how do I tell someone his resume is terrible?

A reader writes:

A former colleague was recently released from the company we both used to work for and emailed me to see if I would recommend him for a position with my current employer. I have no problem with the recommendation, he’s a hard worker and forms business relationships easily. I know he’ll do well in our industry. My question is regarding his resume. It’s terrible… poorly formatted (actually not at all formatted), full of punctuation and spelling mistakes, and does not at all highlight his skills. I just don’t know where to start with him. He and I are not friends outside of being former coworkers, and I am not entirely comfortable saying “Hey, this resume needs some work.” Any advice on how I might approach this?

Definitely tell him!  First, you’ll be doing him a favor by bringing this to his attention before he gets much further in his job search. And second, you absolutely shouldn’t harm your own reputation by recommending a candidate who appears terrible on paper. By recommending him, you’re essentially giving him your stamp of approval — so you can’t do it if he’s going to reflect poorly on you.

Say something like this: “I’d love to recommend you for this role, and I think you’d be great at it. But so that someone who doesn’t know you would see the strength of your candidacy, could you do a version of your resume that emphasizes X and Y, and make sure it’s proofread and formatted and everything? Send me the new version and I’d love to pass it along with a recommendation.”

If he balks, this isn’t someone you want to recommend for a job, believe me.

And if the next version comes back and is still something that would embarrass you to have as your own, do not just give in and pass it along at that point — because, again, your reputation is on the line here. At that point, I’d say, “Joe, I’m so glad you’re interested in this job but I know that the people hiring for this job aren’t going to be able to get past the lack of formatting and errors in here! I wonder if it would help to talk with someone who helps with resumes to get it cleaned up a bit?”

And if you feel bad about not just giving in and passing it along anyway, remember that you’ve given him the specific guidance he needs and he’s chosen not to take it. And while it’s his prerogative not to take your advice, it’s your prerogative not to stick your neck out for something you think is shoddy quality. Of course it’s possible that he’s tried to take your advice and just doesn’t have the ability to do it well, but that leads to this bigger-picture question:

Are you absolutely sure that someone who sends a resume like this in the first place is someone you want to recommend?  It speaks to lack of attention to detail and lack of care about how he presents himself, and while I suppose there are some jobs out there where those things don’t matter, it’s hard for me to imagine a situation where you’d want your reputation riding on someone who fits that profile.

I’m not saying that resume-writing should be a universal skill (far from it), but things like proofreading your work and conveying information clearly — and knowing how to find help when you need it — are characteristics you probably want in someone you’re recommending.

{ 36 comments… read them below }

  1. Eric*

    “And second, you absolutely cannot harm your own reputation by recommending a candidate who appears terrible on paper. ”

    Do you mean “can”

  2. Heather T. Ford*

    Just to play devil’s advocate, is it possible the formatting is due to a weird file type (.wps, for instance)? Could you casually suggest that the formatting might look correct if he re-saves it as a DOC? That way, he might pick up on the issue without you spelling it out to him.

  3. Anonymous*

    Face it, the dude’s not as good as you thought he was. Full of spelling and format errors?- that’s elementary. So unless he’s applying for jobs that don’t even require a high school education don’t stick your neck out.

      1. Long Time Admin*

        No, he’s not. Basic English skills should be expected in almost every job in this country. If a professional person cannot compose and type a proper resume, that person should at least be able to hire someone who can do it.

        Most job requirements should include the ability to think.

        1. kristin*

          I just helped my little sister with her first resume… and she’s 23! She’s only had jobs that involved little/no writing (mostly hairstylist, retail, and waitress/bartender). She’s had a lot of jobs over the years (usually 2 or 3 at once) and I ended up breaking it into the three different sections and listing the responsibilities for each section and then a bulleted list of the companies, titles and dates. Her original version she sent to me was 5 pages long and very redundant.

          Those of us who spend a lot of time writing/perfecting resumes and obsessively reading professionalism advice (and as readers of this blog, I think we all fit into that category!) tend to forget that we’re not the status quo. There are plenty of skilled people looking for jobs that may not necessarily require the skills needed to have a nice (looking) resume.

