Effects, Risks, and Strategies of Impression Management within the Resume and CV
The resume is the most fundamental representation of one’s career during a job hunt. It is a pure, distilled summary of a working adult’s life and contribution to organized society. As such, any writer has the strong inclination to control how the information in the resume is perceived. Efforts at achieving this are called impression management, which is defined as a subconscious or conscious attempt to influence how a person, object, or event is perceived by regulating and controlling information in a social interaction. This is also one of the most difficult and contentious aspects of the writing process. Impression management is important to a good resume, but comes with significant pitfalls. As you use it, you run the risk of drawing suspicion or even agitation from readers. Impression management should be treated as a finite, valuable, carefully employed resource.
Impression management in a resume, CV, or cover letter comes in a few forms: adjectives, compliments, and direct statements. Adjectives are the most common and easily identified of these examples. Applicants will often describe themselves as “hard working, self-starting, detail oriented,” or any of the many other commonly seen examples. Another way these manifest is as compliments to the reader or desired employer. This could be along the lines of saying that the addressed company is impressive, highly regarded, or respectable. And the last way impression management manifests are in the form of direct statements regarding compatibility or competency. This would involve stating that you are a good fit or the best option for either a specific position, a general role, the company, or the field.
Each of these subcategories come in a wide spectrum, ranging in direction, legitimacy, subjectivity, and level of subtlety. Some resumes will see them explicitly employed in introductions as direct statements, others will have them peppered throughout the document. There is also the matter of verifiability: certain impression management statements can be corroborated, either through the document itself of follow-up by the reader. Others require the reader to take the applicant on faith, which mainly pertains to matters of character and inherent capabilities. Highly verifiable claims would look like “Project Management expertise” or “experienced in SCRUM”. Unverifiable statements would be “strong multi-tasking ability” or “high drive for company success”. The wide variety of IM manifestations can make nailing it down rather difficult, but they all have one commonality: shaping the way the reader perceives the subject by language rather than content. These are attempts to control the fundamental frame of how the resume is experienced and understood.
The concept of impression management begs the question: is this an effective means of bolstering one’s resume? The appeal in undoubtable. This is after all a marketing document. In instances where experiences and information on the document can lead to vague or inadequate conclusions, impression management stands out as a way to bolster or focus the document. The 1988 study Impression Management in the Resume and Its Cover Letter corroborates this to a degree, stating “Indeed, readers saw the applicant in the impression management letter as more self-confident, a positive attribute to many potential employers.”
It also cannot be denied that regardless of how much the reader accepts or agrees with impression management language, the concepts are being put into their mind through latent impressions. For example, if the applicant states outright that they are “knowledgeable in software development” the reader might scrutinize the document along those lines, paying extra attention to relevant pieces of information. The 1994 study Impressions of the Resume: The Effects of Applicant Education, Experience, and Impression Management corroborates this, stating “Readers saw the background check as the logical next step in the selection process after they had identified the applicant as a potentially good candidate for the job using the impression management statements. This supposition is further supported by reader desire to check the background of the relevant job experience applicant as another potentially good candidate. In other words, an increased desire for a background check may be a positive sign.” Stephen Knouse also posits that “Impression management appears to enhance the reader perceptions of applicant interpersonal skill and self-confidence. In addition, impression management influenced the crucial perception of hireability of the applicant.”
However, hard data indicates that impression management brings many inherent issues, and even more risks. Impression Management in the Resume and Its Cover Letter demonstrates that impression management is at best a double-edged sword, and when poorly employed a catastrophic blow to the legitimacy of your resume, stating:
“Impression management tactics led to negative results almost across the board. One explanation for this decidedly negative reaction is that impression management attempts sent ambiguous messages about the applicant to the reader, which in turn distorted the reader’s process of evaluating the applicant. Considering this strongly negative reaction from readers, it would seem advisable that resume preparation “experts” warn applicants away from impression management in the resume rather than encourage such efforts. In fact, the data supports previous findings that impression management attempts may backfire, leaving the impression manager in a less desirable position than if no such tactics had been used. Employers, therefore, may need to consider whether downgrading applicants who have used a failed impression management strategy in their application materials may result in an incorrect selection decision.”
