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Deflating credentials to land a job

Some see gain, others risk in underselling

By Katie Johnston Chase
Globe Staff / June 22, 2010

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After hearing from several potential employers that he was overqualified, high-tech salesman Joe Collins of Medfield worked with a recruiter to come up with two resumes. One emphasized revenue gains and the number of people he oversaw as a manager; the other omitted those details, concentrating instead on his hands-on sales experience.

Collins, 55, figured that someone looking to fill a routine sales job might review his more high-powered management experience and assume: “He’s only going to hang around until he finds something else.’’

As the tight job market forces the unemployed to apply for lower-level positions, more job seekers are “dumbing down’’ credentials, wiping graduate degrees and high-level experience off their resumes, recruiters say. Applicants say the idea is to get hiring managers to at least look at their resumes, instead of figuring someone with extra qualifications will demand a bigger salary or leave for a higher-level opportunity once the economy turns around.

But too much background doctoring can be risky. Wakefield recruiter Bruce Allen, who has had more clients ask about altering their resumes during the economic downturn, stopped short of calling it unethical, but he said leaving off degrees and experience may come back to haunt job seekers. It’s hard to hide skills in an interview, he said. Background checks and the Internet can also quickly reveal what job seekers leave out.

“It’s less about ethics and more about what kind of quicksand are you about to step into,’’ said Allen, of Point B Search, who helped Collins craft his resumes.

Modifying a resume to fit a specific opening is nothing new, but when jobs are scarce, recruiters say, applicants are more willing to undersell themselves. Stephen Ford, of the career consulting firm OI Partners in Concord, sees this resume customization — not mentioning that you managed a $1 million budget if the company you’re applying to has a half-a-million-dollar budget, as he counseled one job seeker — as a way to broaden a job seeker’s appeal.

“I think we see it in each deep recession,’’ Ford said.

Former Web analyst Nicholas Carroll, who was laid off from his consulting job for IBM in 2008, is such a believer in dumbing down resumes that he dedicated a section of his 2009 e-book, “The Layoff Survival Plan,’’ to it. In the section titled “How to Downgrade Your Resume for a Tight Job Market,’’ Carroll recommends taking titles down one peg, from director to manager, from manager to specialist.

Carroll removed his bachelor’s degree in technology management after he lost a job as a website developer during the dot.com collapse of the late ’90s in order not to appear overqualified for blue-collar work, and he didn’t stop there. During an interview for a management position at Econo Lube ‘N Tune, “I deliberately hesitated a quarter second before every answer,’’ he said, and at one point decided to fake a “faint look of panic.’’

The morning after the interview, he said, he was offered the job. “Somebody finds out you know that much more than they do, they get nervous,’’ Carroll said.

That’s true, says Robert Akerlof, a post-doctoral associate at the MIT Sloan School of Management, who is working on a theory about how it can be difficult to maintain authority over overqualified workers if they think a job, or a boss, is beneath them.

Dumbing down a resume is a way for job seekers to show that they are going to be respectful, said Akerlof, citing the “20 percent rule,’’ which states that bosses should be 20 percent smarter than their employees.

“I think it’s not so much that you’re lying about what your resume is, it’s that you’re trying to convey an appropriate attitude,’’ he said.

Recruiters also say they are seeing more older workers who delete the year they graduated from college, along with details about their early job experiences — both of which can date them. But a job seeker who left the first 10 years off his resume didn’t get far with the Burlington public relations firm Davies Murphy Group. “In my book it automatically disqualifies the candidate because it shows a comfortableness with dishonesty,’’ said principal Andy Murphy.

People are so focused on getting back into the workforce that they are setting aside not just complete work histories, but their egos, to go after the kind of position they may have had years before. Unemployed Denver science educator Nancy Hansen removed her master’s degree in ecology and her two Fulbright scholarships from her resume to send a message to a potential employer: “I don’t want you to think that because I have a great resume I’m above doing the work that is here.’’

Hansen is still not getting many callbacks from the museums and schools she has been applying to, but at least she’s not hearing the dreaded “overqualified’’ word anymore. If she is asked about her education or work experience in an interview, she said, she will tell the truth.

That’s what Adrienne Rodney did after sending in a master’s-degree-free resume for an executive assistant position. Convinced that her graduate degree from Boston University was hurting her chances of getting the publishing and public relations jobs she was applying for, she stopped including it.

When she came clean about the omitted degree to her potential boss, Brooke Allen — who runs the website NoShortageofWork.com, about unconventional paths to employment — Allen told Rodney that he had left his MBA from New York University off his resume years before.

Much discussion, and a job offer for Rodney, soon followed.

Katie Johnston Chase can be reached at johnstonchase@globe.com.