The Shelf Life of Resumes (Sit on resumes – lose the best candidates)

One of the dumbest things recruiters/managers can do is to “sit on” the resumes of top candidates for days without taking action. Yes, I know recruiters and managers are overworked, but one of the primary reasons that you are overworked is that you have to struggle with mediocre candidates because you lost the very best because you delayed taking action on their resumes. What is your “time to respond” to resumes? If it is over 3 days, you are going to lose many of the best candidates. Here is why. WHAT IS YOUR “TIME TO RESPOND?”

An Example – At a large “employer of choice” computer firm I once had a manager force rank (from superstar to average) all of the resumes received from a major recruiting effort. This firm had a “painfully normal” time to fill a job of over 90 days. They also had a deadly “time to respond” time of 10 – 21 days (measured in time from receipt of resume, to the first call to the candidate). Four months later we checked to see how many of the top 10% of the resumes (candidates) in the group actually was hired. They were shocked…the answer was ZERO. Not a single one of the top 10% of the candidates was still around by the time they got to the interview stage because they “sat” on the resumes so long before calling the candidates in. A long “time to respond is deadly,” if you want the best. That firm learned a lesson and it now can hire a top candidate in 5 days. Now that’s a turnaround! HOW RESUMES GET “STALE”

Top candidates (like Michael Jordan) are in the active job market for as little as a day. Their resumes have a shelf life like a melting ice cream cone. If you fail to contact them within 1-5 days, you will lose them. And since top performing hires generate as much as 300% more revenue than an average hire the costs to a firm/manager are enormous! An Example – A top performing IT manager (Michael Jordan) finishes a project and decides he wants to move on. The clock starts: DAY 1:


  • Michael Jordan mentions to friends that he is ready to move on from “Intel.” They tell 3 – 5 friends/managers and recruiters (they get the referral bonus).
  • He finally returns one or two of the headhunter calls he gets every week. He e-mails his “old” resume to the headhunter. The headhunter immediately forwards the resume to an HR recruiter at your firm (electronically).
  • At the end of day 1 at least 7 people are trying to place him.

DAY 2:

  • Other “friends” find out Michael is ready to go and tell other managers and recruiters.
  • The search firm forwards the resume to other possible firms (in order to make their fee).
  • By the end of day 2 at least 5 managers and 7 recruiters know of the candidates availability.

DAY 3:

  • Managers have begun meeting face to face with Michael. Corporate recruiters also call and do telephone interviews.
  • By the end of day 3 Michael has done 3 “informal” interviews and 5 telephone interviews. The number of calls from recruiters and managers has reached 25 and Michael is getting leery of the “recruiting process.”

DAY 4:

  • 5 Final interviews are set during the limited time Michael has available. Some are on the fourth day, while others are set for early on the 5th day.
  • Those that call at this point are generally told politely that Michael is “still interested” but in reality they are out of the running.
  • By the end of the fourth day the candidate has 2 formal offers and Michael is ready to say yes…but decides to talk to the last 2 firms on the fifth day.

DAY 5:

  • After a breakfast and lunch interview Michael has narrowed it down to 2 possibilities. He calls his mentor for advice. Because he is decisive he calls the “right” firm his mentor recommends and says yes before the end of business on the 5th day.
  • GAME OVER FOR THE REST! – In the mail that day he gets a card from the PH corp. saying they have received his resume and they will contact him soon (he tosses it in the trash). By the time most read and process his resume (14 – 21 days) his phone is disconnected.

DAY 93:

  • Even the worst firms finally make an offer. The quality of the hire they actually get has diminished by as much as 2/3 due to the delay and the costs have gone up by 3 times (due to increased management time and lost productivity due to the delay). We have “Pee Wee Herman” leading our IT department, as opposed to Michael Jordan. Y2K will not be pretty!


Resumes, like accounts receivable, need to be “aged.” I estimate that the odds that you will hire a superstar candidate go down by 50% each week that you have a resume on file. The value of a superstar resume decreases by 50% every week up to the point of no usable value at 4 weeks. As resumes get older the likelihood of a superstar hire diminishes… but be careful, because the same is NOT true for average or poor candidates. Average candidates are able to stay available (they have no offers to say yes to) for more than 90 days (typical time to hire). If you are filling reqs that are over 60 days old you are either an employer of choice (that can be a little arrogant) or you may be hiring the idiots no one else wants! Your “perceived” shortage of top talent is in fact self inflicted. There will certainly be no top talent available by the time you get around to calling them in after 30 to 60 days. Moral of the Story – Steps You Need to Take! You will lose the best candidates:

  1. If you don’t treat resumes like they have a short shelf life. For top candidates it is often one day but never more than 5. If you do not respond to great resumes immediately (like you just won the lotto) you will lose the best.
  2. If you don’t educate managers and recruiters of the impact and the “dollar loss” due to sitting on resumes.
  3. If you don’t date stamp, track and report the shelf life of resumes and who is slow in responding to them. (Reward recruiters and managers for the quality and the speed of hire).
  4. If you hesitate, none of the candidates that are still available after two weeks will be “superstars”. And as time progresses beyond 4 weeks the remaining resumes will contain only turkeys’ or “also-rans”!
  5. If you don’t prioritize your jobs into two categories… “Jiffy Lube style fast hires” and regular hires. And then treat the fast hires/superstars differently than your regular hires.
  6. If you don’t react within 3 days to candidates sent by search firms…they will push them to other firms so they don’t lose their chance at a fee.
  7. If you don’t call the top people and express an interest in them the day you get their resume.
  8. If you mail or “overnight” paper resumes you will limit their value.
  9. If you don’t scan all resumes the first day for superstars. Send them to managers via e-mail.
  10. If you don’t have fixed “pre-qualifying” criteria for key jobs which allows you to quickly determine if they deserve special treatment.
  11. If you use consensus/team decision making to decide if we should call a candidate in. Individuals need to be empowered to bring in superstars for assessment by themselves.
  12. If you allow being “out of the office” to be an excuse. All resume “receivers” must have a back up so that if they are out of the office, resumes are still scanned for superstars.
  13. If you do get lucky and you actually do get top candidates after a long delay their price will go up (as much as 10% per week as other firms make offers and counteroffers). Get them quick before the bidding begins.
  14. If you blame managers or recruiters for sitting on resumes the result is still the same… Game over! Both are to blame. If you are a manager demand a date stamp so you can see the delay for yourself.
  15. If you don’t get a resume on the first day a superstar comes on the market the clock still starts the day they start looking. If you are slow in capturing their resume, you still lose. Capture the candidate the day they become available with continuous relationship building and sourcing.
  16. If you don’t look at the resumes you have until after a req opens.
  17. If you get most of your resumes from high volume “job sites” on the “web” that may have an age better measured in years than days.

Summary of Advice:

  • Set fixed screening criteria so you can rapidly “pre-qualify” any resumes you receive prior to the opening of a req. Use the same criteria to rapidly qualify resumes that are received when there is already an open req.
  • Scan and sort resumes on the day they are received to see if the “pile” contains any superstars. Contact superstars on that day. If you are unsure, treat everyone that may be a superstar…just like they are one.
  • Train, measure, and reward recruiters and managers for a fast response time and for the quality of the hire and for a short time to hire.
  • Meet or phone interview them within 1 – 3 days.
  • Kill the paper and make all resumes electronic

“He who hesitates…loses” – The odds of actually hiring a superstar candidate from a resume you have had for over a month are almost ZERO!

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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