The 1999 study Resume Characteristics as Predictors of an Invitation to Interview similarly states: “[T]he use of impression management statements containing flattering adjectives used to describe oneself or the hiring organization on a resume were perceived negatively by managers” and that “In a previous study, Knouse et al. found a negative impression management effect when statements with adjectives such as “excellent, extremely hardworking, energetic, etc.” were used to describe the candidate.”
And Impression Management in the Resume and Its Cover Letter draws the more severe conclusion that “employers may be eliminating candidates from consideration whose basic credentials are sound and whose only fault is having followed bad advice about the use of impression management.”
This study also states that “this finding supports the apparently growing trend toward skepticism among resume readers, who apparently actively search for ambiguities and questionable statements; i.e., they seek “red flags” in the applicant’s credentials.” And it should be noted that this study is from 1988. By 2017, this skepticism has had ample time to develop into a fundamental issue with the hiring process. The appearance of these red flags will transition the reader-applicant relationship from a communicative one to an adversarial one.
This is also due to a rise in what Impression Management in the Resume and Its Cover Letter calls “self-monitoring tendencies” in hiring managers, in which subjects are more aware that they are being manipulated. A high self-monitor is defined as a person who is highly perceptive of personal behavior and the environment around them. The 1976 study The Self-Monitor Looks at the Ingratiator by Jones and Baumeister found that “high self-monitors were less favorably inclined than low self-monitors toward impression management techniques directed toward them. It is therefore hypothesized that readers who are high self-monitors react less positively to IM tactics in the resume and cover letter than do low self-monitors”. Similarly, we can also deduce that self-monitoring tendencies have risen within the hiring managers since 1976, due to an increased awareness of common application strategies and tropes.
So, what does all of this truly tell us? Primarily, that impression management is a threading of the rhetorical needle. Without it you lose control of the way your resume is perceived. This is a concrete benefit being left on the table. However, every instance of impression management comes with significant risk. This even includes the possibility that your application will be forfeited entirely. And given the high amount of variation between impression management techniques, there is not a clear method to consistently navigate this.
The information on self-monitoring also shows a crucial aspect of this conundrum: the key element of all these pitfalls is the reader’s awareness that their perceptions are being controlled. This is the root of all negative reactions. A rather simple aspect of human nature is that people commonly do not like to feel manipulated. This aversion can be exacerbated by the stresses of a high-pressure decision, such as selecting a new hire for your company.
The solution to this issue is diffused impression management: impression management that is spread throughout the resume rather than concentrated in specific language. Impression management is normally treated as an element separate from education and experiences, as evidenced in the very title of Impressions of the Resume: The Effects of Applicant Education, Experience, and Impression Management. By carefully interweaving impression management through the presentation of legitimate facts, the reader can be guided in their understanding of your resume while seeing it as simple information. Good impression management should be seen as objective evidence. Under these terms, impression management can never be interpreted as an assertion or an interpretation. Diffused impression management comes in three forms: omission, emphasis, and phrasing.
Omission may sound dubious and even unethical, but when exercised properly the concept should be neither. In using it, the resume writer should carefully select information using only details that are relevant and beneficial. Information that is not directly applicable to your job goals will only serve to distract from key details. This is the first step in treating the document like a piece of advertising material rather than a personal record. Emphasis and phrasing grow from this: identifying information that is impressive or particularly relevant. From there, information should be pushed to the forefront of the document, either through direct ordering or language. These key details should be placed in the document to ensure that they are read early and often. The description of duties should be based around these key capabilities and accomplishments.
Why is this more effective? The negative reactions to impression management are posited to stem from increased skepticism and the perception of “red flags”. Now, let’s take a look at an example of diffused impression management: “A Mechanical Engineer with more than 25 years of system development work experience, specializing in team leadership, product design, testing, and the continuous refinement of assembly processes.”
On face value, this is a completely innocuous statement. One could even be hard pressed to find examples within it. However, this sentence is end-to-end impression management. The title gives an immediate sense of rank and qualification. By drawing attention to years of experience, we’ve effectively communicated considerable knowledge and expertise. And by supplementing this with the words “more than” we’ve emphasized the extensive nature of this experience. And the specialties have the aforementioned benefit of drawing the reader’s attention to specific skills and capabilities. By controlling the ordering of these specialties, we can ensure that they subtly complement each other. Opening with team leadership implies that all of the following actions are occurring within a supervisory or managerial context.