Hiring’s Hidden Problem – Your Resume Screeners Are “Hunting For Weaknesses” (Instead of focusing on applicants whose strengths far outweigh their flaws)

Not seeing enough strong applicants? Blame screeners that are overly focused on finding weaknesses. Yes, the #1 screening error in most organizations occurs when your screeners are exclusively focused on “screening out” all resumes that contain even a single weakness or flaw.

During their “hunt for weaknesses,” these screeners purposely discount or ignore the candidate’s strengths that are found in the resume. Unfortunately, this top resume screening problem goes largely unaddressed because it is seldom written about, and most recruiting leaders simply haven’t taken the time to calculate the tremendous dollar value of the recruiting and business damage that it causes. 

If you were looking for a proven leader, most resume screeners today would quickly drop George Washington if he were alive today because he has two major flaws (he lied, and he owned slaves). So despite the fact that he had many accomplishments both as a general and a leader, his application today would likely be immediately dropped from consideration. 

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Part I – The Problem – Sorters Are “Screening Out” Resumes With A Single Flaw To Avoid A Confrontation With Their Hiring Manager

It’s true that all but the best resume screeners are now whittling down their stacks of received resumes using what I call the “hunting for weaknesses approach.” This approach involves recruiters quickly scanning each individual resume, looking exclusively for flaws, missteps, omissions, and weaknesses. These weaknesses become “knockout factors” because having just one weakness results in candidates being quickly “knocked out” from the potential interview list.

Why is this approach so common today? Unfortunately, many resume screeners have adopted it to avoid being screamed at and criticized by their hiring managers, who have learned to demand that they only be asked to review a handful of resumes (usually no more than five) and that each provided resume be “perfect.” Meaning it doesn’t contain a single flaw or candidate weakness.

Part II – Why This Problem Is Hidden

This common but serious problem can be classified as “a hidden problem” because literally no one periodically measures their percentage of resume screening errors. If hiring managers realized that they were being deprived of the opportunity to interview what many experienced managers would consider to be highly desirable candidates, this screening problem would get more attention from hiring managers.

The problem is also hidden because no one in recruiting openly talks about which “screening out factors” are being used, as that disclosure would likely generate uproar and many legal challenges among rejected applicants. But the most important reason why your screen process is allowed to be poorly managed is that no one in recruiting has taken the time to quantify in dollars the damages caused by an exclusive focus on weaknesses. 

This hunting for weaknesses screening approach for resumes can accurately be labeled as a “one and done” approach. Because when the resume screener finds just one significant weakness or flaw in an applicant’s resume, the candidate is done (permanently eliminated).

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Part III – Convincing Hiring Manager To Take Notice… By Highlighting The Many Benefits From Dropping This Approach.

I have found that recruiting leaders and hiring managers won’t even begin to pay attention to this significant but hidden problem until they fully understand the many ways an overfocus on weaknesses can hurt both their business and their recruiting results. To keep them better informed, the top 8 benefits of shifting away from this damaging practice are listed below, with those having the highest business impacts appearing first.

  • Many more innovators and collaborators will be hired – Those that innovate and act outside the box disproportionately make more errors than the average employee. If you are seeking one of these highly valuable innovators, you must realize upfront that there isn’t a single innovator who hasn’t failed multiple times. Since many innovators are proud of their failures, they often mention them in their resumes, even though they likely know they might be placing themselves on the “screen out list.” For example, famous vacuum cleaner inventor Sir James Dyson had publicly proclaimed experiencing 5,126 failures before he finally succeeded. With such an admission, he would never survive a hunt for weaknesses scan.
  • Your new-hires will have many more accomplishments Because hiring managers focus on achieving results, most desire new hires who have accomplished a great deal wherever they have worked. Since resume screeners search for weaknesses while postponing follow-up searches for accomplishments, a large number of accomplishments won’t do much to save a candidate initially found to have a significant weakness or flaw. For example, under this approach, LeBron James would be summarily screened out if he were to apply for a leadership position. Despite his many accomplishments both on and off the court, they would instantly reject him once they spotted that he had a major leadership weakness (that of never attending college)!
  • You will hire many more top performers who take significant risks – Much like innovators, most top performers become top performers by continually taking big risks and learning from periodic experimentation and hypothesis testing. It’s a good thing that they have started these self-initiated changes to continuously improve their performance. However, deciding to try and then failing at high-risk ventures will definitely be considered a major weakness, which will by itself eliminate even candidates with the highest record of performance. For example, you would likely never get a chance to interview Elon Musk if he were a candidate because so many of his risky experiments in rocket design have clearly underperformed.

