Working Transitions

caveat emptor what the tory leadership contest tells us about how to read a cv

Andrea Leadsom has withdrawn from the Conservative Party leadership contest after facing intense criticism of her opinions, comments and career history. During her campaign the would be Prime Minister, has found her CV being scrutinised, with claims that it is misleading and has been “massaged”. Although Leadsom and her team strongly denied this, there is no doubt that the claims cast doubts with many on her suitability for the role of PM and played a part in her decision to withdraw.

Given the claims and counterclaims, it’s hard to know what is fact and what is political spin or - as claimed – by some “dark ops”.  Whatever the truth, it’s hardly a surprise that she may have created a CV that presents her skills and experience in the most positive light. If that was a crime then almost anyone who has ever applied for a job would be guilty. Almost every CV aims to do this and it doesn’t mean that the CV is untrue, but it does mean that every hirer should test the stated claims thoroughly at interview, rather than taking them at face value.

A CV is a tool to get a candidate past the first stage of a selection process and through to interview, similar to an advertisement or perhaps Estate Agents details, and they are not to be relied upon by the hirer as a wholly factual account.

It is certainly true that when you’re interviewing candidates, the CV is the first summary of career history that you will review. However, even if you are cautious in your reading of a CV and expect that not all of the information may be strictly true, it can be a challenge to establish relevant experience simply from reading the document. Assessing suitability on the CV alone means you risk missing outstanding candidates, or may end up interviewing only the great story tellers.

Of course there are candidates who deliberately embellish or even, in the worst cases, completely fabricate their CVs and manage to be appointed into roles for which they have no experience or qualifications. In these cases, although the referencing and verification process has a part to play, the job of the interviewer in discovering what is fact and what is fiction is critical. So what should you look out for?

Focus on the facts

Often, you will find that candidates exaggerate their experience, achievements, job level or job title in previous roles.It is relatively simple to work out whether this information is genuine by simple probing and asking for factual details about their experience.  For example, when someone says on their CV that they increased profits by 10%, drill down into the details – over what time period? What was the starting and end point for this measure? Who else was involved? What were the specific steps they took to achieve this?. A genuine candidate will be able to explain this information easily.

If they stated they were “head of” “director” “senior” etc ask,  how many “heads of” there were? What was your peer group? Explain the company hierarchy to me where did you fit? How many were in your team? etc. Not only can this be enlightening, as job titles can be very misleading – a director often only directs themselves-  it quickly qualifies (or not) the statements on the CV.

When preparing for the interview, ensure that you have prepared questions that only a candidate who had genuinely held a role would be able to answer. Candidates should always be prepared to justify any claims that have been made and if they are not able to do this then you should reject them.

Watch the body language

It is normal to be nervous at a job interview; however you will find that someone struggling to provide facts to back up CV claims will usually exhibit particular behaviours that are due to more than simple nerves. For example, somebody who is worried about being found out may not be able to keep eye contact, or the pitch and pace of their voice may change when probed. Some people flush, or start to shuffle their papers, or wring their hands and generally, fidgeting more when you ask searching questions may be a sign that they are not telling the entire truth for that particular answer.

Probe dates of employment thoroughly

Often candidates simply state the month or year in which they started a particular role. For example finishing one role in 2009 and starting the next one in 2010 may be continuous employment, however, it could also mean finishing one role in Jan 2009 and not starting the next job until Dec 2010 – almost two years gap. Stated gaps on the CV may not indicate anything amiss about their working history, but a gap that cannot be satisfactorily explained could be cause concern. For example, if an employee left their previous role, and has a six-month gap between leaving that job and attending your interview, it’s important to understand why this was the case. You may find that the reason for leaving the previous role wasn’t what was stated on the CV, or there could be something else going on in the candidate’s life – but whatever the case, it is always important that you are able to account for the majority of the candidate’s working life, as this is the best way to build up a complete picture of their abilities and track record.

Look out for an overuse of jargon

While research is to be encouraged when applying for a role, there are many candidates who will simply say what they think the interviewer wants to hear – and this can sometimes include CV statements which include many  industry  jargon or  buzzwords. At interview a good technique is to pick a few of these words or phrases and say ” sorry I’m not sure what that means, can you explain it to me?” This really sorts out who is genuine or not.

Verify technical experience and qualifications

Many roles require experience of multiple technologies or very specific qualifications or skills. Some may state that they speak several languages – despite the fact that all they know how to say is “hello”, “goodbye” and perhaps how to order a drink at the bar. Others may list experience and sometimes qualifications that they have never actually gained. This must be tested at interview. It can help to ask some specific technical questions or require an assessment or test to be completed to establish competence. Requiring candidates to bring evidence of their qualifications or education to interview can also save a lot of later wasted time when you discover they don’t have the qualifications stated on their CV.

Do your own homework before making an offer

Of course, it is important that you check references and any verifiable information such as qualifications. You should also ensure that the employer companies listed actually exist, and contact them directly to confirm the candidate’s job role and the time period within which they were employed. If you simply get in touch with the referees provided, then there is nothing to stop the candidate from just giving the phone number or email address of a friend. A quick Google search can often be very illuminating too so don’t overlook it.

Make your decision from the interview not from the CV

The interview is the time to determine the veracity of CV claims and who is the best fit for the role. It is naïve to think that a candidate is not going to – at best – enhance their CV, in the same way that it would be naïve to think wearing a particular brand of deodorant is going to ensure that you are totally irresistible, or eating a particular breakfast cereal will ensure you achieve your dream beach body. It is all advertising and we accept when we buy the products the claims are embellished. Although you can get an overview of the candidate from a CV, it is vital to delve further at interview to discover whether everything claimed is true and the extent to which claims made are accurate.

When it comes to reading CVs you should take a pragmatic view, assume the best of each candidate, the majority are truthful,  but be prepared for the worst and remember – buyer beware!


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Working Transitions
12 July 2016
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