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What Is a Functional Resume? Why You Shouldn’t Use It in 2018

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Do functional resume formats still work? Find out in this article where I interviewed recruiters and HR managers on their views about this controversial resume format.

Many applicants think writing a resume is as simple as listing all the positions they’ve ever held, then rounding it up with a bunch of impressive achievements and skills. But writing a resume that leads to an interview is more complicated than that. A resume is a marketing tool, a continuously evolving advertisement of your talents, and like any ad in any medium, it needs to be concise and attention-grabbing. 

functional vs chronological resume
A resume that clearly shows your work history in reverse chronological order, such as this example from Envato Elements, is more effective than a functional resume.

How can you write an attention-grabbing resume? There’s a lot that goes into that process, but it all starts with picking the right resume format. You need to pick one with a strong hook and a narrative structure that paints your professional history in the best light, one that emphasizes your positives and downplays your flaws or missing skills. 

In this tutorial, we'll take a close look at the functional resume. You'll learn when a functional resume format is commonly used and discover the truth about how recruiters view functional resumes. I'll also provide you with some alternatives to using a functional resume.

The Go-to Resume for Hiding Shady Qualities

Now when it comes to hiding employment gaps or questionable career trajectories, functional resumes are usually the go-to option. That’s because a functional resume groups all your skills and achievements in one list at the top of the resume, regardless of when or how you acquired them. It emphasizes what you’ve accomplished without going into details on whether those accomplishments were on a professional, academic, or voluntary setting. 

What is a functional resume?

Like other resume formats, it begins with a professional or qualifications summary but its work history section is just a list of job titles and employers because all the achievements and responsibilities usually listed under each job title are already grouped at the aforementioned list of skills at the top of the document.

When a Functional Resume Might Be Useful & When It’s a Disadvantage

Who might benefit from using a functional resume? The functional resume format is often suggested for candidates with a work history that they want to conceal. Applicants re-entering the workforce after taking care of a sick parent, or raising their kids, for instance, may want to use a functional resume to hide a long employment gap. The same goes for applicants who left the corporate world, but continued acquiring skills through volunteer work.

Candidates with an unclear career path because they kept switching industries or took different kinds of temp work may also want to hide their career history using a functional resume. This format, however, isn’t just for those questionable career histories. It’s also suggested for candidates overqualified for the position they’re applying for based on their previous job title. For instance, a Creative Director finding it hard to land similar employment might apply for a Graphic Designer or even an Account Executive position just to get hired.

Of course, those are all theories and well-meaning advice given without hard data. There’s no survey or statistic published on the effectiveness of functional resumes. In reality, functional resumes get thrown out in the early stage of the application process.

Why? Because recruiters and everyone who reads resumes for a living hate it.

If you're considering using a functional resume, be sure to read the rest of this article first. If you're still convinced a functional resume is for you, here's our tutorial on how to write one:

The Case Against Functional Resumes

I’ve talked to in-house recruiters, corporate headhunters, hiring managers, and small business owners, and they all have one thing in common: they don’t like functional resumes. Below is a list of the common reasons that came up.

1. User-Interface (UI) Issue

Marielle Smith, VP of People at GoodHire, explains that recruiters might get thrown off rhythm when faced with a resume that doesn’t follow the same format as the ones they’ve read before. 

She says, “A recruiter tasked to review 100 resumes likely has guidelines from their hiring manager on the type of professional background they should be focusing on.”

In general, this includes checking the last two jobs the candidate held to see if there’s a skill match between the applicant and the vacant position.

She continues, “If a recruiter can’t find that relevant experience because they’re reading a functional resume, you’re making their job frustrating and cumbersome. It’s a UI issue.”

When that happens, you run the risk of getting your resume thrown out just because it’s difficult to read. Someone less qualified than you might even make it to the interview list, just because their resume is easier on the eyes.

2. Not Built for the Fast and Furious Corporate Recruiting Game

Hiring candidates, whether it’s for entry or mid-level jobs is fast and furious because each job ad attracts an average of 250 resumes. Plus, non-exclusive headhunters are forced to compete with other agencies to fill the same roles that just put on added pressure to the headhunters.

With all those resumes to review, interviews to schedule and all the paperwork in between, guess how much time a typical recruiter has to read a resume?

About six seconds

During those six seconds, recruiters work fast to find your:

  • Previous job titles
  • Your highest level of responsibility
  • Your skills and how you developed them
  • Relevant achievements and qualifications

Unfortunately, a functional resume hides almost all of that information. Some functional resumes include job titles, some don’t. It’s impossible to tell the highest level of responsibility you’ve achieved in a functional resume format because all the bullet-point achievements and skills normally in the professional history section are jumbled up together instead of separated into different job entries.

Peter Yang, Co-Founder of ResumeGo adds, “Every time I come across a functional resume, I must make the extra effort of re-organizing all the information in chronological order, and that’s just a huge pain in the neck when I have hundreds of other applications to review.”

While it’s true that your abilities are what convinces employers to hire you, the fact that it’s hard to establish whether you learned those skills in a job setting makes your candidacy dubious.

3. Forces Recruiters to Read Between the Lines

Recruiters and hiring managers read resumes every day, and they’re aware that the functional resume format is commonly used to hide employment gaps. As a result, this intentional ambiguity forces them to draw their own conclusions about your professional history.

Dawn Boyer Ph.D., Resume Writer and Career Consultant explains, “A functional resume may hide the fact that you were an awesome salesperson at another company 15 years ago, but now you’re just a low-responsibility employee with a fancy job title.”