    And in addition to lower team performance and the learning of best practices from the new-hires. Failing to hire mostly top performers will also mean that your current team members will miss out on the opportunity to learn from and be mentored by these top-performing new-hires. So instead of focusing only on failures. Realize that a more balanced approach puts a heavy weight on their performance potential. And less weight on their weaknesses will provide the most benefit to the organization. 
  • More candidates with valuable experience will be hired – Those who have worked for many years obviously also have more years of experience than a rookie. Along with all those many years of successful experience, every experienced candidate will also likely carry with them many more failures than a rookie. Using the “hunting for weaknesses” approach will almost always mean that a disproportionate percentage of your experienced applicants (with a long history of failures) will be inadvertently screened out. Unfortunately, using the current approach often results in a shift in hiring preferences away from experienced candidates and towards the hiring of rookie applicants who haven’t yet had the opportunity to make even one major mistake. For example, if you were selecting a presidential candidate using the no-weakness method. Applying this weakness approach to politics. You would likely pick a political rookie instead of either Biden or Trump. Because of the many errors and missteps that both current candidates have publicly revealed during their many decades of working.
  • More diverse candidates will be interviewed – Because economically challenged workers often experience many more career weaknesses, such as job jumping, being laid off, being fired, career gaps, and lower levels of skills and education. If your resume sorter uses a weakness screening-out approach that overly focuses on the absence of credentials or the number of accumulated career failures that can be determined from a resume. A much smaller percentage of your diverse applicants will be passed on to the interview stage. And hiring managers will never be aware that there really is no shortage of diverse candidates. Because what is actually happening is that diverse candidates simply show more career-related failures and weaker skill sets in their resumes. For example, if you had the opportunity when he was alive. You wouldn’t likely hire Martin Luther King because, despite his many accomplishments, he had a significant criminal arrest record. And that alone would be considered by many resume screeners to be a weakness that would deserve a rejection.
  • Many more highly valued rapid learners will be hired Google research found that rapid learning is a primary factor in new-hire performance. And other research indicates that among the most impactful learning experiences is learning from your own failures and errors. Unfortunately, if an applicant admits in their resume that they have learned from their failures, they will likely be immediately dropped due to these perceived weaknesses. In order to increase the number of rapid learners you hire, you need to place greater emphasis on those who learn quickly from their mistakes.
  • Many more extremely honest and frank candidates will be hired – Because under the “hunting for weaknesses” approach, those that are open about their mistakes on the resume will be quickly dropped. This becomes a problem among extremely honest candidates who, even when aware of the consequences, are unlikely to purposely omit any of their errors or rejections from their resume. And that means that the most honest applicants will never make it to your interview stage. You will never have the benefit of these frank, transparent, and critical people as employees.
  • Realize that a candidate’s initial skills weaknesses may have little impact on their work – Hiring managers seek out those that currently have all of the skills and knowledge that they assume are required to do this job. However, once a manager realizes that the work can be redesigned around a new-hire’s capabilities and weaknesses, they can proactively reassign some of the new-hire’s duties in their areas of weakness to others or offer targeted skill development opportunities. As a result, the candidate’s initial weaknesses will only last a short while. If the candidate is smart enough to successfully harness the resources and skills/experience of those around them, their skill weaknesses will have no major impact on their team’s performance.

If You’re Serious About Switching, Here Are A Few Additional Things To Consider

If you are serious about switching away from this “focusing on weaknesses” approach. Here are some additional things that you should know.

