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I am currently at university and interact with Career Services on a regular basis. One of their recommendations was to place "buzzwords" on your resume in non-obvious locations so that you have the benefit of dropping these words without contorting the overall textual flow. One example of this would be to place words like "object-oriented programming", "user interface", etc. in small white text around the margin. These words, while not visible to a human reading the printed document, would be detected by an algorithm scanning the resumes for applicable terms. According to Career Services, this is a widespread practice that allows you to just get past whatever robotic filters big companies use and get your resume to a real person.

I have done this to some degree and have sent out resumes to several large companies. An interaction with one particular company, however, has scared me somewhat and led me to question this practice. A few weeks after submitting a resume to a large tech company I got a very angry email from a recruiter. This recruiter accused me of "hacking" to get past the filter because my resume (apparently) did "not match the template for an acceptable document." He mentioned specifically that the resume did not contain information about "web design," which was included among the invisible words. Just to be absolutely clear I have not done any hacking other than the inclusion of these invisible words and, additionally, I only included words which actually related to my previous experience. That is, I do mention web design in the document, I just don't otherwise have the words "web design" written in that specific order. That is, I wrote "I have designed a website which..."

This was something of a scary interaction and it's caused me to question the wisdom of using the "hidden buzzword" practice. My questions are:

Is it ethical to include such text in a resume?

How should one react if an employer discovers the use of such tactics?

closed as primarily opinion-based by Jim G., gnat, Mister Positive, Masked Man, Michael Grubey Apr 24 '17 at 1:37

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

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    The usage of "hacking" in this case has nothing to do with breaking into computers... look at the urban dictionary of "lifehack"... – Catija Apr 21 '17 at 23:47
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    In addition to "is it ethical?" you need to consider "is it annoying?". You don't want to annoy anyone in the chain that might get your resume to someone who would hire you. Having a resume pop up on a search for Skill X, read it, and not see any mention of Skill X would be annoying. – Patricia Shanahan Apr 22 '17 at 0:15
  • @Patricia, thank you for your response. I did in fact describe my experience with Skill X in the document, just did not use the specific wording of "skill X." I said something along the lines of "I have designed a website that..." and then included the phrase "web design" in the invisible words. – FarAboveBoyegasWaters Apr 22 '17 at 0:31
  • @FarAboveBoyegasWaters if you actually honestly can put "web design" or any other "skill x" as a skill, put it in plain sight - your resume does have to be read by humans after all, and generally their first read of a resume is a simple look for keywords too (even after filtering, someone probably has to get through dozens or even hundreds of applications for some jobs) - then they look at how you validate including those skills if you pass that human filter. – HorusKol Apr 22 '17 at 1:22
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    A better question to ask would be "would that help or harm in getting a job". The answer to this would be an emphatically "harm". Best case: it goes entirely unnoticed. Worst case: you are perceived as deceiving and dishonest and end up on the "do not hire list". – Hilmar Apr 22 '17 at 17:10
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..specifically that the resume did not contain information about skill X, which was included among the invisible words.

Yes this is another place where Career Services give poor advice (usually it's on resume format, attaching photos, handing over resumes by hand with some gimmic, all really bad advice).

ATS (Application Tracking Systems) are a constantly evolving thing, and they got wise to the invisible keyword idea long ago (I'm a hiring manager, you wouldn't believe what I've seen over the years).

Likely all the text had the format changed to be visible (rather than the white text on white you likely had), maybe even your resume was just attached to an email as a text file, and up came a list of keywords you added to match.

This would be seen as underhand, it's worse when you've put matches in which you then don't back up in your resume, some people get away with doing this by putting in synonyms for real experience just to ensure they pass the keyword match process (but I bet you guessed that, as if you had the skills you wouldn't need to hide additional keywords to pass).

Better to find a (truthful) way to show the required skills (even if it's maybe a bit of a stretch), rather than an outright falsehood. You need to be sure that, if asked at interview, that you can show actual experience, keyword bombing will have you out the door quickly when it's obvious you're a time waster.

You will likely now be on the company's Do Not Interview list for acting in a dishonest manner, don't be in this position again.

