5 Resume Red Flags for Employers

What Employers Need to Be Aware of as They Review Resumes

Do you know who you are hiring? Always, but especially during tough job searching times, you need to review each resume, cover letter and job application that you receive with care. You want to ensure that the candidates you consider hiring are who they say they are and that their credentials are valid and match your needs.

In my comprehensive review of background checking priorities and procedures for employers, I covered how to spot fraudulent claims and credentials. Here, I’ll review the resume red flags that should spark an employer’s concern about the credentials of an applicant for your open position. These five additional resume red flags deserve your attention, too.

Compassionate employers recognize that during a bad job market and a recession, people are desperate for jobs. Consequently, they may use shades of gray in describing current experience and reasons for unemployment.

In all cases, go back to consider your candidate’s employment history during better economic times. You may not want to forgive current obfuscations, and they may be unforgivable, but do consider them in the context of the applicant’s entire career and background experience.

Also, as you look for these red flags, recognize that they may reflect the current job market, bad advice from career or placement experts, or desperation. They may not represent the applicant’s entire career. That said, certain flags, you cannot ignore. I would never hire an individual who lied to me.

While none of these resume red flags is the kiss of death for an applicant, except possibly the careless resume, and the lies, all require serious resume review by the employer as you consider potential employees for your open job.

Resume Red Flags That Nix Hiring – Or, At Least Require Serious Review

These are five resume red flags that you need to spot and question when you review resumes from your job applicants.

Employment Gaps

Businessman working at desk
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With all due respect to job searchers who have experienced gaps in their employment either because of their choice or circumstances beyond their control, an employment gap is a red flag for an employer. Employers need to watch for gaps in an applicant’s employment history.

These gaps include dates of employment listed only in years so that the actual day and month of employment ending are masked. An additional red flag is a functional resume which avoids providing dates at all.

An employment gap is not an impossible obstacle when you are hiring an employee, but if the applicant fails to explain the gap on the resume or cover letter, ask. In fact, this is a critical question to ask in your telephone interview before you invest staff time in an interview onsite.

Spelling, Grammar, and Punctuation Challenged Resumes

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You can accuse me of being an old fuddy-duddy, but attention to details such as appropriate grammar, spelling and punctuation do set a candidate aside from the pack. Failure to shine in these details on their resume and application are red flags for an employer.

They are indicative of what you can expect from the candidate as an employee. Looking for careless, sloppy, or unconcerned? I doubt it. Your evidence is sitting before you on your desk or on your computer screen.

If an applicant can’t get it right for the most important opportunity for which he or she will ever have to make a positive impression, take a pass. Based on this evidence, why would you have any faith that he or she would get it right when you employ them?

Attention to Detail Failures

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Attention to detail will yield an overall impression of your candidate's carefulness. Attention to detail does provide a picture of the candidate’s potential success as an employee.

Are words missing in sentences that a quick proof read would have caught? How about cut-and-paste errors? The applicant is applying to company x for the job posted but the name of the company, the job title, or the salutation on the cover letter are incorrect.

Dates of employment are obviously wrong or missing data was never substituted for xxxx used as a place marker. None of these errors are earth shaking, but they radiate an overall unprofessional appearance of an applicant during your resume review - and they should.

Evidence That a Career Has Gone Backwards or Plateaued

Smart Candidates Explain Why Their Resume May Look as if Their Career Has Peaked
Smart Candidates Explain Why Their Resume May Look as if Their Career Has Peaked. John Howard / Getty Images

In a career that is progressing successfully, an applicant's resume will show evidence that his job titles and job description have grown more responsible as the years progress. Evidence of decreasing responsibility and / or a career that has reached a plateau or gone backwards is a red flag for employers during resume review. Review the resume with care, however, so you don’t make assumptions and miss out on qualified candidates.

If the applicant has changed employers, for example, a vice president's title at one company may carry equivalent responsibilities as a director in a larger organization. A manager may have accepted a role as an individual contributor because a layer of management was eliminated in a restructuring.

Or, she may have been laid off and has chosen to work a job in a less responsible role rather than collect unemployment. Sometimes, a parent with child care responsibilities has chosen a less responsible role or a part time job until the children are attending school full time.

So, question signs that a career is going backwards or plateaued. But, other circumstances can also cause a career to appear derailed. The problem you need to weigh is that smart candidates know this.

They don’t make potential employers ask. They explain their responsibility differences or the appearance of a career going backwards in their resume or cover letter.

Failure to Follow Directions

Failure to Follow Directions Is a Resume Red Flag
Failure to Follow Directions Is a Resume Red Flag. Image Copyright Zsolt Nyulaszi

Not only does the applicant’s failure to follow directions give you information about his or her potential success as an employee, it invalidates the application. Many employers, who ask for a salary history or who request a resume and cover letter, automatically exclude any candidate who doesn’t follow the applicant directions in the job posting.

A request for local candidates only means just that. The employer does not want to consider - or pay for - the candidacy of out-of-town applicants.

Failing to write a cover letter is often a sign that the individual applying is not qualified for the position. The applicant knows this and doesn’t want to waste their time – or he or she is just plain lazy.

The applicant thinks that resume review is a crap shoot and if they throw enough of them out there, eventually one will yield a job interview. Prove them wrong if they fail to follow your published directions. You have the right to specify what you need from an applicant. Interview the candidates who give you what you requested.


These are five resume red flags that employers should heed when they review job applications. All are indicative of the habits and characteristics of the individual applying for your job. They highlight strengths and weaknesses.

They focus your attention on career success and failure. And, they highlight personal and professional characteristics that you may or may not want in an employee. Heed these five resume red flags.