IT Employment

Why you may be cheating your company when you use keyword scanning apps

If you restrict your job candidate choices to only those resumes that contain the right keywords, are you doing yourself and your company a disservice?

One hiring practice that I find disturbing is keyword scanning. Many companies use scanning apps that scan resumes for arbitrary terms instead of first letting a human eye look at them. On one hand I understand why -- it's easier than having HR understand the intricacies of every department in the company. Here's the conversation I envision when an IT manager is describing what he is looking for in a job candidate:

IT manager: "I'd like to find someone who has managed a team in a major tech implementation or migration."

HR rep: [blank stare]

IT manager: "Just scan for TQM, ISO 9000, benchmarking, and PERT."

Why this can backfire

This process can cause some great candidates to be overlooked due to superficialities, and doesn't so much flag the person who is most qualified as much as it flags the person who is most qualified to pepper a resume with the correct keywords. Eliminating job candidates solely because they don't make exact matches with superficial criteria means that you will lose out on some of the most fulfilling and productive work relationships you can have.

In the example above, you might miss out on someone who has successfully managed projects that came in consistently under-budget just because the terms you are looking for weren't mentioned specifically.

When you hire a person, you're creating a relationship. You shouldn't base that relationship on keywords just as you wouldn't create a romantic relationship based only on common interests. For example, on paper, my husband and I have nothing in common. In fact, if we had to sum ourselves up in keywords his would be football, muscle cars, football, friends, football and building stuff. Mine would be artwork, shopping, reading, friends, and decorating stuff. If you ran us through an automated dating system, the results would be "Most likely to end in a murder/suicide."

But our differences are what make our relationship work. In areas where I fall short, he excels.  And my interests and outlook on life have exposed him to different ways of looking at things. So far, we're at twenty-one years and still going strong. In fact, it is only with our similarities that we do have issues. For example, we both love animals and neither of us has the spine to say no to a stray anything. This has resulted in the Animal Kingdom that is now our home. (Although I drew a line at the baby opossum he found, which, even though it was just the size of a half-dollar, managed to lift its hideous little head up and hiss at me.)

Of course, there are going to be basic skills that you will need in any position. But there are tons of people out there with extraordinary technical aptitude who may not have the specific skill you want, but who can learn it easily, along with many others.

In other words, if you're hiring someone, do you want to find someone who is going to think and work exactly like you expect him to, or do you want to be challenged, and therefore improved, by some differences? Maybe you're a zealot of a particular technology. Do you want the same in a job candidate or do you want someone who can make a compelling case for a different technology, at least in some areas of operation, and can save the organization money?

Let's say you're blinded by love for the iPhone and that is one of the keywords you look for in a resume and cover letter.  Wouldn't it be ultimately more beneficial to find someone more familiar with other smartphones who can objectively address privacy issues?

Any good relationship -- whether it be personal or professional -- is all about how the people complement each other. The best ones often don't look like it on paper. Forget the superficial and look deeper.

Tomorrow we'll talk about the HR practice of credit checking.

About

Toni Bowers is Managing Editor of TechRepublic and is the award-winning blogger of the Career Management blog. She has edited newsletters, books, and web sites pertaining to software, IT career, and IT management issues.

