Top 10 Resume Red Flags That Employers Must Heed

Employers Need to Be Aware of Unqualified History, Employment Gaps and More

Do you know who you are hiring? 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 a comprehensive review of background checking priorities and procedures for employers, how to spot fraudulent claims and credentials was covered. Here, you’ll review the top ten resume red flags that should spark an employer’s concern about the credentials of an applicant for your open position.

These red flags are the mistakes, errors, and indicators that give you a great deal of information about the individual who is applying for your open job. Employers ignore these red flags at their own risk. They are early indicators that your potential employee may not be who you expect them to be—even potentially not qualified for the role you are filling.

You may not want to forgive your applicant's 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 existing job market, bad advice from a career or placement expert, or desperation on the part of job searchers for their application materials to catch your attention. They may not represent the applicant’s entire career. That said, certain flags, you cannot ignore. For example, never hire an individual who lied to you.

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

Employment Gaps

Businessman working at desk looking for red flags on an applicant's resume.
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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

Another resume red flagfor employers to note is spelling and grammar errors.
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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? Undoubtedly not. 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 they 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 proofread 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 xxx 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

Woman is reviewing employment resumes for potential red flags.
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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 time passes. Evidence of decreasing responsibility and/or a career that has reached a plateau or gone backward 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 backward 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 backward in their resume or cover letter.

Failure to Follow Directions

Businesswoman and two businessmen using laptop to review resumes to make sure the candidates followed directions, one of many resume red flags for employers.
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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. (Note that in some jurisdictions, this practice is illegal.)

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. But, increasingly, job counselors are also making cover letters a thing of the past, especially since so many prospective employees apply online.

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.

Ignoring a Request for Salary History

It's always a dilemma when an applicant ignores a request for salary history, just another red flag for employers.
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It's an age-old debate and employers weigh in on both sides about the usefulness of publicizing a job salary range when posting a job. On the one hand, when the employer may have potential wiggle room for the right candidate, the employer feels that posting a salary excludes potential, qualified applicants.

Posting a salary range makes any candidate who accepts a starting salary in the low to middle end of the published pay grade feel underpaid at the start of a new job. The employer wants to maintain the upper hand in any potential salary negotiation.

On the other hand, applicants believe that they will disqualify themselves for jobs they may well have accepted. Applicants also do not want to waste time applying for jobs that they cannot consider because the pay is too low.

They do not believe employers will provide more than a 10 percent increase over what they currently make, so they hate to reveal the details of their current compensation package. Or, in another somewhat scam, advised by career experts forever, they provide information that values their entire compensation package rather than stating just their salary.

Whatever position you support in the debate, the fact remains. If the candidate fails to provide salary information or salary information that is meaningful to your process for choosing applicants to interview, you can consider the failure a red flag and disregard the resume and application, if you so choose.

(Note that in an increasing number of jurisdictions, asking for salary history is becoming illegal.)

Resumes and Applications That Take Advantage of the Current Employer

A big red flag is an applicant who is working on job searching on their current employer's time.
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A resume or application that is emailed from a current employer’s address is a red flag for employers. The applicant is not only thoughtless, clueless, and not very smart; she is probably job searching on her current employer’s time.

Resumes mailed in the current employer’s envelopes, printed on the current employer’s stationery, and stamped on an employer’s mailing machine is another red flag.

In fact, this practice is so prevalent that at least one government agency now refuses to consider such job applications. More difficult to pinpoint, but troublesome still, are applications, interview follow-up letters, and uploaded resumes and online job applications that appear to have been sent during work hours by employed applicants.

If your online job application takes an hour to fill out, a 2:30 p.m. time stamp is another red flag. If they take advantage of their current employer, you know they’ll take advantage of you.

Lack of Resume Customization for Your Job Posting

This person customized her resume and so she qualified for an interview. A red flag for employers is when applicants fail to customize.
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Failure to customize a resume and cover letter is a red flag for employers. The cover letter is an especially telling omission. First, applicants who are unqualified for positions, via their qualifications and work experience, tend to spam employers with resumes.

They know that taking the time and energy to custom write a cover letter when they have little chance of obtaining an interview, is a waste of their time.

Understand that their resume review is usually a waste of your time, too. When applicants include a cover letter that essentially says, my resume is attached, you know that they have skipped the most important opportunity that they had to capture your attention.

