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Functional vs. Reverse-Chronological Resumes: Proven Strategies for Handling a Lengthy Work History

By Michelle Dumas

Last week, one of my over-50 clients called me while we were in the process of creating his resume. He was concerned, he explained, because he had been advised by his mentor that once a person had passed the age of 50, his resume should be created using a functional format. He believed that the functional format (which focuses on categorical skills while de-emphasizing or even eliminating employment history and dates) would do a better job of “hiding” his age. While he trusted my judgment, he was worried that the more traditional reverse-chronological resume that I had recommended was only for “younger” professionals.

Of course, this call wasn’t the first time that I’ve had this discussion—or others like them—with clients who had been advised on rigid “rules” that they thought we must follow when preparing their resumes.

Luckily, for the sake of these clients, they have all been open minded and willing to listen when I explain that the only absolute rules in resume writing are that everything in your resume must be absolutely honest and the content must be well written and grammatically correct. Beyond these standards, and some proven best practices that you are wise to keep in mind as you write, job seekers actually have great leeway in creating a unique resume format and style that is specifically designed to showcase their own unique value offering in the workplace.

Functional resumes can be useful in some situations. For example, I’ve created functional resumes that clients have successfully used to make very dramatic career changes or to overcome large and frequent gaps in their work histories. However, it is important to weigh the pros from the cons when using a functional resume, because the most important potential negative is a big one: a functional resume is an immediate red flag to recruiters that you are trying to hide something. In fact, many recruiters refuse to even read a functional resume, and will quickly screen it out and move on to the next candidate. Even if they do read it, you face increased scrutiny while they try to identify exactly what it was you were trying to hide. For obvious reasons, this is not the first impression that most people would choose to make!

In general, I would never consider the need to minimize a lengthy work history a good enough reason to create a functional format. The possible negatives far outweigh the positives.

So what are the solutions? What can you do to take the emphasis off your age and long work history while still using a format that will be acceptable to recruiters?

While the decision about how far back to date your resume really depends on the individual circumstances, generally it is about optimal to go back approximately 10, 15, or even 20 years. If experience earlier than that is still relevant, you always have the option to summarize it in a couple of sentences without the use of dates. You don’t need to and shouldn’t try to include everything. On the other hand, you don’t want to cut it off too recently and leave the reader thinking you either have less experience than you have or are hiding something. In the end, the decision about what to include and how far back to go in your work history will be a strategic one based on the unique circumstances of your work history and current goals.

An example of how I used these guidelines to create my client’s resume, may help you in applying them to your own resume.

First, I reminded my client that he was a product and his resume was a sales document that was meant to illustrate how he would solve the problems of and add value to his future employer. A functional resume would have detracted from this goal, and so we chose instead to use a reverse-chronological format. On the other hand, I also reminded him that his resume was NOT an autobiography and we did not need to include everything back to his first job 30-plus years ago.

With the above in mind, his resume began with a highly targeted, power-packed, benefits-focused profile section that summarized and showcased his specific skills, qualifications, and achievements that differentiated him from the masses of other job seekers pursuing the same positions.

The profile section was followed by a reverse-chronology of his professional history written in what we call a “CAR” style (challenge – action – result). Writing a resume in this way requires that professional achievements be described in three parts - the challenge faced, the actions taken, and the results of the action. Readers are most interested in the results, and these are always the focus of the resume, but for comprehension, the reader needs to know about the challenges to place the achievements and results in context. This is a dramatic departure from the boring, passive, responsibilities-focused resumes that many job seekers write. Resumes written using the CAR style draw the reader in and engage them with the succinct “story” behind each position, clearly demonstrating that you have the ability to solve problems, fulfill goals, and meet challenges.

Rather than extending the resume decades in the past, and including experience that was no longer relevant, we identified a natural cut-off point that was approximately 18 years in the past. Earlier experience was briefly described without the use of dates:

  • Tenure with Martin-Davis Corporation began as a sales representative, quickly earning recognition as #1 performer of the year and winning promotion to district sales management role, leading a 12-person sales team and rebuilding revenue following a period of decline. Tapped early on as a high-potential leader and groomed for future executive roles.

The education section followed this statement and included a succinct listing of the degrees held and the universities where they were earned. We did not include degree dates as this would have negated the overall strategy. By handling the employment history and education in this way, the reader understands that there was early, less-relevant experience, but we’ve effectively taken the emphasis off just how long in the past that experience was, and we’ve done so in a way that doesn’t leave the reader with the impression that we are trying to “fool” him or her.

I’ve used this same resume strategy successfully with countless “older” clients and have never had a client return with worries over having their resume screened out based on age discrimination.

Is your resume written in the functional format in an attempt to hide your age? Is it written in the reverse-chronological format that extends back to the very earliest jobs you held? If so, it may be time to take a fresh look and rewrite it. The impact on your job search will be well worth it!