35 comments
Osiyo53
Osiyo53

On the 21 year marriage. Myself, I've been married to the same lady for 38 years. And, as in your case, in many, many ways it'd seem the two of us have little in common. But it works for us in much the same ways that you mention. We complement each other. In areas where I have neither talent, skills, interest, or knowledge, she does. And vice versa. And we both recognize that fact and use it to our mutual advantage. i.e. While we do discuss significant issues before making a decision as a couple, its pretty much our practice to leave the final decision up to whichever of the two of us is most knowledgeable and able in that area. Pretty common for either of us when answering someone else to reply, "You'll have to take that up with my hubby (wife), that's something that he (she) decides for us." (or Takes care of. Or Does ... Etc) Used to be we discussed everything together before making decisions. Over time, however, we've each grown to trust the other's judgment in certain matters pretty implicitly. To the point that some discussions about which way to go as concerns certain things has become pretty short. As in, "Whatever you think, Dear, we'll go with that." And we mean it. Will later fully support the other as if we'd individually, personally made that decision. And if something goes wrong and the decision turns out to have been a bad one, we equally accept the fault and blame. As versus blaming the other. Pretty much, her decisions are mine. My decisions are hers. We're not just lovers. One can find just any number of people in the world one can feel romantic about, and/or lust for. That's easy. And transient. Just because one might feel romantically or lustfully attracted to another, doesn't mean it'll last or that you can get along and live together long term. We're a team, mates, partners, friends, etc. And operate as such. Finding someone you can form a long term bond and partnership with like that, is harder to do than just finding a romantic interest. And takes work. And takes holding the other person in as much regard as you have for yourself. We do not always agree. But we do always support the other in the end. Agree or disagree, right or wrong, we can each rely on the fact that our mate will be right there and supportive. Its not as if we don't share any of the same interests, talents, etc. We do indeed. But in many ways we're quite different, more of those than is the case where we're the same. I've personally always wondered about people who want to find a mate who closely matches themselves. Really? Do those folks so love themselves and think so much of themselves and their opinions, preferences, thoughts, talents, and so forth that no one else who doesn't share all those things in common with them is a worthy mate (or person)? They want a mirror image of themselves? Gad, seems pretty limiting to me. Not to mentioned maybe an ego problem. Over time my wife and I have each introduced the other to thoughts, views, experiences, insights, and so forth that the other may have never had or experienced otherwise. Seeing things through her eyes has broadened my world considerably. Likewise, for her, when she has seen things through my eyes. And when one is weak, most often the other is strong. Where one is ignorant, the other is knowledgeable. And so forth. Just my thoughts. My best to you and yours.

Osiyo53
Osiyo53

I've seen this sort of thing. Was looking for a new job. As was my usual practice I used both the targeted approach and the shotgun approach. That is, I sent out some resumes that were customized and targeted to specific positions. And I sent out others of more general and prolific wording covering a broad range of possible jobs I might fit into. In the later type of resume, I used a lot of keywords and buzz words. Okay, my techniques don't follow all the advice and "best practices" guidelines as listed in the books and articles written by resume writing guru's. OTOH, whenever I needed to do some job hunting, I've gotten plenty of bites, and haven't been unemployed for more than 2-3 weeks. Anyway, I ended up getting a call from an agent of a head hunting service. During a screening interview with her, she admitted she'd been using keyword searches to winnow down the number of folks she then contacted. Subject came up because we'd both relaxed to exchanging some occasional small talk. And curiosity had gotten the best of her. She asked if perhaps I could clear some things up for her, such as telling her, in layman's language, just what the heck some of those keywords and acronyms she'd been instructed to look for meant. She said I matched more of em than anyone else she'd found, but she had not a clue what many of them were. It was a list she'd been given by the prospective employer. I satisfied her curiosity. And pointed out that one technique I'd used was to list not only the common names/terms used in places I'd previously worked. I'd done some research into it and used alternate terms/descriptors used elsewhere for what was essentially the same thing ... or close enough. Anyway, I got past her initial screening, and in fact later got the job.

smankinson
smankinson

As an experienced contractor who also often advises others seeking work, I have found it necessary to read between the lines and use my knowledge of the industry to determine the skills the company is really looking for. The hiring company often gives the recruiter a very long list of technical requirements that recruiters often cannot cipher to focus on the real requirements needed. Hope I made sense here.

bastokyg
bastokyg

I'm a UX Designer and I've worked on a lot of different projects over the years. One of them is Microsoft Operations Manager 2007. I constantly get calls and emails from recruiters who say, "I saw your resume and have a job that's the perfect fit!" Turns out it's a Bank Manager, or it's for someone to manage operations (of various sorts). This is just one example of the waste-of-time contacts I get from recruiters almost daily!

