FRICTION: A WARNING FROM AN EX-RECRUITER ON THE USE OF FUNCTIONAL CVS AND RESUMES

Posted On 30th December 2013

I am about to make a few enemies, but it’s in a good cause. Let me begin. And explain.

I need to warn you about “Functional” CVs and resumes. This is quite critical because a certain kind of career “coach”, typically one from a HR rather than hard-nosed recruitment background, thinks they are a good idea for some very vulnerable people.

Just in case you don’t know, a “functional” CV or resume is an alternative to the more usual “chronological” type.

Rather than explaining what you’ve done and where, you cherry pick top achievements, experiences and skills, put them on the first page or two and leave dates and previous employers either out entirely, or relegate them to a minor footnote at the back of the document.

In particular, some experts think they are a good idea for people who have spent a long time in the same organisation. I see this quite a lot myself with the work I do for people leaving the armed forces and the intelligence community.

But it’s not limited to soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines and spooks. I’ve dealt with commodity brokers who’ve spent twenty years doing the same thing. And many more besides.

The “job for life” may be practically dead, at least in English speaking countries, but the job-for-a-terribly-long-time still lingers here and there.

Then you have people desperate to change careers. People desperate to stress their “transferable skills” as they want, typically in mid or late career, to move into an industry very different from the one they’ve toiled in for so long.

This is an attempt at translating for a new audience who and what you are, and what you can do for them.

Now, I don’t doubt the motivation of the advisers at all. This is an attempted answer to a very real problem. It should work, and I suppose from time to time it might.

The theory is this.  If recruitment is competency led then stressing skills separately from when and where you obtained them is reasonable and effective. It also counters potentially negative impressions caused by spending a long time with the same company – lack of ambition and so on.

Sadly, there is a huge flaw in the approach, and I call it “friction”. Functional resumes are read, eventually, by people. For the most part, people expect to see chronological CVs. When they don’t see one, they wonder why.

The first question they will ask is “what is this person trying to hide”? In fact, most recruiters know that if someone opts for a functional CV they are certainly trying to hide something. Why else would they use one?

Doubt, suspicion, even fear are bad ways to start your contact with a recruiter. In fact they are pretty much a disaster, especially in a competitive labour market where less suspicious CVs abound.

There are other questions recruiters ask about functional CVs and resumes. Let’s say you start yours with your top achievement. The first thing a recruiter will do is try to work out when and where it happened.

They will turn back and forth for a little while trying to place your achievement in a timeline. They do this because they want to know if this A+ achievement happened yesterday or in the 1980s.

They want to know this because you might be trying to hide that your best days are long behind you. That’s a perfectly reasonable thing for a recruiter to try and judge. Even if this isn’t the case, the way functional CVs and resumes are presented can lead to misinterpretation.

Nothing in an environment as complex as the jobs market is ever simple and I am sure the functional approach sometimes works. But the suspicion it raises means that, on balance, you are best avoiding it.

A better way of overcoming this “one job” obstacle is to directly confront it. Challenge the perception honestly rather than trying to avoid the discussion. Demonstrate growth within your organisation. Write in a way free of jargon, open to those from other industries to comprehend. Impress with what you’ve done. Recently.

“One job” careers are less fashionable than moving around every four years, but not as unfashionable as admitting it as a weakness, which is what functional CVs implicitly do.

I expect to get buckets of criticism for this blog but I don’t really care.  It’s important.

I will try and respond to constructive critics fairly and honestly as quickly as I can. Those who choose to play the man rather than the argument by attacking me personally (all too common from those in the industry who feel threatened, alas) I’ve decided this time I will just ignore.

Happy 2014. I’ll start writing again early in the New Year.

David Welsh 

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