Lies, damned lies and CVs

They are full of self-promotion, half-truths, exaggerations and lies, but employers still sift through those mountains of paper. Why?
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The Independent Online
When we read "bijou cottage- style accommodation popular central location" we generally understand our estate agent to mean that there is an urban garret for sale. When, however, we scan a CV and read "involved in the college arts society" why do we assume we are looking at a cultured individual rather than someone who has located yet another drinking club?

The CV has become the standard introduction from job seeker to potential employer, but apart from providing a useful summary of academic qualifications and relevant work experience, it cannot even begin to tell us what we need to know about an individual.

Before starting to assess people for a job you ought to know what you are looking for - this is broadly accepted, if not always practised. It follows that the best starting place in any selection procedure is to let potential candidates know what you want in the job description and then ask them to furnish you with information on relevant qualities, experience and expertise. Sadly this does not happen. Instead we ask applicants to send a list of information on themselves that they think may be useful.

One of the major problems with CVs is what to do with them. There are countless texts on "how to write a great CV" or "creating an infallible resume" but conspicuously little on how to interpret them.

What does it mean if someone has a broad range of experience? Are they adaptable and flexible or have they consistently demonstrated an inability to succeed in whatever venture they attempt? How do you differentiate between a "deputy manager", "junior manager", "assistant manager" and "supervisor" and which of these job titles indicated they should go into the "to see at interview" pile? How can you incorporate the information that your applicant "enjoys bridge, socialising, reading, and fell walking into your assessment of their potential?

The information on a CV is of two basic types: hard and soft. Hard information concentrates on qualifications , time spent with companies, job titles and so on. Soft information, which usually provides the bulk of the CV, is concerned with what the applicants' previous jobs involved, what their aspirations are and how they spend their spare time. It is in these areas that the person who sorts the mail becomes "responsible for managing office organisation systems:" and the boy who fetches tea "manages the provision of refreshments". Even hard data can be presented in a good light. For example, an A-level in mathematics is hard data, but it can be softened by the decision not to put down what grade was achieved.

This is where the true art of creative CV writing comes into its own (estate agent, eat your heart out). An "involvement with rugby football" could mean the applicant enjoys watching it on television. If one really is an organiser of rugby events I suspect that the CV would probably mention this more specifically. What of "a familiarity with Microsoft Excel spreadsheets"? In my own case this is shorthand for "I can switch it on, put in numbers and save a file", but does this match the requirement for an experienced user? Using the CV alone as a sifter, the organisation could easily waste an interview place. The focus for many CV writers is in recounting their level of involvement in countless activities.

I recall interviewing a graduate who boasted a ludicrously long list of college societies he had either chaired, organised, run, promoted, been elected to office in or simply attended. When I asked why he had got involved in so many societies, he replied: "I thought it would look good on my CV". It didn't. And even if it had, he had erased all his hard work with that one reply.

In an age where ever more sophisticated and objective assessment and selection techniques are available, why do we still rely so heavily on two sides of self-promotion? The short answer is that it is quick, cheap and easy to do. No preparation of materials or procedures is required; you simply ask for CVs and then look at them when they arrive. But it takes time to look at them, and we do not always know what we are looking for.

In many cases it seems straightforward; we need someone with certain experience, a familiarity with a given programme or possession of a relevant qualification. But we could have specified that in the job advertisement and saved having to sift through a mountain of CVs.

An application form, on the other hand, gives you the opportunity to ask for what you want rather than hoping someone will mention it. Many recruiters take the view that if they need, for example, a good organiser then only those who mention organisation in their CV will be asked for interview. Thus, they miss out on those who are good organisers but omitted to mention it. With an application form one can ask the applicant to list their organisational experience. With a questionnaire one can ask what, where, for how long, and whether they were any good at it.

With more sophisticated methods such as biodata (where responses to past questionnaires are related to subsequent job performance and scored accordingly) you can even find out whether the answers indicated that the candidate is a good one.

Inevitably the set-up costs are higher, but less time is wasted in reading reams of paper or interviewing inappropriate candidates. Shall we continue sifting through piles of CVs? Yes, I suspect we shall because like the interview, everyone else does it so it can't be that bad. Can it?