          1. Bohdan Rohbock*

            Being good at writing a resume is a specific skill. It’s okay for someone to not have it, or know that they don’t have it. The whole point of civilization is that it allows division of labor.

            Now, once the problem is pointed out how he deals with it is informative.

    1. Jennifer*

      You are also overlooking things like dyslexia. Maybe he really IS as good as the OP says he is, but he has an issue like dyslexia, where his skills just don’t translate to paper.

      Still not good, but I really thought your post was a bit harsh.

      I also suppose it’s possible this guy has never had to do a resume before. What if this was his first and only job, and he got it way back when…

  4. Anonymous*

    The more I read about management (or working with coworkers) and put this stuff into practice, the more I realize that it’s just about growing a pair. Protecting someone’s feelings isn’t worth it when it costs them a job opportunity. It’s hard to get used to but it’s a worthwhile skill to develop – be honest, be direct, and you’ll be surprised at the number of people who respond well. Those who don’t are not worth your time. Good luck!

    Also – I am the most mild-mannered person you’ll ever meet, and I have a life-long habit of being excessively concerned about hurting other people’s feelings – we’re talking full-blown anxiety. If I can do it, you can too!

        1. Anonymous*

          I think a “grow a pair” tag line in that pretty, flow-y script writing would be pretty awesome!

      1. Joe*

        Does advising people to grow a pair conflict with your habit of defaulting people of unknown gender to be female? (Yes, I know, the expression sort of transcends gender at this point, but it sort of doesn’t, and I’m actually a bit surprised to see Alison endorsing a male-oriented phrase like that rather than a more gender-neutral one.)

          1. Joe*

            I used to sort of think so, but I’ve been trying to be more conscious of things like that lately. I see it as akin to telling someone to “man up”, and I certainly wouldn’t say that to a woman. It’s one of those subtle things that I feel helps perpetuate the notion that strength and assertiveness are a man’s domain.

            Alas, I don’t actually have a good gender-neutral equivalent. If anyone has any ideas, I’m open…

  5. Quix*

    “Any advice on how I might approach this?”

    I’m thinking that since the relationship is former colleagues, a little more bluntness might be appropriate:

    “Jim, this resume. A few points. Creativity in the workplace does not extend to spelling….”

    1. Mike C.*

      Yeah, start with a joke and keep it friendly. The point here is that you want your colleague to feel like you want them to succeed, not that you’re treating them like a child.

      Also, perhaps say, “hey I’ve seen some of the resumes* that pass through here and I have a few ideas that would really help you stand out”.

      In the end, your colleague will be thrilled that you care so much about his success that you’re willing to broach what would otherwise be an uncomfortable topic. I would want folks to do this for me, even if I’m embarrassed for a few moments about some stupid mistakes I may have made. Anyone will take that over being unemployed.

      * By resumes, I mean resumes in general, not for this specific position.

      1. Joey*

        Sorry, correct spelling and formatting isnt an idea that will make you stand out. Why sugar coat it? Just grow a pair (I’m stealing that) with the co worker. “I’d be happy to vouch for you but first your resume is going to need some serious work”.

  6. Annr*

    I tell him I’l love to recommend him but that his resume needs work, and then I’d list in as much detail as I could what you don’t like about it.

    The fellow is probably anxious to find a new position and has thrown his resume together as quickly as possible in hopes of getting some leads.

    If you liked him when you worked with him and think he does good work then give him the benefit of a doubt and kick it back to him. Once he feels like there is possibility in your referral he should get it all straightened up.

  7. fposte*

    If you want to avoid the laundry list, you can pick the two or three biggest problems by category and move on. “Joe, I spotted some punctuation and spelling mistakes that you’ll want to clean up, and if I didn’t know you, I wouldn’t know from your resume that you were expert at X and Y key skills, so I’d suggest moving them up front.”

    I just feel a position of unpaid resume doctor looming here, and if that’s the case, you might want to have a summary ready to avoid the job.