Well-qualified applicants write a custom cover letter that draws a direct connection between the skills and experience you seek and the applicant’s qualifications. Anything else is a red flag.

The applicant’s objective is a telling sign, too. An objective, according to current thinking, should draw the applicant’s key qualifications and contributions to an employer’s attention.

Assess the strength of applicants who still use generic objectives such as: “To obtain a position that will enable me to use my strong organizational skills, educational background, and ability to work well with people in roles with increasing responsibility and management potential.” Keep in mind that this objective, sent to every employer, is a serious lost opportunity for you to learn the applicant’s strengths.

When resumes and cover letters are customized, applicants have the opportunity to tell you that they have researched and understood your company and your business. They exhibit knowledge of your customers and products and know how they can contribute to your organization.

A recent candidate told an interview committee that he “hadn't had a chance to visit the company’s website but he was certain that his development skills would enhance the company’s product.”

This applicant should never have become a candidate and his interview wasted the employer’s team’s time. His lack of knowledge and research would have been obvious in an effective resume review.

Overqualified Applicants

Overqualified applicants are a crap shoot. You love to have their experience but you worry they will leave for a better opportunity. One more red flag.
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Sure, in a tight job market applicants will apply for jobs for which they are overqualified. You walk a fine line in selecting such a candidate for your jobs, however. Your organization will benefit from their long-term experience and the knowledge they bring to your workplace.

But, any new workplace invests employee time and money in training even an experienced person. Employees build relationships, and your workplace is always disrupted when an employee leaves.

And, that is the problem with an overqualified candidate. The employee may leave—and leave quickly—depending on the success of their job search. Their lifestyle, expenses, and family budget were developed with the expectation of a higher salary. Depending on your organization’s size and needs, you may not have a higher level position or better-paying job available for quite some time.

So, an employee who was overqualified for the position in the first place may be a short-term employee. In fact, they may continue their job search after accepting your offered position. This is the downside to employing an overqualified person in your job.

Employers need to decide whether the candidate’s likely short-term tenure is offset by the value they will bring to your organization. To make this decision, add in the cost of an entire search for another new employee, and the cost of the loss to your workplace.

Try to ascertain, during your interview process, whether the candidate is sufficiently attracted by your job, workplace, industry, or company culture to take a job for which he or she is overqualified.

If reasons other than immediate employment are on the candidate’s mind, and key in his or her choice of jobs, perhaps you should consider hiring an overqualified employee. Go in with your eyes open, however. Your decision is always a risk.

Unusual Employment History

Applicants with an uneven employment history is another red flag for employers.
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Another red flag for employers is an unusual employment history, and especially the explanation that your prospective employee offers for their unusual history.

Just as an employee with an employment gap is encouraged to provide a viable explanation on the resume or in the cover letter, an applicant with an atypical job history is expected to do the same. 

Job hopping does not carry the stigma that it did in the days of the corporation man. Employers are no longer as loyal to employees as they were in another era either. Medium performance is not a guarantee of a job and loyalty, and familiarity does not trump contribution. A series of short-term positions is still a red flag to examine.

In a memorable experience, an employer discovered after hiring a woman that she had only put half of her recent jobs on her employment application. Their number, as supplied, was a red flag already; had the employer known about all of the additional places of employment, she would never have been hired, no matter how scarce her skills.

(The tip-off? She legitimately injured herself on day two on the job—the employer had a video that showed the incident. When she was told that the injury had to be reported to workers' compensation, she begged that the employer not file the papers.)

The employer soon discovered that she had filed workers' comp claims at her last seven employers, all employers within the past five years. She had not revealed these employers during the application process.

But, fraudulent applicants aside, other employees with short-term employment at several jobs may have had legitimate bad luck in choosing employers who downsize or go out of business.

They may also still be searching for their best career or choice of employment as evidenced by multiple shifts in careers and employment. You need to respect employees who quickly decide that a company, a job, or an industry may not fit their interests and aspirations.

When you consider a senior employee, multiple careers and job shifts need an explanation for each. Prospective employers need to comfortably question potential employees about any details in their application materials that raise red flags.

Probe and listen carefully to the candidate’s answers. You’ll be happy you did. With increased experience in interviewing, resume review and candidate selection, you’ll develop a sixth sense for when a candidate is telling you the truth. Trust your instincts.


These are ten 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 ten resume red flags.