  • Thank you for the advice. Just to be clear about your fourth and fifth paragraphs, I did not put any "extra" items in the invisible words. As I mentioned in my original post I do in fact have "skill X" and talk about it in the resume but used synonyms in the invisible words. – FarAboveBoyegasWaters Apr 21 '17 at 23:53
  • Look at my quote, that's not what you said, you were accused of not matching keywords. But it's academic (huh!), just don't do it, make sure your resume matches the requirements. – The Wandering Dev Manager Apr 22 '17 at 0:14
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    Respectfully, two sentences down from the one you quoted in your post I said the following: "That is, I do mention skill X in the document, I just don't otherwise have the works "skill X" written in that form." The situation was that my resume described my work of designing a website but the invisible words contained the specific phrase "web design." The recruiter accused me of "not having any information about web design" when in fact I did. Again, I appreciate your response and apologize for any confusion. – FarAboveBoyegasWaters Apr 22 '17 at 0:27
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    Ok, but the guy didn't seem to think so. The key is - keyword bombing, just say no. – The Wandering Dev Manager Apr 22 '17 at 1:30
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    @FarAboveBoyegasWaters Given how pointless hidden keywords are if you really have the experience, the employer probably didn't bother to read the resume. – Patricia Shanahan Apr 22 '17 at 22:42
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It is very difficult to prove something is unethical. One test is whether you would still do it if everyone involved were going to know what you are doing.

For the resume case, even if you do consider it ethical, it can annoy readers. Annoying people involved in processing resumes for a potential employer is not a good job search strategy.

In your case there seems to have been little or nothing to gain. You say

I said something along the lines of "I have designed a website that..." and then included the phrase "web design" in the invisible words.

Suppose you put this in your resume, with no hidden keywords:

Web Design: I have designed a web site that ...

You would have got the initial hit on "web design". When, as a result of the machine hit, a human searched your resume for the words "web design" they would have immediately seen the right paragraph, and got on with deciding whether your web design experience justifies considering you for job opening N.

As it was, the search missed because the keyword was hidden, unnecessarily annoying the human.

You also ask:

How should one react if an employer discovers the use of such tactics?

About all you can do is not waste time looking for openings at that employer.

  • This is exactly how I would handle it. If you know the keywords you want to include AND you have legitimate experience in that area, why try to hide them? Just make sure to include them in the body of your resume, where they are perfectly applicable without any subterfuge. – Steve-O Apr 22 '17 at 19:01
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Is it ethical to include such text in a resume?

No it isn't ethical, any sort of subterfuge or 'gaming' can be rationalised but isn't strictly ethical. In this case it's a blatant attempt to gain advantage through knowingly adding invisible information.

If you could make a card that would allow you to take money from an ATM that isn't yours, you 'gamed' the machine but you wouldn't think it ethical unless you had a very strange set of moral values. This is regardless of whether you get caught or not.

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    I don't agree with the ATM analogy. He did not take anything. Key word embedding to get picked up by search engines is a very common practice and I don't consider it unethical. If you consider it unethical then fine. – paparazzo Apr 22 '17 at 1:14
  • @Paparazzi as I said, it can be rationalised.... people can (and do) rationalise a lot of unethical things if they try... how common it is makes no difference. – Kilisi Apr 22 '17 at 1:17
  • @Killsi Regardless of whether keyword bombing is ethical or not, I second that the ATM analogy is ill-fitting. That involves directly disadvantaging/harming another person, which the keyword bomb does not. In my opinion it's much more like shaving your head if you know that the manager likes bald people. It may give you an advantage but does not have a direct negative effect on others. To be clear, the head-shaving may still be up for ethical debate but it's a closer analogy than blatant theft. – WorkplaceQuestion17 Apr 22 '17 at 1:46
  • @WorkplaceQuestion17 ask a politican or evangelist how easy it is to rationalise blatant theft which can hurt multitudes of people simultaneously :-) – Kilisi Apr 22 '17 at 2:12
  • @Kilisi You have one demented definition of theft. – paparazzo Apr 22 '17 at 2:53
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The problem is that many people would consider it deceptive.

I guess this is splitting hairs but I would not actually call it a hack.

Web pages do it a lot so I can get how you feel like it is mainstream.

Many company web sites do it.

I bet recruiter agencies even use it to get hits on job listings.

If you are just using synonyms then yes I get it seems harmless enough but enough people will not think so to make it not worth it.

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    "Web pages do it a lot so I can get how you feel like it is mainstream." - do you mean as an attempt to game search engines? Because Google et al have been onto this for years now and will lower page ranks and even blacklist. – HorusKol Apr 22 '17 at 1:28
  • @HorusKol Yes abused it is penalized. You make a good point. – paparazzo Apr 22 '17 at 1:38

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