As employers, we have all found ourselves thumbing through a colossal, if not never-ending, stack of applications (or digital applications in 2022). Reading through each timeline, redundant skills section, and ‘why me’ can become both eye-crossing and incoherent. Eventually, through the wonderful world of losing hope, you may believe that a decent resume is greater than it actually is, raised in contrast to the thousands of countless words you’ve already poured over. You may overlook all the known resume red flags.
But what are the biggest resume red flags? Are there actual pieces of incoherent or avoidable syntax that should cause you to toss a resume out before reading the rest? Is there a 10 Commandments of applications sitting in some legendary hiring manager’s desk?
As a staffing agency, we have dealt with thousands (though it feels like millions) of resumes from a plethora of industries. We know a thing or two about how to read resumes. Therefore, as an authority, we have some secret (or not-so-secret) tips about what to look for when reading through resumes.
Here are our top 10 resume red flags, ranked from least-worse-but-still-bad to worst:
10. Boring Layout and Design
The first few red flags we will work through may seem a bit vague in concept. Ultimately, as a hiring manager or overall employer, you may find the little nuances of resume building completely subjective. If you are to notice something slightly off-putting but hire the candidate, and then the candidate turns out to be a bad hire, you may connect that little detail to bad hires going forward. This concept works in a positive light, as well.
Red and green flags are often based on the prefaced human experience.
Mysticism aside, a boring layout or design is a fairly simple red flag that shouldn’t be overlooked. Should the color design of an application be the most weighted factor of a hiring decision? No (unless you are hiring a graphic designer). Should it point your attention to certain places during the vetting process? Absolutely.
It’s the golden age of technology. Every word processor has a plethora of nifty resume templates built in. If a candidate’s resume is boring, bland, or made of simple and designated sentences, then it’s very likely they didn’t put much effort into the process. At the end of the day, you never want to hire an employee that isn’t willing to put effort into their application (a theme you will read a lot in this article).
If an applicant wasn’t willing to add a little color or flair to their application to stand out, they might not care about your job.
It’s Important to Note
This goes for every item on this list.
Having one of these red flags should not be an end-all-be-all. A boring resume should not lead to throwing the entire application out. These items should weigh into decisions and raise eyebrows and questioning. If you think their resume is boring but respectable in content, tailor some interview questions toward their effort.
It’s a red flag, not a stop sign.
9. Too Much Going On
We spoke to an anonymous hiring manager in Denver. When asked what red flags turn him away from a resume, he stated, “As a hiring manager, there isn’t anything that makes me throw out a resume. It’s my job to look them all over. One immediate thing that bothers me is a resume that is too bundled up or hard to read.
It may entirely be psychological, but when there’s too much going on, I don’t process all the information. Someone could have a great work history but I might miss stuff by being checked out. It’s sad but true. Keep it a bit aesthetically pleasing, for our sake.”
Consequently, a bundled application is not only hard to follow but makes the employee seem unprofessional. One of the keys to a good resume is being able to answer questions with brevity and efficiency. Someone that is well-learned and experienced can explain their jobs effectively with pith.
Also, too much going on can make effort a question, too. It’s not a great look for any employee.
Circling back to the concept of ‘did they even try?’ is the flag of grammatical errors.
It’s the golden age of technology. Every word processor has a plethora of nifty spelling and grammar checkers built in. If a candidate’s resume is full of incorrect or misspelled sentences, then it’s very likely they didn’t put much effort into the process. At the end of the day, you never want to hire an employee that isn’t willing to put effort into their application (a theme you will read a lot in this article).
Sound familiar? It should. It’s the same exact concept. In the 2020s, any spelling or obvious grammar mistake should be inexcusable. Sure, some complex concepts are easily overlooked if you aren’t hiring for an editor or writer, but the main ones are egregious. If a resume has a wide array of typos, the applicant does not care.
It’s also possible that the candidate doesn’t know how to spell or write English. That’s an entirely different topic of conversation and depends entirely on the job and situation. If you are hiring for a white-collar position, a lack of English knowledge should cause you to run… Far.
7. Unprofessional Email or Information
At the end of the day, someone’s email should exude professionalism. Even if it is a new employee who has never worked before, they should still handle their application process with both grace and confidence. If the applicant’s contact email falls under a structure of adjective, title, and number, red flags should be raised high.
