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Should bad CVs go in the bin?

The CV is the personal sales tool of modern times, but many are ill-prepared and littered with mistakes; should this mean they go straight in the bin? Matt Henkes looks at some of the ways recruiters can utilise these mysterious and sometimes downright misleading documents.


A person’s CV is their sales tool to prospective employers. But despite the odd embellishment and downright lie, some of them really are just rubbish. Should the odd spelling mistake constitute an automatic binning or do applicants deserve the benefit of the doubt?

“If they’ve got something on there you’re not convinced by, you’ve got to ask questions until you get to the truth.”

Anthony Pierce, associate director, Hudson

Recent research from recruitment firm Kelly Services suggests the UK is one of the most honest nations when it comes to their CVs. Only 8 per cent of job applicants admitted to being untruthful, with the most common ‘white lies’ sneaking in under the guise of inflated previous salaries or the omission of negative details. Meanwhile, 41 per cent of Ukrainians admitted to lying in CVs, followed closely by 30 per cent of Russians.

However, those who, for whatever reason, feel that 8 per cent seems a little low might argue that someone who’s willing to lie on a CV would think nothing of telling porkies in a survey – unless they live in Ukraine, apparently.

So don’t be lulled into a false sense of security. “It is important for employers to undertake a thorough evaluation of all aspects of the candidate,” says Kelly Services director Steve Girdler. “Whatever the source of your recruits, proper evaluation of a candidate is essential.”

Lies or spin?

But what constitutes a lie and what is just healthy spin? If a candidate recognises their CV is a marketing tool and the vehicle to getting a job they want, surely it’s human nature to dress it up as much as possible? Anthony Pierce, associate director at HR recruitment specialist Hudson, says there are tell-tale pointers to look out for that could indicate the presence of unscrupulous truth-manipulation.

Firstly, it’s important to check all the data matches up, he says. A classic example is where someone begins listing their work history, giving the exact dates of employment, then goes on to list some of their previous occupations but only refers to the time they were employed in years. Also, if someone seems to have taken more than one year off after university, that’s often worth further investigation.

Ask and it shall be done

Covering the right points in your job ad can sort out most of the filtering before the applications even arrive.

Be clear on the kind of person you’re looking for:

  • Skills

  • Experience

  • What is crucial and what is desirable?
  • Give as much information about the position as you can:

  • Nature of the work

  • Responsibilities

  • Location

  • Reporting to who?

  • Salary
  • You have to take a pinch of salt with everything, he advises. If a candidate’s skills are beyond where you think they should be, you’re going to have to question that – for instance, if they are applying for an HR administrator role but say they’ve previously had full budgeting responsibility for a training department. “It’s not belittling them, just making sure when they say they’ve had responsibility for something it was actually them,” says Pierce.

    Along the same vein, another thing to look out for is if they say ‘we’ or ‘I’. People will often try to muddy the waters by slipping in ‘we’ in reference to the company and hoping the reader will assume they undertook the task alone.

    “If you’ve been doing it for long enough, you can usually pick up on someone that’s not telling the whole truth,” he adds. “If they’ve got something on there you’re not convinced by, you’ve got to ask questions until you get to the truth.”

    Coaching specialist Jackie Cameron believes there’s a certain level of forgiveness due when it comes to people spinning their previous occupations. However, anyone with a sense of morality should be able to perceive the admittedly blurry line between cheeky embellishment and an out-and-out fib. Either way, a face-to-face meeting should provide the answers. “Smart questioning is going to reveal the real story,” says Cameron.

    “If the person in front of you has chosen to lie and you can’t detect that, either what they have lied about doesn’t matter or you’re not doing your job properly.”

    ‘Spellig ishoos’

    Recruiters buried under avalanches of CVs can be liable to use the simplest indicators as filtering tools. When you’re spoilt for choice, it’s only natural to bin a CV at the first sign of dodgy spelling or grammar; after all, you’ve got 50 more applications waiting for you.

    Interestingly, the automatic red pen treatment is less likely to happen when the CV belongs to someone applying for an executive role with a salary of £35,000 plus. The difference is, the available talent for executive positions is so sparse that the odd mistake is often overlooked. They have the experience to be able to make the application, so recruiters are much more willing to accept it’s just an uncharacteristic error.

    It’s important to use a degree of subjectivity in your filtering though, especially in these times of talent scarcity. A couple of small mistakes could be forgivable if the content shows the applicant has fundamentally answered the job ad.

    “Having a good stab at the fundamental task is more important than the details. You can overlook bad spelling or scrappy spellchecking if the content is there.”

    Jackie Cameron, HR coaching specialist

    Yet should they have asked someone to proof it for them? There’s a credible argument that says they should, but can you read between the lines and spot someone who might be a great applicant?

    “In my opinion, having a good stab at the fundamental task is more important than the details,” says Cameron. “You can overlook bad spelling or scrappy spellchecking, if the content is there.”

    In other words, don’t strike off a whole raft of applicants simply because they haven’t got a particular qualification, or at least not until you have thought very carefully about how vital that qualification really is.

    “Many great people don’t make it to the interview stage because the filtering process takes them out,” adds Cameron. “Think about the talent you could be turning away.”

    There is a difference, however, between things going a little awry because someone has used a spell-check incorrectly and someone who obviously hasn’t paid any attention to the business of writing their CV at all. If you’re corresponding with anybody for any purpose, if you don’t show a level of courtesy to the recipient, why would you be considered?

    CVs are often an applicant’s only method of bringing themselves to the attention of a prospective employer. If this document contains mistakes, it doesn’t bode well for your future with the company.

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