ChicagoJCB
ChicagoJCB

where is my "like" button? Screening candidates, especially at the management level, on keywords is just plain dumb. Syntax and the vagaries of a specific platform can be learned easily. Good management and people skills take a lot longer.

dduffy
dduffy

Toni, I often see job specs that if I possessed them all I could command a salary 4 times what is being offered. WIth tha being said, how do you overcome the computer culling without just listing the key words.

barrynovak5
barrynovak5

Thank you Toni for highlighting something that causes major frustration for job seekers like myself. I just got a rejection email for a position where I met 17 of the 18 criteria (i.e. required/preferred technologies, business skills, and business functional area). My Achilles heal: they were looking for 2 years MS SQL server experience; I have somewhat less than that (but 25 years of Oracle and other relational databases). And then there's another phenomena for those who make it past the keyword filter to get a technical phone interview: having it conducted by the HR person. Do you know if this is a new trend? Upfront I was told that my interviewer was given a list of technical questions to ask me, and the answers. It wasn't like pitching horseshoes, where close is often good enough (i.e. no nuance allowed--you were either right or wrong)

CaptainE
CaptainE

Amen - please explain why a 20 year old-degree in basket weaving is better than 20 years of relevant, hard-earned and passionate work experience? Back in my day, the college degree wasn't as important as finding a good job with benefits. Poeple have worked hard over the years to hone their skills, learns new technologies, etc. Now they can't get past the automated screens just because employers believe a degree - any degree - should be a requirement. Argh!!

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

Either HR doing it direct or using a recruitment agency. Probably one of the dumbest and most myopic cost savings you can imagine. After they've done all the 'hard work' of filtering candidates, you are lucky if 30% of them were worth telephone interviewing, so it's guaranteed that more than a few who didn't win at buzzword bingo would have been better than some of those who got through. It's a game we as candidates have to play. I've lost because I didn't have SLQ server on my resume. I once won because I live on road with the same name as a tech they were interested in.... Just another part of corporate philosophy where good enough will do. They keep looking at the cost of hiring the right people, and ignore the deferred one of hiring a numpty because they were the best of what they had to select from.

IS Newby
IS Newby

I am writing a programme for a recruitment agency, that will bring up the best possible candidates for a job. My programme will have a recruiter reading each CV and entering specific details, but as the blog states...it's about relationships and challenging people...it's going to be quite an art to perfect it. Great blog, love reading it! Keep up the good work:)

ketmekjian
ketmekjian

Thank you for articulating what in my opinion has been the most significant shortcoming in the corporate recruitment policy. If I may add another issue I see in the same vein would be the requirement that a candidate needs to have X amount of experience in one particular product to be considered. An example that I have been subjected to is that I do not have NetBackup 7.X experience to be considered for a backup and storage administration position. What I do bring is over a decade of backup administration on NetBackup 5.X/6.X, Networker and NetVault. When will HR screeners and hiring managers get the concept of transferable skills and the sum total of a person?s career is the most important thing a candidate can bring to an organization.

Mycah Mason
Mycah Mason

"Mine would be artwork, shopping, reading, shopping, friends, shopping, and decorating stuff." ;-)

pchopewell
pchopewell

Ms. Bowers What a wonderful article on one of the techniques used by Human Resources. I dislike the idea of reducing someone's work and life experiences to a scanning program. In the short run, the loser many be the prospective employee but in the long run, it is the business enterprise that is the real loser. Unfortunately, this loss is only recognized many months down the road. Thank you for this article and for the many articles you have written before this which I have thoroughly enjoyed. Cathy Hopewell

MyopicOne
MyopicOne

you're not finding this something new. This has been happening at the large corporate level for at least twenty years, and yes they miss out on some terrific employees.

santeewelding
santeewelding

Is there not something fundamentally [i]wrong[/i] with this sort of thing? Understood, that one has to go along with it, in order to get along with it, but...still. What do you sell to get along with it?

