Businesses, Stop Obsessing Over Short Resume Entries

For most of my career, I’ve heard businesses saying that “short resume entries” are a Red Flag in a candidate. It seems to be a little bit less common of a mindset on the east and west coasts than it is in the Midwest (probably because of the startup heavy markets on the coasts). In the last few years, it’s even become less of an issue because of market pressures (which I consider a good thing).

There are a number of problems with this particular “red flag” mindset. First among them is that everyone has a different definition of “short resume entry”. For some people, a couple of 3 month entries set off their alarm bells. For others, anything less than a year is “short”. I’ve even known some people who I would consider to be amazingly out of touch that consider 2-3 years as “short”.

In addition to the fact that nobody knows what “short” is to somebody else, the person yelling “red flag!” has absolutely no idea why the person left that job (and, honestly, in a lot of cases, it’s none of their business). A so-called short entry on a resume could indicate:

  • A person found themselves at a bad company.
  • They do a lot of consulting.
  • They get significantly better offers on a regular basis.
  • The company that hired them experienced financial problems and had to lay people off.
  • Any number of other things.

We’ll use a couple of examples from my own resume to illustrate this.

I was at one of my positions less than a year because they were a consulting company and one of their largest clients cut their staffing levels extremely hard due to economic externalities (I could explain the effect of falling commodities prices on an agriculture equipment corporation, but I don’t want to bore you). This was such a concerning character flaw on my part that I’ve been contacted by one of the C-level officers that I worked with there to see if I would be interested in joining his new venture.

At another position, I was on staff for less than a year because I was working on a government contract with a set end date and I knew that going in. I was an FTE for the company I worked for, but we knew it was uncertain whether or not I would be staying.

As the contract was ending, my director-level boss started talking to all of the other divisions in the company to see if there were remote positions that I could join because they were so happy with my work. I’ve since been contacted by the company in question two more times to see if I was interested in joining them again. The first time didn’t work out for literal political reasons. We’re currently waiting to see about the second time.

The hilarious thing is that I’ve had hiring managers give feedback that they liked me but considered me a flight risk based on those two entries on my resume. I know I’m not the only one with similar experiences in that regard.

Let’s call this out for what it really is – fear and insecurity on the part of companies who are looking for basically any reason why a candidate might not be the “perfect” fit. They want to feel like they have all of the power and that the candidates should be perfectly loyal and, in the words of several hiring managers I’ve known, “stay around for a long time.”

I’ve been on both sides of the interview table, so I understand what they think the motivation is for saying that. Hiring is stressful for everyone (though the company has a lot more power than they try to act like they do) and making a bad hire sucks (though it’s not as catastrophic for most companies as they pretend). However, 90%+ of the time, the reason for a short resume entry is because of the company the person was working for, not because of anything “wrong” with the person themselves.

The candidate doesn’t have any control over whether or not your company culture is toxic. They don’t have control over your finances. They don’t control how you pay in relation to other companies or your lack of focus on continuing professional development. That’s all on your company.

Let’s be honest, the majority of the risk taken on in a working relationship is taken by the employee and not the company. The employee is almost always going to be in a worse position if the company ends their relationship than a company will be if an employee gives their notice. This means that, most of the time, if there’s a short entry on someone’s resume that person has a really good reason that it didn’t last long.

You need to realize and accept this. When you do, you can work to mitigate those “flight risk” factors by giving people a reason to stay instead of giving them reasons to leave.

Employers – Accept that, at some point, almost any employee can and will leave if given reason to do so. You don’t own the people that work for you, and too many managers try to act like employees owe their lives and loyalty to the company.

I’d argue against asking candidates why entries on their resume are “short” because it’s often none of your business, can surface things that have legal consequences for you (in the case of them being discriminated against based on a protected class for instance), or may even cause the person trauma by making them relive past incidents. If you absolutely feel that you must ask someone why they have short entries on their resume, use it as a lesson in what you need to avoid doing as a company so you don’t lose your people the same way and not as a reason to disqualify them.

Employees – Don’t put up with toxic environments and realize that it’s okay to act with a sense of enlightened self-interest if a much better opportunity comes along. Life is too short to give loyalty to people who don’t deserve it (especially if they’re using it to exploit you).

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