So whatever you put in the skills section, recruiters will skip straight to your professional history to figure out what you’re trying to hide. But often this is just to satisfy their curiosity; they’ve already decided they don’t like you as an applicant because you’re hiding something. Some of them might not even bother doing this—they’ll just move on to the next application. Obviously, this isn’t the effect you’re trying to achieve with your application.

You've got to remember that recruiters aren’t your friends, although they may appear friendly and nice over the phone. They don’t work for you. They work for the hiring company. 

4. Skills Emphasized May Not Live Up to Expectations

William Haynes, Regional Recruiting Manager at The Princeton Review, said he once thought functional resumes would be ideal for teachers. Many of the teachers he hires for The Princeton Review work part-time, already have jobs or are full-time students, so he thought their job history wouldn’t be as important, but his opinion changed over time.

He continues, “Someone might emphasize a skill but not have much experience as required for the job. For instance, being a gifted public speaker is a fantastic quality for teachers but it doesn’t equate to having years of experience in the classroom managing students while public speaking.”

5. Hides Red Flags

Miki Feldman Simon, Founder of I am Back at Work, an organization that helps women re-entering the workforce says, “Recruiters look for red flags in resumes to identify candidates who aren’t who they say they are. Are their credentials valid? Do they have the skills the company needs? This information is often hard to find in a functional resume.”

Even experienced and qualified candidates can look like they’re hiding something when they use a functional resume. Your resume might show impressive skills, but it'll still leave recruiters wondering if you were terminated, or if you don’t have enough years under your belt.

Disadvantages of the Functional Resume Format

Some of the reasons above may be subjective or just based on the experience of a limited few. Below is a list of the tactical disadvantages of this format based on its content and structure.

1. No Context for Your Skills

If you've got C++ or Ruby on Rails programming experience, it'll carry more weight if you can link it to a specific job, more so if you’ve held that job for a few years. For a recruiter, a skill listed could mean anything from a book you’ve read to a short seminar you took, both of which can’t be equated to an actual job where you get experience from real-world projects and feedback from developers ahead of you in their career.

2. No Career Growth and Relevancy

Like Boyer explained, a functional resume takes all your skills and achievements out of chronological sequence, making it harder for the recruiters to decipher your experience’s relevance in today’s market.

After all, programming, accounting, teaching, and any job really, are constantly evolving. You might have been a skilled advertiser five years ago, but the market has changed so much since then.

Functional resumes also don’t show career trajectory, so recruiters can’t tell if you’ve moved past the entry-level skills required for your job or if you’re just fluffing up your resume with skills you don’t have.

3. Not Accepted in Traditional Jobs or Conventional Companies

Some companies and jobs like things to be done a specific way. Sometimes it’s because they’re just used to it, other times it’s because they've got a software or procedure that requires things to be done that way.

For example, some companies might not accept a resume file and instead ask you to fill out their online application form. Financial firms, government institutions, and other industries rooted in tradition or legacy also frown upon resumes and applications that don’t follow the widely used format they’ve come to expect.

4. Applicant Tracking System (ATS) Can’t Interpret Functional Resumes

ATS databases parse information based on pre-determined headers and criteria. In this situation, the ATS can’t match your achievements and skills with the corresponding employment because they’re in separate sections.

What to Use Instead of a Functional Resume

The question now is what can you use in lieu of a functional resume?

1. Hybrid Resume

Between a chronological resume and a functional resume is the combination resume or hybrid resume. The top half of this resume format is dedicated to a list of your notable achievements grouped into different skill categories relevant to your job, like a functional resume. But unlike the functional format, your work history is still there to describe your responsibilities. It’s a great choice for candidates facing the situations listed below:

  • Transitioning to another job
  • Overqualified for their target role

Hybrid resumes are great for over-qualified applicants because it allows you to direct focus on the skills you want to sell to the recruiter while downplaying your work history and previous job titles.

Recruiters are people too, and they know that sometimes people lose interest in their current jobs and move on to another industry. Use a hybrid resume to highlight your transferable skills at the top, so you can direct the recruiter’s focus on them. But don’t leave your professional history empty. List the job titles you’ve held and your accomplishments; even if they’re not relevant so at least the recruiter can connect the transferable skills listed at the top of your resume to a specific employment period.

Add a few of the sections listed below if you think your resume looks bare or irrelevant because you've got few transferable skills:

  • Volunteer activities
  • Portfolio
  • Publications
  • Professional memberships
  • Ongoing education

The truth is using a different resume format isn’t going to be enough if you’re changing careers. It helps, but on top of it all, you've got to go out of your way to network with people in the new field you’re entering.

2. Reverse Chronological Resume

The reverse chronological format works for fresh graduates, you just have to modify it. Even if you feel like you don’t have enough professional experience and achievements, this format can work for you.

If you don’t have relevant experience, start your resume with a detailed education section that includes relevant coursework, GPA information, and extra-curricular activities. Then fill your work history with details of your part-time gigs, side projects, and volunteer activities, with a focus on transferable skills and job-related skills. Here are some tips to help you create a stronger resume:

Applicants with a strong work history, especially those applying for a similar job should just stick to a chronological resume to keep things simple. After all, this format is best suited for them because it highlights their career trajectory and shows that they don’t have anything to hide in regard to their employment.

If you’re just tired of your current resume format and feel like you won’t stand out because your resume looks like every other one on the pile, try one of the templates here instead:

Don’t Hide Your Career History

Re-entering the workforce after a few years? Changing careers? Not enough work experience? It’s tempting to go the easy route and just hide your career timeline under a list of skills. It won’t work. Not in 2018.

Try a chronological resume or hybrid resume, then add sections or customize them to suit your needs. 

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