Job-seekers are hyper-sensitive creatures, and understandably so. They are especially sensitive to advice handed down from authority figures, particularly when it concerns résumés. If they find out that an employer prefers a serif font, for instance – and they’ve already submitted a resume typed in sans serif – they envision their résumé being snootily tossed aside, and then shredded.
But seriously, there’s a Pandora’s Box of insecurities out there, many of which are dumped upon internet forums by people who are ashamed of their past jobs, experiences, or educational choices. People are nervous to list anything outside the mainstream. If you type in “Does __ look bad on a resume?” into Google, the autofill function will give you a sense of these worries (I continued paging through the results to find even more):
Does… Hooters look bad on a résumé?
Does… McDonald’s look bad on a résumé?
Does… University of Phoenix look bad on a résumé?
Does… Walmart look bad on a résumé?
Does… Community college look bad on a résumé?
Does… Unemployment look bad on a résumé?
Does… Bartending look bad on a résumé?
Does… A GED look bad on a résumé?
Does… Temping look bad on a résumé?
Does… Hotmail look bad on a résumé?
Does… Being fired look bad on a résumé?
Do…… Warehouse jobs look bad on a résumé?
Does… Consultant look bad on a résumé?
Does… Car salesman look bad on a résumé?
Does… Dunkin Donuts look bad on a résumé?
Does… Being self-employed look bad on a résumé?
Does… Sabbatical for 4 years look bad on a résumé?
Does… Peace Corps look bad on a résumé?
Does… Forensic science rather than physics look bad on a résumé?
Does… Joining a fraternity look bad on a résumé?
Does… Going to a charter school look bad on a résumé?
Does… Transfer look bad on a résumé?
Does… Cosmetology look bad on a résumé?
Does… Casino dealing experience look bad on a résumé?
Does… Stay at home mom look bad on a résumé?
Does… Teaching English abroad look bad on a résumé?
Of the above experiences, only getting fired would warrant a red flag in my book, because none of the rest of these situations are inherently bad. If the only job you’ve ever had is filling jelly donuts and working the till at Dunkin Donuts, well … slap it on there with pride, put your best foot forward, and know that you’re moving on to better and brighter things. (Coincidentally, Madonna used to work at Dunkin Donuts. And Gwen Stefani at Dairy Queen. And Jennifer Hudson at Burger King. ... I'm sensing a theme here.) Most of these stigmatized jobs cannot be judged without some semblance of context – age, background, career goals, etc. And don't politicians and go-getters love to regale us with tales of how they pulled themselves up by their bootstraps after working eight odd jobs at a time? It's part of life. Employers are aware of a thing called life.
Some of the above experiences I would argue are inherently good. I mean, the Peace Corps? If employers can’t see the initiative and courage required to complete two years of service while deeply immersed in another culture, then I’m afraid we’re all doomed. And when we put aside the unfortunate stereotypes that surround used car salesmen and Walmart workers, these are ultimately legitimate jobs with legitimate duties and skills. If we all had the same transferable professional experiences, we’d all be really boring people. Employers are always looking for that unique, hard-to-pin-down quality, so why should we be worried about covering up our diverse pasts?
It's a little like tattoos and piercings. Maybe our perception of how these "work history stains" will appear on paper is skewed larger than life – much like attitudes toward body modification. Over the last decade, acceptance of tattoos and piercings in the workplace has followed broader trends of acceptance and prevalence in society. According to an article published in 2011 by The Nevada Sagebrush, “Because many more young people have body modifications now than in previous decades, employers have adjusted their policies to be more lenient about the modifications.” And yet I still hear tattooed job-seekers bemoaning that their only option for employment is Whole Foods (that famously liberal grocery chain). Oddly enough, I believe this exposes cultural ignorance on their part.
I’d argue that unconventional experiences among entry-level job-seekers are on the rise, too, as the economy stalls and sputters and bumbles along after the recession. Life is complicated in an America saddled with stubbornly high unemployment numbers and an unprecedented wealth gap. Not surprisingly, unemployed or lower-wage workers are seeking alternatives or taking jobs that merely pay the bills. I myself taught English abroad in China for a year, an experience I now share with thousands of my American peers. I’ve read that potential employers view it as a paid vacation. (Hmm ... not exactly. ... I worked four weekdays plus 7:30am-7:30pm on Saturdays and Sundays with classrooms full of so-called "Little Emperors".) And now, in a sense, this is my “tattoo." Like a little black rose inscribed on a forearm, it is un-erasable, awash in misconceptions, and (perhaps paradoxically) a badge I'm proud of.
As body modification grows in prevalence, our collective attitude toward it is changing. Similarly, as unconventional work histories abound, employers' attitudes toward them need to change. So if your cursor is hovering over your resume and you’re thinking, “Should I erase this?” it’s the equivalent of rolling down your sleeves to cover up your tattoos. Wouldn’t it be nicer if these societal-induced cover-ups weren’t necessary? Indeed, maybe they soon won't be.