Red Flag Series Part I: Red Flags from the Employer’s POV - Resumes and Cover Letters


Hiring can be a perilous process for all involved.  If it doesn’t work out the consequences can be unpleasant, long-lasting and costly in a number of ways.  Whenever possible, signs of trouble should be noted so serious problems can, hopefully, be avoided down the road. In this three-part “Red Flags” series, we’ll look at some causes of concern for both employers and applicants.

Some of these “red flags” may cause only mild hesitation, while others are absolute deal-breakers. The good news is that for many of them, there are things you as the applicant can do to mitigate or eliminate altogether the employer’s concerns. This first installment covers elements of resumes and cover letters that can prevent an applicant from getting called for an interview. The second part of the Red Flag series covers issues in interviews and other challenges to an applicant's image.

Resumes and Cover Letters

Employers specify what they are looking for in their job postings. In addition to the specific requirements and preferences employers request for their open positions, there are other traits and characteristics they seek. There are also things that employers don’t care for, though, which can make them choose not to interview an applicant.

  • Errors of any kind

Common errors in spelling, grammar, punctuation, capitalization, sloppy formatting, addressing the cover letter to the wrong employer, etc. can be avoided. Depending on the reader, this alone could put you out of the running, especially if writing and attention to detail are requirements of the job.

  • An unprofessional email address

It may seem unimportant, but on a one- or two-page document that represents you to a potential employer, every little thing counts. Don’t use an email address that is too informal or cutesy or adult, or one that reveals any personal information or is in any way unprofessional. If you are employed, don’t use your work email address. The hiring manager may think you are job hunting while at your current job, and receiving messages related to your job hunt in your work email account is risky anyway. A neutral address that incorporates your name is best, and you may even want to set up an account just for your job search, which can make it easier to keep track of your job search activities.

  • Functional formatting

Many hiring managers, recruiters, and hiring committees strongly prefer the traditional reverse-chronological format. They want to see a timeline. If you use a functional format, they may assume you are trying to hide something, most likely a gap in employment or a deficit of experience.

  • Unexplained gap(s) in employment

If no information is given about a gap in your job history, the hiring manager may choose to interview one of the many other applicants who don’t have gaps or whose gaps are explained, rather than give you the benefit of the doubt. Address the gap in your cover letter: be brief, factual and honest, and if the reason for the gap is no longer an issue for you, say so. Then move on to persuading the reader that you are a strong candidate.

Keep in mind that multiple gaps, large gaps and recent gaps are bigger obstacles than a single, short gap that is more than a few years in the past. Employers understand, of course, that many people have been laid off in recent years, but they’ll expect you to be doing something more than just job hunting since being laid off.  The things you’ve been doing while looking for work (volunteering, taking classes, blogging, attending conferences, etc.) should be included in your resume.

  • Multiple short-term jobs on resume

Hiring managers know that the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior, and while people are not staying at jobs now as long as they used to, a string of very brief jobs (six months to a year or less) can look like job hopping. If they were temp positions or project work or consulting gigs and understood to be short-term from the start, be sure to indicate that on the resume.

  • Only one very long-term job on resume (for past 8 - 10 years or more)

The opposite of a string of short-term jobs may raise an eyebrow too, as the employer may wonder if your skills are up to date or if you have the flexibility to adapt to a new workplace. You can address possible concerns by ensuring that there are other things in the resume and cover letter that indicate your adaptability and current skills (such as volunteering, ongoing service in professional organizations, and continuing education).

  • No professional activities outside of 9-to-5 job  

Employers like to see membership and service in professional organizations; some jobs even require it. It shows a dedication to the profession and connection to other professionals, and there are many different ways to contribute. Writing for a newsletter or official blog, public speaking and presenting at meetings or conferences, mentoring a new professional, serving on committees and holding an office in an organization are some of the options for service.

  • Not addressing requirements of position in cover letter/not customizing resume

This one is a deal-breaker. You must tailor these documents  to the job you are applying for, each time you send them out. Include and emphasize the accomplishments that relate to that job specifically, and minimize information the reader is not going to be interested in.

  • Being unqualified

Applying for a job in which you are under qualified is also a deal-breaker, as it conveys to the employer that you may be desperate and applying to anything and everything, or have unrealistic expectations, poor judgment or entitlement issues. If you meet almost all of the requirements and genuinely believe you can make a case that you are a strong candidate, then go for it. Otherwise, you are better off finding another position to apply for.

  • Not following application instructions*

By giving specific instructions, employers can weed out those who don’t pay attention to detail, or who can’t or won’t follow directions. Send the documents and information that are requested, in the formats specified, and nothing else. Be sure follow any other instructions as well: “No calls” really means no calls!

*One possible exception: when an employer requests salary information.


Coming up in Part II: Interview blunders that can raise an eyebrow or even ruin an applicant’s chances.

Ellen Mehling received her MSLIS from Long Island University and works as a librarian, instructor and writer in and around NYC. Her professional experience includes work in special, public, and academic libraries, as well as archives. She is Director of the Westchester Graduate Library School Program and Director of Internships for L.I.U.’s Palmer School and since 2009 has been METRO’s Job Bank Manager / Career Development Consultant. She teaches classes and workshops on job hunting, information literacy, researching, and other subjects at METRO’s Training Center and other venues within and outside NYC.