wall where you can't miss 'em when you have to take a leak. It's a sort of ongoing battle for your soul, where the day-to-day grinds down at you and makes you miserable over time.
Seems to me, however, that the most common source of bad jobs is having the bad boss.
I had lunch with my friend I'll call Bob who had just been let go from his job after a short, confusing month. His boss was vague in expectations, yet also a micromanager. He'd demanded on Wednesday that Bob have a project done by Monday morning at 9am, because it was Crucial To The Company. On Friday night, after Bob returned home from a long-planned dinner with his wife and some friends, he found in his inbox on his return a note: "I see you logged off at 6pm, this project is crucial to the company." The boss badgered him all weekend until Bob finally declared that his work was done on Sunday.
Add to this that even though Bob had the work done, there were other unspoken, unmet expectations. The boss rattled them off to Bob at his summary firing, but Bob didn't understand them after the fact.
I offered "It doesn't sound like much of a loss. Your boss was crazy, or stupid, or just a bad boss. He wasn't like that when he interviewed you, was he?" Bob replied "I'm glad you think he was a bad boss, because I kind of picked that up in the interview."
Now here's what astonishes me. Here's a guy who's a good programmer, who works hard, and yet he's willing to take a job with someone who he strongly suspected of being dumb and/or crazy.
Bob's not the only one, of course, or I wouldn't be writing this. I've got other friends who jump into a job relationship hoping for the best, and coming out miserable. Some people may be desperate and have no choice, but it happens so often, that can't be the case most of the time.
I suspect that most people miss that word "relationship", because it is exactly that.
Your job is a relationship.
It's a relationship with your boss, yes, but it's also a relationship with the company, with your co-workers, with the commute, with everything that goes into your job.
It's a relationship that you spend 40+ hours a week on. How many hours a week do you actually spend awake with your spouse? Probably a little bit more than that, but it's roughly the same in size.
The relationship with your employer is as important to look at as the relationship with your spouse. That means both before and after you commit.
I'll write more about this in weeks to come, as I work on my upcoming book, Pragmatic Job Hunting.