Redefining Applicant Red Flags


By Stephanie Hammerwold

Early in my HR career, I was trained on recognizing a long list of so-called red flags on job applications. These are the kind of thing that could land someone in the reject pile and included things like gaps in employment, criminal record, spending only a year or two in each job (a.k.a. job hopping), certain reasons for leaving a past job and more. The list of red flags was long, and sometimes I could go through a pile of applications and find a reason to rule out everyone.

The reality is that no one’s employment history is perfect. Perhaps it is time that we reevaluate the traditional HR red flags and look more at who a person is now.

How Red Flags Can Become Barriers for Some Applicants

The reality is that there are many reasons someone may have had a bad experience at an employer or a gap in employment—reasons that may have little bearing on their likelihood of success at a new job. Yet so many HR decisions are based on scrutinizing someone’s past to the point where we are going on a fault-finding mission.

Some red flags can become huge barriers. Take criminal record, for example. There are many job seekers with criminal records who struggle to find work because that record follows them around even though they have paid their debt to society. The first HR director I worked for told me that anyone who checks the application box indicating a criminal record should be tossed in the reject pile without being given consideration. The reality of this blanket action was that we were tossing out plenty of good candidates. Since my early days in HR, I have volunteered in a women’s jail and have also started a nonprofit dedicated to working with formerly incarcerated people. In that time, California has become a state where employers cannot ask about criminal background until a conditional offer has been made. But employers can still make a decision to not hire at that point, so it still could be viewed as a red flag.

A recent episode of Invisibilia tackled the issue of whether we end up repeating patterns. The episode focuses on the story of a woman who had a rough childhood that included being in and out of jail. She ultimately ended up turning her life around, went to school and eventually earned a law degree. When she applied to take the Bar, she was denied based on her past. The panel was concerned that because of her past issues, she could relapse in the future even though she had demonstrated stability in the years since she went to school. What the episode found was that humans are complex, and our behavior often cannot be reliably predicted based on past behavior. Yet this idea that we need to scrutinize someone’s past to predict whether they will be a good employee persists in HR and hiring.

When a Red Flag Isn’t a Red Flag

Barriers can also include lengthy gaps in employment or the decision to leave a job because a person was miserable there. Think back on your own work history. Are there times you left a job because you had a horrible boss? Or maybe you decided to take an extended amount of time off work for personal reasons. Are those things that make you a bad employee in your current job? Probably not. So why do we use them as criteria to determine if a candidate would be a good fit?

As I have refined my interview style over the years, I have started to ask less about the traditional red flags (e.g. gaps in employment, reasons for leaving a job) and started focusing my questions more on how candidates worked in their previous jobs.

Let’s look at the example of someone with a gap in employment. There are all kinds of reasons someone may take time off work, and most of those have nothing to do with what kind of employee that person will be. Whether it was taking time off to raise a family, travel the world, care for a sick family member, serve time, sleep in, write a novel, look for a new job, go to school or simply to take a few months to relax between jobs, most reasons for a gap have little bearing on what an employee will do when working for you.

New Ways to Read a Job Application

As I mentioned, I have updated my interview style to focus more on culture fit. Of course I am checking to make sure someone has the required technical skills, but many of my questions ask candidates to provide an example from their work history.

For example, I have been interviewing a lot of senior software engineers lately. I work at an organization with a flat structure. Rather than having middle managers, we expect our seniors to take on an informal leadership roles. This means I want to look for candidates who are more interested in mentoring junior-level employees than they are in taking on a fancy manager title.  So I ask questions that require candidates to give examples of how they did this in the past. I also want to see if their goal is to take on a management role or if it is to contribute to an overall team effort. At my current company, we are looking for people who want the latter.

Rather than seeing work history as a place where we can find fault with a candidate, it is time that we see it  as a vast array of experiences. Whether experiences at a past employer were good or bad or if decisions made were good or bad, these are all things that contribute to who a person is now. What matters more is how a person grew and changed from that experience rather than a mistake made in the past.