A very interesting thing happened the other day when a friend of mine, a director of human resources at a large national healthcare organization, stopped by in a state of panic. What you are about to read may be very disturbing to you, too – especially if you’re still searching resumes by entering keywords. She was very upset about her current online applicant tracking system and was certain that it was broken. She started by entering a series of keywords and clicking “Search.” Her results returned hundreds of applicants that met the keyword criteria. She pointed out five key applicants and told me to watch what happens when she entered a different series of keywords and clicked “Search” again. The same five applicants appeared at the top of the new search. She clicked on one of the top applicant’s resumes and didn’t see anything unusual in the body of the text or an unusual number of keywords. In fact, we didn’t see many of the keywords that were entered for the search. Hmmm… She opened up another applicant’s resume that “always” seemed to pop up regardless of the keywords entered and didn’t notice anything unusual here either. Perhaps her system was indeed broken. I asked her to highlight the applicant’s entire resume and paste it into a Word document. I then asked her to highlight the text and change “all” of the font color to black. An amazing thing happened. There between the paragraphs were all of the keywords that were not visible (or printable) until they were highlighted and the font color changed from white to black. The mystery was solved. It appears that applicants have become really creative in their attempt to find a job. By entering numerous keywords in their resume, then highlighting the keywords and changing the font color from black to white to match the background color, the applicants are finding much greater exposure when a keyword search is performed by a prospective employer. That means recruiters must now do much more work to find the truly “qualified” applicants. Multiply that by thousands of applicants using this “trick” to get ranked by search engines, and you can see how it could quickly cripple any system that relies on keyword searches. In essence, a recruiter would now have to manually read every resume in the database in order to identify a handful of key prospects once more and more applicants start using this “trick” to foil keyword searches. Vendors of keyword matching systems will need to filter each resume for “hidden” text, but will not be able to do anything to the resume since this would be considered tampering with the content. At least recruiters will be able to instantly see which applicants are trying to “pepper” their resumes with keywords and delete them from the database. We called a few other friends in HR and asked them to do the same thing. Two recruiters found similar results. It doesn’t appear that this practice is widespread at this time, but it will undoubtedly gain popularity as more and more applicants learn of this technique as they try to gain every possible advantage in finding a job in a soft job market. Perhaps employers will have to tighten the process for accepting resumes, the same way airports have tightened passenger security. One possible solution is to move from keyword searches to position profiles, in which applicants are asked to complete a series of position-specific questions that directly target the position requirements and bypass keyword searches altogether. The drawback: Applicants will need to complete a position-specific questionnaire for each position that interests them. On the bright side, at least recruiters will know that an applicant is truly motivated if he or she takes the time to complete a position-specific profile instead of simply pasting a resume to a job opening. A resume can still be accepted, but its importance in the initial screening process is secondary to the profile. It may take a while for companies to come up with the right strategies to combat what clearly has the potential to be a growing problem. Either way, the solution to the problem begins by recognizing its existence and analyzing what kind of impact it’s already having on your recruiting processes.