Cooldancer340@gmail.com should never be on a resume.
Emails are easy to obtain. A resume should include an email with an applicant’s name and/or title. Anything else comes off as unprofessional and immature, two qualities you never want in an employee.
Furthermore, too much personal information also portrays an idea of immaturity. If a candidate states that they left their last job cause their boss sucked, babbling on for half the page, then they are likely unprofessional as workers. It’s not only a quick flag toward a bad hire, but it’s a definite flag of a toxic employee. Toxic employees can ruin your established workforce. It’s not worth the risk.
6. Too Many Career Changes
We must reiterate the purpose of this article, not only to help you hire but to help respectable employees get good jobs. A red flag should not be an immediate pass. If a candidate has one of these things on their resume but has a great history, they should still get passed on to the interview. It’s a flag, helping you tailor interview questions toward the concerns, confirming they are out of the way.
A resume with a wide variety of career changes is a significant red flag, but it isn’t as red as you may believe. It’s yellow or orange, really.
For example, if a candidate has five jobs in their history and all five are in different industries, it should raise questions about their commitment to their career. It’s difficult to raise up the ranks when you are constantly starting on the ground floor. Becoming a base-level employee in multiple industries shows that the candidate is not fully committed to a career path yet.
Key word: yet.
It’s difficult to say whether this is a sign of a bad employee, but it is certainly something that needs to be discussed in the interview. If the employee has an excellent work history and great work-based references, then it’s possible they just haven’t found their niche yet. According to a BambooHR survey, 63% of respondents had considered changing their career path, or industry, or heading back to school within the past six months, and 88% said they could see themselves working in an industry other than the one in which they were currently employed.
It’s impossible that all of the above correspondents were bad workers. Sometimes people just strive to find a fit that’s best for them, especially in the new age of the Great Resignation. If they have a great track record scattered across multiple industries, they are certainly good workers. The problem becomes that of commitment. They have the tendency to bounce around, and you might be their next landing spot.
Once again, this is a bit of a yellow flag. Bring it up in the interview and keep a close eye (or ear) on their answer. If your gut makes you feel as if they aren’t committed to the new role you are offering, this may be a red flag.
5. Failure to Follow Directions
What’s worse than an employee not doing their task correctly? An employee not doing their task at all.
If your job posting asks for five references and the applicant doesn’t give one, they didn’t follow the directions. They either didn’t think it was necessary, didn’t see it, or didn’t want to do it. Two-out-of-three of those reasons are a bad look. You want an employee that can carefully follow directions, especially before they get the job.
Not only does this immediately scream bad employee, but it displays a lack of care. They didn’t care enough about your job to do what was asked. Maybe they are throwing their base resume around at a wide array of jobs and don’t feel like making a unique change for your job posting. Regardless, you don’t want it.
We must note that it’s entirely possible that they didn’t notice it. Sometimes bits of syntax can be hidden away on job sites. Sometimes we make mistakes when reading, especially a wall of job information. If their resume is fantastic, reach out to them for the missing pieces. Give them a chance to prove it was a misunderstanding.
If you reach out for the missing documents and they don’t respond or give a valid reason, that’s a huge resume red flag.
4. Lack of Details or Apparent Lies
Like our last entry, a failure to add informative and professional details shows either a lack of care or a failure to follow directions. If someone isn’t willing to give information about their past, then they must be hiding something or covering up for a lack of truth.
Indeed estimated that 40% of job seekers lie on their resumes. As employers, we get it. You want to look good to land your dream job. A little bit of exaggeration is understandable. But we can tell when something is an obvious fabrication. We can tell when you are hiding things. We see all!
All jokes aside, a lack of details means that the employee doesn’t know enough to explain the former job (which means they are lying about it or weren’t great in the role). A lack of details can also mean that they just didn’t care enough to write about their past (a common theme). Both are inexcusable.
On the other hand, catching an applicant in a significant lie is not a red flag, it’s a flashing red traffic light.
It’s possible that the employee just didn’t do a good job explaining their work history or skills. That’s also a red flag, though. Should a resume without detailed skills or work history be moved on to the interview phase, anyway?