  • When you begin using AI for resume sorting, this problem will be amplified – Because of the extraordinary effectiveness of AI, everyone will finally begin using it to support resume screening. And that use will first result in the finding of many more flaws, omissions, and weaknesses in every applicant’s resume. If you continue with the “hunting for weaknesses” approach, your AI will likely lead to the premature elimination of 2 to 3 times more candidates because of the newly found additional weaknesses that will be discovered in their resumes.
  • There are currently two available solutions to this problem – Because visible flaws and omissions in a resume may be easily explained by the candidate or might simply be a result of weak resume writing skills. In both cases, it’s a mistake to reject a candidate without giving them an opportunity to fully explain what may only appear to be a weakness. So here are two solutions that give the candidate that opportunity.
    • The optimal solution is to emphasize the value of an applicant’s strengths – I recommend that those that are making hiring decisions should follow the old adage of “focusing on your strengths.” In order to do that, you must shift away from a one-sided approach (that overemphasizes weaknesses) toward a “dual-sided approach.” This more balanced approach requires a recruiter to look at the applicant’s strengths first. And only then can the screener identify serious weaknesses that clearly have job impacts. Next, the screener must use a more balanced approach to determine which applicants can be screened out.
    • An easier to implement solution is “delaying any decision on weaknesses” – This delaying solution works primarily because it gives the recruiter more time to search out their own information on any of this applicant’s weaknesses. And it also provides the applicant with some added time to provide their own details and to fully explain each weakness. So the optimal time to make your final “drop them because of their weaknesses decision” doesn’t occur until after you have completed your first formal round of interviews. 
  • As an added negative, you are unfortunately losing candidates that have already been sold on your company/job – Whenever you prematurely screened out these applicants, you should realize that they have already expressed a deep enough interest in your job opportunity. Because they took the time to formally apply. So realize that when you screen out their resume without providing them with a clear explanation. You can’t be surprised when they refuse to reapply to another of your open jobs and when they complain online about your unresponsive hiring process.
  • A tip if you are an applicant – If you want to learn whether your resume discloses any flaws or weaknesses. Give it to a recruiter friend (or find one online). Along with the job description for the position that you’re interested in. And finally, define for the recruiter what are considered to be weaknesses or flaws in a candidate’s resume (i.e., omissions in skills/experience, career failures and work-related missteps that can be spotted during a quick resume scan). Then ask the recruiter to identify any weaknesses or flaws that they would likely find if they were formally reviewing your resume for this job.

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The Interesting Back Story Behind The “5 Great And No Uglies” Expectation

Everyone knows that for many years there has been a shortage of well-trained resume sorters/screeners. And as a result, over time, many hiring managers have grown frustrated with the quality of the candidate slates that have been presented to them.

In one memorable case when I was the Chief Talent Officer, a senior manager literally threw the five resumes he had just reviewed into the air. And screamed, no more! From now on, I only want “Five greats and no uglies” (I have omitted multiple cuss words). Which recruiting leadership immediately knew meant that he wanted, from that point forward, to see only five resumes (no fewer than five and never a stack of resumes). Each one was expected to be a perfect resume (both in qualifications and in capabilities). And there was never to be a single “ugly resume” presented to a hiring manager where an ugly resume was one that contained even a single flaw, weakness or omission (i.e., a low GPA, being laid off, currently being unemployed, a college degree from a weak institution, potential visa issues or even a single spelling error). Under these new “no ugly resumes” hiring manager expectations, these flaws essentially became applicant knockout factors. So once a screener spotted even one, the applicant was immediately and permanently out of the competition.

Final Thoughts

There is no recruiting step that is more impactful (both to the candidate and the hiring manager) than those that permanently eliminate a candidate from further consideration. Since screening out of applicant resumes occurs so early in the overall hiring process (when little other countering information on a weakness is available). I rate it as the most damaging of all screening out processes. Despite its significant impact, we know little about the accuracy and the flaws contained in our screening in/out process. In fact, with Google as the one exception, literally, no one has formally measured and publicly reported the accuracy of their screening process.

In the Google case, many years ago under Project Janus, they formally studied their screening processes to determine if they were inadvertently missing out on hiring any top candidates (they did and they went back and hired them). So I recommend that starting today, smart recruiting leaders should begin acting like your own resume screening process is imperfect (it assuredly is). And then, at the very least, try to minimize your team’s use of this extremely harmful “hunting for weaknesses” approach.

Author’s Note

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About Dr John Sullivan

Dr John Sullivan is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high business impact; strategic Talent Management solutions to large corporations.

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