  8. Liza*

    If a friend or acquaintance sends me their resume to submit at work, I always review it and provide feedback if it isn’t presentable. I usually offer my help and constructive suggestions rather than just say “It’s bad”. If it’s a real friend, I don’t mind being a collaborator. If it’s just an acquaintance, I’ll just focus on the stuff that sticks out. Every single time, the person has been happy for the feedback and made the fixes.

    As Alison said, anyone who balks at constructive criticism and/or an offer to help is not someone you want to refer.

  9. Ruby*

    I agree with the previous commentators who have suggested speaking even more plainly or openly. I think it would be of limited value to ask for a ‘different version – and make sure it’s proofed’ (my paraphrase). I’d be more inclined to say there are multiple typos/spelling and/or grammatical errors. It might not feel nice to say (or hear) but it leaves less room for misinterpretation. Of course, if you mean it, soften it with your recommendation and an offer to help.
    If nothing else, I’d recommend a copy of Alison’s book “How To Get A Job”. It’s made a significant and positive difference to me and a number of people I have recommended it to.

  10. Dawn*

    I feel that a resume with lots of mistakes speaks to lack of attention to detail. Punctuation and spelling mistakes make me cringe. That being said, I would offer to help him bring the resume up to par if he’s open to some suggestions. I’d first mention that it’s not obvious from the resume what his skills are and that he should move this here, move that there, reword this or that. Highlight his skills and knowledge. If he seems like he doesn’t know where to start, I’d offer to help. I have no problem offering to sit down with someone and help him. Then I’d mention that someone looking at this resume with all the spelling and punctuation mistakes wouldn’t likely be able to get past that so he should clean that up.

  11. Vicki*

    I have a friend and former-co-worker, an excellent and smart programmer who I would gladly work with again at any time. He’d become burned out on his then-current job and had finally just quit. When that happened, I contacted him to ask if he’d be willing to come in where I was working at the time, as a contractor. I knew he’d be perfect.
    He was really burned out. His resume started with the sentence: “Another boring resume, yada, yada, yada”.
    I took it to the hiring manager and gave my friend a full-disclosure pitch. I said “read beyond the basics. Bring him in. And trust me.”
    The hiring manager did; my friend was hired; the contract turned into a 5-year full employee position.
    It doesn’t always work that way and a satisfactory result required that I be in a position where the hiring manager knew me and trusted me. But sometimes, just as a letter-perfect resume isn;t enough to win the job, a weird resume isn’t necessarily a killer… with the proper background support.

  12. Anonymous*

    I don’t understand why its okay to be a bad resume writer….that is unless getting the best job possible is not important to you.

  13. anon-2*

    I once went through a stack of resumes, during the time we had a few hiring opportunities. I saw a cover letter that looked something like this =

    “I hope you take my qualifications seriously I have read about your company and it looks like a good fit so I hope you call me becuz I would like to work in a firm like yours if you must call please do so during the day and before 9 pm because I go to bed early and get up early so call me at 212 555 2368 as soon as you can I look forward to it thanks”

    I think that was a “generation Y” thing. I still haven’t figured out why someone would send a cover letter.

    Also , do you know how many resumes I’ve seen where a person was the “manger of….” — spell checking won’t clean up everything, folks!

    1. Ask an Advisor*

      My personal favorite typos I’ve seen on college student resumes have been “Bachelor o Farts” and “Asses client needs.” Spell/Grammar Check is not your friend…

      1. Anon*

        On hand written applications I have seen several people that have worked at a whorehouse. One person (not a native english speaker) was a prep cock at a local restaurant.

  14. arm2008*

    Where I am located there are plenty of resources available to help with resumes (networking groups, state unemployment office, support from college graduated from). I would not spend much time giving him a detailed review of his resume – it’s a disservice to him because he needs to be responsible for it. In a case like this the kind thing to do is point out the resume is not up to the standards necessary and that there are resources available to help him. If you can offer specific resources give them, otherwise he has to search them out. Sprinkled in amongst this feedback you can be supportive by providing feedback on his capabilities and that it is the resume that will hold him back at this point, not his qualifications.

    Let’s face it – there is a decent chance that even if he lands a job now, he will be looking again in the future. Teach him how to fish so he won’t go hungry in the future.

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