Resumes vs. Recommendations

It’s curious that people who are hiring put so much faith in resumes: a resume is a document made by the most biased source possible. Whereas a recommendation, if from a trusted source, knows both parties and, even if biased, has conflicting biases. As much as they might want to get a friend a job, they want to protect their reputation. They’re unlikely to recommend someone who doesn’t live up to their billing.

Unless the job you’re hiring for is to be interviewed all day long, most interviews don’t tell you very much about how the person will perform when actually working. A recommendation on work done at another job in  a similiar role has to weigh more heavily than their ability to merely talk about that work.

Of course resumes and recommendations are not mutually exclusive, but one is given undue dominance over the entire process.

See The Winchester Rule of Interviewing

12 Responses to “Resumes vs. Recommendations”

  1. Bryan Zug

    I usually bring up this idea that “everybody dates well” whenever I interview someone.

    I think the only thing that matters in most human relationships (work, romantic, friendship) is “how do you fair when things get tough in a role like this?”

    All honeymoons end pretty quickly when you are in the trenches with someone, ergo the higher weighting of an experienced recommendation.

  2. Payson Hall

    Agreed. I always prefer a recommendation from someone I know who has actual experience with a potential work partner. I appreciate your acknowledgment of conflicting or competing biases. I would never jeopardize my reputation by recommending someone unconditionally for something they were not qualified for.

  3. Scott Berkun


    The challenge I guess is how often we don’t have reliable sources for recommendations.

    The other question is: how valuable are references people put on their resume? I know for certain they’re almost never called. But it’s worth thinking about whether talking to a living person about a candidate has more value than we think it does.

  4. chris mahan

    I disagree. As an employer, the resume is something you can challenge the candidate on, to find out if they embellished, flat out lied, and as a start for conversations about the work to be performed.

    It’s very hard to do that with recommendations. How would it go over if an interviewer said: “Your ex-coworker Kendra Miller told me you are very smart and know oracle replication down pat but that you have trouble keeping organized and need some hand-holding.”

    Akward moment.

    And of course, Kendra’s got some explaining to do.

  5. Mike Haden

    Recommendations don’t necessarily trump the CV, but they sure add substantial weight to it. If I was looking at two candidates, of equivalent experience on paper, the one with the solid referral from a trusted source definitely has the upper hand. References provided with the CV are like references in LinkedIn – they need validation by someone who can ask the hard questions and listen carefully to the answers. Finally, recommendations can play a large role in the interview – you can use the information gleaned from other sources, without naming names, to glean whether or not the recommendation holds up under scrutiny.

  6. James Reffell

    Recommendations are superior to resumes on most fronts. More detail, more trustworthy, etc.

    The *problem* with recommendations is that it’s hard to get recommendations for folks who are outside your work/social circles — and over time that can lead to homogeneity and maybe poor decision-making. Resumes aren’t the only alternative, probably, but they are one.

  7. Scott Berkun


    Of course you’re right – it’s a false dichotomy (as offered in the blog title). There’s really no reason you can’t use both.

    As you point out, the resume is a good launching off point no matter how biased it is – but I mostly meant as a filtering method before you meet the candidate.

    From experience of course, most resumes are so bad, even given all their caveats, that it can be an easy way to filter – there are surprisingly few people who can strike the right balance of clarity, concision, (non-ugly) style, and humble confidence in even a one page summary of their previous work.

  8. Chris Mahan


    Indeed. I think the problem, though, is that resumes are partially written people, and partially written for search engines. Maybe there should just be a Keywords section at the top/bottom. I mean, books do it for library indexing, so why not resumes?

    Also, people should have a “fun” resume. The party kind, such as:

    Chris Mahan, Party Do-Gooder!

    Good at buying beer before all the guests leave. Will unload the ice, drive home drunk guests, but has a weakness for fried dumplings.

    Skills: Can uncork a wine bottle in under 7 seconds!

    This would allow people to give feedback on style and format without much offending the resume writer.

    No? Nevermind then…

  9. Phil Simon

    Good comment, Bryan. I never thought of it that way but that’s nicely put.

  10. Jessie Mac

    I would go by recommendation any day. Some people are natural talkers and great at articulating. If the job requires that – great. But that’s all the interview tells you about that person – if they’re good at talking about their work. Talking and doing are two different things.



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