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Resume Racism, how recruiters really read your resume

Resume racism

What image does your resume portray?

Resume Racism

This week’s topic is Resume Racism. It will most likely bend a lot of readers but my hope is that it is an eye-opener for both candidates and hiring managers alike. The following is a topic that won’t get much airplay, even amongst my peers, but I need to air this laundry because I see this phenomenon effect candidates on a regular basis. I am not talking about misspelled words or typos, which will end a resumes career ASAP. Any HR pro-am will tackle that topic. I am talking about prejudice and racism that is interpreted via the resume, and this all happens BEFORE a face to face interview.  

This past week, I have been collaborating on a resume with an uber smart candidate. When I say “uber smart”, I mean Ph.D., time at Cambridge, 40-under-40 recognition, bilingual, and entrepreneurial with a successful business – smart. The whole nine yards, the “sick” kind of smarts.  

After an online introduction, I met this candidate in person over coffee and found them to be articulate, presentable, social, and yes, a big brain without coming off like an intellectual with a Ph.D. from Cambridge. All good things for me. This initial meeting wasn’t necessarily an interview, but more of a “get to know each other” meeting. AFTER our meeting, the candidate forwarded their resume for review.    

Looking at the resume from afar I liked what I saw. The document was well-balanced and filled the pages without looking crowded. Resumes have the potential to mimic bad art by appearing empty like a white modernistic interpretation or the opposite, overcrowded and busy. This one had great aesthetics. 

When I started to read the document, I realized this candidate was not just accomplished, this candidate was VERY accomplished. The document was 3 full pages, great brands, a long list of honors both academic and professional, held a professorship at Cambridge, graduate of a well-known Ivy League school, blah – blah – blah. And I say those last three “blahs” facetiously. The entire document was filled with relevant information and all accomplishments were recent. 

As I mentioned, I met the candidate in person and they could back up the entire document. Well spoken, great presentation layer, and obviously intelligent. In a nutshell, a lot of companies would love to have this candidate on their team.  

Sound too good to be true? It was, temporarily. Throughout the document, I saw a number of yellow flags. None of these flags individually would nuke the candidate, but as a collective, these flags made a difference. Not just any difference, but even me, HRNasty, the magnanimous and open-minded recruiter would have had a hard time calling this candidate for a phone interview. Had I seen the resume first and not met the candidate in person, I am confident I would have had a prejudiced image. This candidate would probably have never received a call and the company would have missed out. 

I was confident that other hiring managers and recruiters would look at the resume and feel the same trepidation I did. After looking at the resume, with even just a cursory glance, I was left with the impression that this was an angry minority, a strong-minded activist, or all of the above.  In other words, an HR nightmare.      

Based on the position the candidate was applying for, this may be the desired image. If the candidate is looking for an advocacy position with a minority group raising money for a cause or charity, PERFECT!  The picture that came to mind was that of a downtown mob with riot police, Birkenstocks and fingers pointed in anger!  Our candidate was looking for a position in corporate America, and I am confident the resume would raise hairs on the backs of most hiring managers neck.  

Resume Racism

Hopefully, I don’t picture this when I look at your resume

Just a few of the words and phrases which were included in the resume:

  • Ethnic Media                        
  • Martin Luther King
  • Celebrate (insert country here)
  • Gender x” of Power, “Gender x”  of Courage
  • Advocacy
  • Local Ethic Media
  • Heritage Community
  • Diversity
  • Interactive Workshop
  • Coalition 

None of the above would have raised any flags individually, but as a collective, even I got a little scared and I am certified to facilitate a number of diversity classes. (This candidate is not looking for a position in Diversity)    

The resume was creating an image and reinforcing prejudices and we hadn’t even met.

The candidate I met in person didn’t give me the impression they were ready to go door to door for the next “we are treated unfairly cause”. The closer on the deal is that this candidate has an Ethnic sounding name, which implied that the skin color is something other than white. We are not talking a Schmidt or McHenry with this candidate. The name at the top of this resume is ethnic enough that the reader could wonder if English is the first language.    