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

to ask me if I met the job requirements with questions like Does C# = OO knowledge and experience... Buzzword mismatch.

wistful
wistful

Interest in ERM, ARP. Strong advocate of SAP. ISO9000 aspiration.

Tim Heard
Tim Heard

It's a tough situation sometimes. I did some work with a company once in whcich the recruiter, a very nice lady who was recruiting for a wide variety oof openings, was asking IT professionals to rate themselves on a scale of 1 to 10 with respect to their experience with applications like MS Excel and PowerPoint. What's worse is that supposedly the hiring manager had signed off on her asking those questions. The flip side of that is that hiring managers can't be the first step in the screening process. They simply have too much on their plates. Asking subordinates to help is sometimes an option but again, they are busy too, or they wouldn't be needing to add more staff. Ideally it would be great if all recruiters were subject matter experts on everything and had years of experience. Recruiters, like developers, network admins, project managers, and everyone else, start out green and not knowing much of anything, and often don't get much helpful guidance in the early years. But yes, just like when you hire a junior DBA to to senior level production DBA work, there can be some adverse consequences of having someone do the initial screening who really doesn't understand what he or she is doing.

AlphaW
AlphaW

Totally agree with the article, it is a shame that HR and employment agencies no longer take the time to get past keywords. It has been this way for quite a while. From my perspective also employees are applying for jobs and not highlighting the skills they used that they need for the job. Example: You do not have EDI anywhere on your resume, and you are applying for a position that uses EDI. See my point?

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

"degree X or equivalent experience." This is a good thing, particularly in IT. The problem comes when HR has no clue how to program equivalent experience into their buzzword checker, so they ignore it.

toni.bowers
toni.bowers

And for taking the time to write a thoughtful note.--Toni

bclomptwihm
bclomptwihm

I'm seeing a lot of words here about "The Way Things Should Be" and not enough of "The Way Things Are". Keywords are the way things are. The real winners in the job market are the ones that have a goal in mind (getting hired) and take a results oriented approach (insert the correct keywords). There is *way* to much of the philosophy of "It's the process, not the product" in IT. Be product oriented. If keywords are what the employer wants, then whoever provides the keywords gets the rewards

sjbrouillard
sjbrouillard

Toni, You've touched on the very crux of the problem very early in your article. You write that you can understand why HR uses keyword scans because "it?s easier than having HR understand the intricacies of every department in the company." Herein lies the problem. HR should NOT be doing hiring. The only role HR should play in hiring is coordination. If (and this is a big if as has been discussed in other posts) the company truly wants the best candidate for the position, then the hiring manager or someone they designate should be doing the initial filtering of the resumes BY HAND! Only those involved in the disciplines involved can make an informed decision about the candiadte's potential ability to perform the job. Don't get me wrong, HR has a role to play in the business, I just don't believe that it's as a primary player in the hiring process.

casey
casey

I submit that while Toni's premise that HR keyword scanning may be cheating companies out of qualified candidates is accurate, the base assumption that hiring managers (and upstream HR) want the "best" candidate (defined as most qualified and experienced) is simply not true. Here's why: Most large companies (and U.S. companies in particular) view employees as interchangeable parts that have a cost associated with them. If you have to change a part because it broke or wore out, there is no incentive to replace it with a better one, if the perceived value is no greater than what was there before. If the part is rare and hard to replace, then it will get special treatment. Parts that are perceived as common or plentiful (where most IT folks find themselves these days) get no special handling or scrutiny. Parallel to this behavior is the inverse relationship between company size and employee contribution. The larger the company, employee-wise, the less any one employee contributes to the whole. Put another way, if a company with 5 employees has one person who is not pulling their weight, potentially 20% of the workforce is affected. With a hundred-person firm, the percentage drops to 1%, and so on. As the contribution percentage shrinks, so does the necessity to get the "best" when less and less output from a single employee will not materially affect the enterprise. So here's how to change the game. Despite resume experts and HR wonks recommendations to the contrary, add a page to the end of your resume that lists every keyword imaginable given your experience and line of work. Don't make it unreadable; put it in the context of your job - a listing of key technologies, processes or methods you are familiar with. At least that way, you increase your odds of being invited for an interview by someone who has no clue what you do beyond basic pattern matching of words in a job description. Casey