3. Lack of Progression
The top resume red flags! We’ve reached the peak of eyebrow-raising content. If you see either of these three things, be weary. Further explanation is necessary, and the candidate should have a great and understandable answer.
One of the main points of humanity’s purpose is to constantly improve and evolve. A great worker, much like a great human, should always be looking toward the next step. They should always be looking to get better, get paid better, and work harder.
If an applicant is well past their first few jobs and has yet to see many promotions or growth, what’s their issue? Do they not work hard enough to be promoted? Are they just bad workers?
A lack of progression is one of the most significant resume red flags. It shows that something may be fundamentally wrong with the applicant as a worker. It seems as if they are not willing to put in the effort to get better or only care about coasting by on the bare minimum.
Once again, it all depends on the job. A worker that only cares about staying in their current position doesn’t mean they are an awful worker. Sometimes employees are fine with their role, especially those that are older or are looking for part-time side hustles. But younger employees should be looking for advancement in their careers and companies, always.
Furthermore, if the applicant is fresh out of school (high or college), they should receive the benefit of the doubt in this regard.
2. Employment Gaps
We did an entire article on how to explain resume gaps for employees (it’s very good if I say so myself). In it, we discussed an anecdote involving a worker with a decade-long employment gap.
A former software engineer reached out to us with the question of breaking back into the industry. The engineer had not worked in the field for over a decade. Ultimately, the employee took a break from engineering to start his own unrelated business. Obviously, this business was deemed successful, running for over a decade. After some time, the engineer decided he wanted to get back into the stability of his prior career.
Dear Tier2Tek, how do I break back into the industry?
The question was answered with a few murmurs and hums. After all, it’s a tough ask. Sure, it’s a valid reason to take a decade-long break from your former career, but it can still cause negativity. Ultimately, a hiring manager scans a resume. If the first job experience listed is from 10 years ago, the hirer may not even continue. While there’s good reasoning, you may never get the chance to explain.
The aforementioned candidate was a fantastic worker.
The issue that hiring managers would have with the above worker’s resume is not that they stepped away from the industry, but that there is such a significant break in knowledge and practice. Every industry changes rapidly in the exponential growth of the modern century. For example, if a graphic designer hasn’t worked in the field in a decade, they may not know about the new technology at hand, or the platforms your job requires.
A significant employment gap is a huge red flag. Not only does it show shades of lack of commitment and effort, but lack of knowledge, too.
Did the employee take off because they just didn’t have the work ethic to continue? Did they give up on the industry? Why should you hire them if they aren’t committed to the field? Why should you hire them if they aren’t up-to-date?
These are all extremely valid questions. Unfortunately, there are some instances where the employee had valid reasons to take a break and can back it up with continued education and/or practice.
While employment gaps are a red flag, they are far from a stop sign. Ultimately, the employee needs to have a solid reason during the interview. They also need to be able to show they are still fit for the job. It’s possible, like the one above, that the employee took a break for something else and is still a great worker.
If their resume is great despite the gaps, give them a chance to explain themself.
1. Job Hopping
The biggest of resume red flags. The doozy. The Oh No.
When an applicant has a list of jobs with short shelflives, more often than not, something is wrong with the employee. It’s sad to say (and a bit harsh), but it’s true.
Ultimately, if an employee has a work history of short stints, the main reasons are:
- They continue to get fired.
- Aren’t committed to their work or career.
- Have yet to decide on their career.
- Are always job searching, even when employed.
- Have an outside situation that continuously affects their ability to stay at a job.
- Are a gig worker.
Only the last one of those is positive. And if a candidate is a gig worker, it should be obviously noted before the work history that the short stints are part of the career. As a writer, I totally understand and can attest that the last note is a possibility that isn’t necessarily negative. It should be understood, though.
(There are issues that arise with a gig worker never getting offered a full-time job anyway, but that’s entirely industry-specific and a completely different discussion.)
Five out of those six reasons are negative. Therefore, it’s reasonable to consider this the most important of resume red flags. If a candidate has great work experience but doesn’t stay at any job long, they better have a good explanation for the job hopping.
How are they even getting hired at the other great jobs, anyway?
Job hopping is our top choice for resume red flags.