Tech & Work

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.


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.

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