four49
four49

There is also a huge risk of letting through people who have just doctored their resume to exactly match the job description and appear to be a perfect match on paper but are in no way suitable for the job. Sadly, some companies have such horrid interviewing practices that people like this get hired and stick around for years before anyone can get rid of them. This is a horrible way of hiring people and I'm surprised it has gone on as long as it has.

Osiyo53
Osiyo53

"Is there not something fundamentally wrong with this sort of thing?" Of course there is. First, human beings are not cogs in a machine. Inter-changeable and identical as any other cog mass produced in a factory. Finding and selecting (or rejecting) a HUMAN BEING, prospective employee, based upon some keyword search is not only ineffective, its pretty stupid. Kinda like punching in "brown hair", "green eyes", "between 71 and 73 inches in height", "between 150 and 190 pounds", "degree", "computer science". Okay, with the above you're likely to find plenty of matches. But you'd also automatically reject a fellow or two I know. Me, for instance. My hair is not brown. And my computer related degree (I have more than one college degree) is in "Computer Technology", not "Computer Science". And I always list it on resumes as its listed on the diploma. The above would also reject a fellow I knew who was too short. Had what I would call "light brown hair" but he always described it as "dishwater blond". And while he had a degree, a few of them as a matter of fact, none of them were in "computer" anything. In fact, he was an Physics and Math major. Plus had dual PhDs. OTOH, this guy could and did teach computer science at the advanced university level. And was an independent consultant and researcher who did contract work for the DOD, NASA, National Weather Service, etc. Was a key developer of a particular computer controlled guidance system for an advanced missle system. Did the research and wrote the program which improved NASA's radar tracking systems. And figured out the initial algorithm, and initial source code to implement it that allowed aerial photographs of the ground to be analyzed by a computer and very exact data concerning object dimensions to be automatically extracted. Taking into account weather data, recon aircraft positioning, position of the sun, light diffraction through the air, etc. This could be done previously, painstakingly, and slowly by specially trained personnel. But could take hours per object. His way, you pointed at object or area of interest, computer spewed the answers in seconds. This guy, BTW, was the hubby of one of my aunts. Absolutely brilliant. What he knew about computers and programming was self taught and self learned. I'd think he'd be a darn good employee for many an enterprise. But if you're demanding that he had a computer science degree, you'd pass him up. Likwise, when I retired from the Navy and was job hunting. I found a match, where I possessed some particular skills and experience that a particular, major corporation was looking for. But at first, I didn't even know they were looking for that particular skill and experience. Because they were using a completely different terminology for that knowledge and skill than I was familiar with. Same-same stuff. But in different industries, in different geographic areas, the precise terms and names used are different. I replied to their advertised opening, despite the fact that several terms used in the job description meant not a thing to me. I just figured I matched some of the items listed, and I could learn after all ... I've always been pretty good at that. And just maybe they'd not found someone else yet and would settle for me. Who knows? Unless you try. This corporation didn't use automatic keyword screening. Not in the way Toni mentions. Their HR was instructed to pass on any resume/application that contained any of the key terms, or anything that even sounded vaguely related, to a live manager who actually understood the job to be filled. And he'd decide to interview or not. Anyway, I ended up talking to that guy. At first we discussed the items where I was clearly a match, or close enough. Then he brought up one of those strange to me items. I told him I didn't know what he was talking about, for sure. Could he explain, basically, in layman's terms what that referred to? He did. Little light bulb went off in my feeble brain, and I said "Ohhh, you mean ..." and I used the different terminology I was familiar with. And went on to expand on the subject, using terms we'd both understand. Did I know about that area of knowledge? Heck I'd been on the R&D team that'd developed, defined, and refined the original goals, methodology etc. From which others had come up with their own systems, terms, and so forth and wrote books and gave seminars concerning. Gad, he broke out a book written by one of those "Johnny came later" types, and I scanned it and pointed to whole sections that were virtually copied verbatim from the project I'd worked on. Not that I was the only one, by far, who'd worked on it. The method and system had been originally developed by a team of at least a couple hundred people all total. Had taken years. A government project, results and entire methodology had been made publicly available. Others had jumped on it, changed small details and terminology, and claimed it as their own. Not like I was a major player. I was just part of the team. But there were parts of that system and methodology that were MINE. I personally worked them out, refined them, and got the project managing committee to adopt them and make them officially part of the final system. Egad, I looked at that guy's book and the author made it sound like everything in there was his ideas. He did do a LITTLE attribution, in very small print buried amidst a lot of other trivia. Not that I really cared. The work I'd done, and the others, was government property and paid for, and they'd released it to the public domain. Just kinda got to me that with a little rewording and such, this guy was selling that book at $85 bucks a pop in hardcover. And it was selling like crazy. That was back in 1991. $85 a book was a pretty price indeed. Plus the guy was being hailed as a great innovator. ROFLMAO !! It all had to do with a system and methodology for collecting and analyzing equipment performance, wear and tear, mathematically predicting likelihood of failures ahead of time based on past real world experience, etc. Anyway, a piece of cake. While I might not have been any important big player in the development of that original system and methodology, I didn't need that guy's book. Could have taught him a lot he didn't know. Almost anyone off that original development team could have. Net result, I had a job. And implemented the system they wanted. In fact the guy who interviewed and hired me, also was my new direct boss. And what I did for them worked so well he got a very nice promotion. He tried like the devil to get me to go along with him. But it would've meant relocating to another state. New position he had in mind for me would've paid a lot better. But I wasn't gonna move away from my favorite fishing holes. Money has only so much importance to me. More than "enough" to satisfy my needs and modest wants ... isn't much incentive. Not to me. Getting along with the "system", as you put it, whether its stupid or not, right or not. Is not something I give a great deal of thought to. It is what it is. Most times I don't bother to get angry about it or to fight it. I just find a means to ... ummm ... manipulate it while working within it to achieve my own goals.