The ethnic name, above bulleted terminology, Ph.D. and graduating undergrad with honors from a California school that has a strong reputation for political science just makes for a quick trip to the recycle bin. The last thing I need to be known for is bringing in the candidate that resulted in anger management training for all ACME Publishing employees.    

Horrible? Yes! HR embarrassment? Abso-f***in-lutely!   Should I be shot in the back of the head? Yes, with a sawed-off shotgun. This attitude doesn’t deserve a quick and clean single bullet. It should be slow, painful, messy and I get that. 

The resume was “too ethnic”. I appreciate diversity just as much as the next guy and am certified to facilitate more diversity training than I will list publicly, but too much of a good thing is too much. Just because one Aspirin works, doesn’t mean 5 is better.  

Am I making this up???  No. In my real life, I have a name that is often interpreted as “ethnic”. Now that I have worked in HR for a few years, I know better and have changed my name to something VERY Americana. Not just farmland Americana, but ICONIC and universally recognizable Americana. I am trying to present myself as a guy who grew up on Skippy peanut butter, understands baseball, and drives a Ford truck Americana. This profile has the least chance of raising any eyebrows because I am in HR and even I try to avoid the word diversity. 

When a recruiter is faced with two resumes and they don’t know how to pronounce the name of one of the candidates, guess who they are going to call?  Either put a nickname in parenthesis or add a pronunciation so the caller doesn’t feel awkward about reaching out to you.  

When I brought this up with the candidate, they IMMEDIATELY understood where I was coming from and were very thankful. There was no Askhole here, they knew EXACTLY the profile I had in mind and quickly changed up the resume. .  .  This candidate strongly suggested that I blog about this.        

When I am looking at 50 resumes for a position, I am not just trying to see who is qualified and who can do well, but who will make it through all of the potential interviews. First impressions will set the tone for the interviews and resumes are the first impression. I do not want an interviewer going into the interview with a preconceived negative bias.  As much as I want the interviewer excited about the candidate, I really do not want them wondering or having any doubts about the candidate. There is a difference between approaching something with a neutral attitude and approaching it with an attitude of “doubt” and “you need to prove yourself out of this hole”.       

Yes, we can all agree that HR and Hiring managers need to change their attitude.  Yes, we can all agree that the above attitude is pretty shitty. But you know the saying, “shit happens”. From an HR perspective, I appreciate diversity in the workplace. But this isn’t a blog post about how the business can do better with diversity or how a company is stronger because of an open-minded workforce.  Blah, Blah, Blah. The goal of this blog is to increase your odds to an interview and a job offer. The way to a more diverse workplace is to bring in more diversity, and a resume that doesn’t set off any alarms is the first step. 

Here are some of the before and after bullet points that were on the resume and you can see the difference: 

Before: As a National Association of (Ethnicity “X”) American Professionals (NA”X”AP) board member, sold 25% of total ticket sales for 2011 Gala and brought in most new corporate sponsors in 2012.


After:  Sold 25% of total ticket sales for a major fundraising event in 2011 and brought in most new corporate sponsors in 2012 for a professional development association. 

note:  ethnicity has nothing to do with the accomplishment

Before:  As a Celebrate (Ethnicity X) Symphony committee member, directly sold 8% of total ticket sales through Symphony for the sold-out 2011 Celebrate (Ethnicity X)! concert at the Staples Center and 10% of total ticket sales for the 2012 concert. 


AfterDirectly sold 8% of total ticket sales through personal network and business development efforts for a sold-out concert in 2010 and 10% of total ticket sales for a sold-out concert in 2012 

note:  ethnicity has nothing to do with the accomplishment

So don’t just worry about typos and formatting.  As much as that can create a negative prejudice, so can the content of the document.  As you create your resume, think about the image you are projecting and if it fits the position you are interested in.  

See you at the after party,


nasty: an unreal maneuver of incredible technique, something that is ridiculously good, tricky and manipulative but with a result that can’t help but be admired, a phrase used to describe someone who is good at something. “He has a nasty forkball”.

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