Common CV mistakes made by Senior Leaders

I hate writing CVs. But I love reading them. I recently had the chance to review applications for some fairly senior positions at work. I'd like to talk about some of the common - and downright weird - mistakes people make on them.

I promise you these are all real - only lightly adjusted for privacy. Hopefully they'll help you realise that even senior people make mistakes.

Bring your whole self to work... but not like that!

A candidate with the email address of "ChunkyFudgeLover@....." another with "SexyLipsAndKisses@...."

Some people find a Hotmail address a little passé - personally I don't care. It looks great if you're applying for a technology role and have your own professional domain. But sticking with the same "quirky" email address from university looks unprofessional. Not a show stopper, obviously.

"My hobbies include swimming, sailing, and I have recently gotten divorced."

A personal bugbear of mine. I don't care what you do at the weekends. I will assume you are a totally normal human who enjoys totally normal human activities. If you can tie your sporting achievements to the job spec, great. If not... leave them off! I've got lots of long CVs to read and you being captain of the hockey team plays 0% of the decision I make.

And I certainly don't need to know your marital status. Which brings me on to...

Just kidding!

"As the proud - but tired - father of 6 children..."

OMG! I would never dream of asking you if you had any kids! Why would you bring that up in a CV? If you don't get the job, will you accuse us of discriminating against people with children?

How can you be a senior leader and not understand the Equality Act and the impact it has on interview questions?

Young at heart

The UK has particularly strong laws prohibiting discrimination. I don't want to be in a position where my involuntary biases are tweaked by something you've written. Sure, it's helpful to know the rough dates you worked at a job, but that's about it.

So it was weird to see a number of CVs which prominently listed the candidate's date of birth! What am I supposed to do with that information? There's nothing I can (legally) do with it.

Religion and Politics

2007-2008. Arstotzkan Military - Signals and Intelligence. As part of my mandatory military service, I was compelled to enlist. I would like to state that I am completely against Arstotzka's annexation of the Duchy of Grand Fenwick and, furthermore....

I'm not going to judge you on your religion. I don't want to know your religion. If you list your hobbies as singing in the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, I might be able to determine it.

In the eye of the beholder

Photos on CVs. It isn't a beauty contest! OK, I might be able to guess your gender and ethnicity from your name and the university you attended - but a photo makes it pretty obvious. Again, I'm meant to be judging you on your achievements - not the colour of your hair or whether you can Photoshop out any blemishes.

I have mixed feelings about beautiful design templates for CVs. They can look spectacular - but instinctively makes me think it's style over substance. That was proved with a couple of the CVs which were bright and colourful but contained very little information.

CVs like this are creative works of art. But when I'm comparing two candidates' CVs to see which has lead the bigger team - I value clarity over aesthetics.

Great Skills

I hate these "level up" style skill sheets.

Skills with arbitrary scores on them.

What does 3 stars mean? Compared to who? Accredited by who? These are totally arbitrary and a complete waste of time.

Oh, and why would you put a skill on there that you don't think you're any good at?

It's really common for CVs to include links - whether it's to your employer's homepage, your open source code, or a YouTube video of your recent award-winning talk. Great! But make sure they work. Several CVs had links which either went to broken sites, or obviously wrong locations.

All modern roles require you to be detail oriented. If you can't check the links on your application, will you pay attention to the details on important work matters?

Formatting a CV is hard. And Microsoft Word loves moving around those bullets and margins. But if you aspire to be a senior digital leader, you've got to know this stuff. We don't have a phalanx of secretaries typing up our memos. Your CV doesn't have to be a work of art - but if your CV looks like it was written in three mutually incompatible word processing suites, perhaps you just don't care about how things look?

Are you going to produce readable documents for us? Based on this CV, it doesn't look hopeful.

A long time ago...

Should your CV include that summer job you had at university? Unless it is directly relevant to the application, your summer spent at Camp America can be dropped.

Even worse, a really accomplished applicant wrote 1 paragraph about their current high-impact job and 3 paragraphs about their photography job from 15 years ago!

I get that CVs are living documents, but they live to be edited. Yes, your first professional job taught you a lot and had a huge impact on your life and, yes, it's hard to sum up in a single paragraph. But that's going to be part of this job. Summarising large amounts of complex information into a readable format.

It's Showtime

None of these are showstoppers. We didn't drop any CVs into the bin because of these errors. But it certainly coloured my impression of the candidates.

For every line on your CV, have these two questions in mind:

  1. Does this relate to the job I'm applying for?
  2. Should I be judged on this aspect of my life?

9 thoughts on “Common CV mistakes made by Senior Leaders

  1. I can excuse people who've never done any hiring to be bad at writing a CV, but you would think people applying for senior roles would have participated in the hiring process enough to know what works, as well as at least the basics of employment law.

  2. says:

    Agree with all, except the no hobbies!

    If the bulk of the cv is laser focused on the role you're going for, it's good to humanise yourself at the bottom. The trick is include enough detail to act as a hook.

    ❎ I like reading & music
    ✅ I like reading slushy romance & doom metal

  3. says:

    I do want to know what applicants do at the weekend; we're looking for interpersonal fit just as much as technical aptitude. I'd much rather have a team member who can learn on the job than one who no-one wants to work with.

    1. says:

      You've confused two different things there. Nothing I do at the weekend gives you any indication about whether I can learn on the job.

      Culture fit is an interesting question. Will you hire me if I support a different football team from you? If I like gardening at the weekends whereas all your team prefer sky-diving? How about if I volunteer for a charity which you don't support?

      Much better to build a diverse culture which is resilient than a fragile monoculture.

      1. Chris says:

        +1 to this. "Culture fit" is a big reason for some of the monocultural teams we already have and can lead to unconscious discrimination.

        Some of the best people I've worked with were ones who can down tools at the end of the day when they're done and leave them there until the next day. As a techie, I find it useful to have someone who isn't so immersed in it on the team because they almost certainly have a better connection with reality than I do.

  4. Just to note that if the applicants are coming via an agency. The agency nearly always messes up your nicely formatted CV. Drives me mad.

  5. Jez McKean says:

    I've not confused two things, I've mentioned two things in the same sentence.

    Sounds like you're actually trying to curtail your own biases. I want diversity too.

  6. Geoff says:

    While not strictly relevant, many folks include DOB, hobbies and interests, even perhaps family status. Religion and politics, admittedly less so. Does that really detract from a CV? Particularly one that’s concise and evidences the ability to perform in the role?

    On the other hand, I’d be much less confident offering the opportunity of further assessment to a candidate who choose to submit a CV without first tailoring its content and then double checking for errors.

    Admittedly, with all that personal information, I’d also find difficulty putting it in the bin!😀

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