barrynovak5
barrynovak5

Very thoughtful comments. I agree about the Catch-22 situation: too busy to interview to expedite getting more help onboard. One detail I left out though: it was an IT consulting company's recruiter that conducted the right-or-wrong answer technical interview.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

database, covers twenty + years in the job, and you want me to waste space on a tech I haven't used, in fact haven't seen used since 1988? Hardly a skill anyway is it?

sjbrouillard
sjbrouillard

OK Robin. You have a point. So let's in fact talk about the way things are. The best jobs are NOT found by getting your resume through a keyword scanner...period. The best jobs aren't even posted on a job board, or in the HR listing, or etc... The BEST way to find a job is to network, make contacts and develop relationships. There's no shortcut. If a good hiring manager wants to interview you for a position, your resume or an application may be required for the "process", but no keyword scanner will keep you away from the interview in that instance.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

perspective and saying buzzword bingo is not the way things should be. The only people who win at buzzword bingo are the people who make the cards, pens, and 'numbers' to go in the boxes. Describing it as a win for employers or employees is a dubious claim at best. I'm pretty sure most of us have buzzwords in our resumes....

jmarkovic32
jmarkovic32

I put keywords in white font at the bottom of my resume. They are invisible to human eyes but beats the scanner.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

in 1988. Left in 99, went back 2003 - 2005. EDI isn't a tech it's scenery. And the reason they still use it, is because they are great believers in if it ain't broke don't fix it. Wich is i why I went back to win95, VMS and Fortran. It's hard to imagine anyone with any sort of non-hardware experinec in IT, not being able to pick it up in five minutes anyway, hardly rocket science is it?

AlphaW
AlphaW

I was not referring to a programming position and manufacturers still use EDI everyday.

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