Paper Makes the Man

Whither the luxurious sheets on which we told the tales of our professional lives?

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Stroll the least-trafficked aisles of your local office megastore and you might be surprised to find a few ghosts from job searches past haunting the shelves. 100% cotton resume paper in almond linen? With matching envelopes? Isn’t it illegal now in most states to send paper resumes to prospective employers? Hasn’t study after study determined that in the age of Monster.com, even smoke signals have a better chance of catching a human resource director’s eye than any document that has touched the filthy, technologically obsolete hands of a U.S. Postal Service carrier?

Sure, all that may be true-ish. But it also doesn’t negate the possibility that old-fashioned resumes, on crisp, rich, ivory-laid paper may be the key to a return to boom times.

This isn’t immediately obvious, of course: Even when typewriters still ruled the American office, fancy resume paper was viewed with suspicion. The general consensus: 32 lb. paper with a fine linen finish was the business correspondence equivalent of heavy make-up or a thick wad of cash composed exclusively of $1 bills. If you had genuinely valuable skills and experience to offer an employer, you didn’t need watermarks, classy textures, distinctive colors, or paper as thick as a matchbook cover to convey your worth; plain white paper of middling quality would do just fine.

To understand how wrong-minded this proposition was, then and now, simply walk into any supermarket. Kraft makes the most highly qualified processed cheese sauce known to man, but does the company rely on the product’s inherent deliciousness to sell it to consumers? Or does it wrap it in a colorful, distinctive, eye-catching package? Obviously it does the latter, as does every other product in every store in America.

Next question: Shouldn’t the average job-seeker put at least one-tenth the effort into packaging himself as Kraft puts into packaging tasty yellow goop?

Alas, now that digital resumes are the norm, this question isn’t even up for debate. Today, job-seekers are encouraged to make their resumes as plain and uniform as possible. And once they make their resumes easily scannable, easily searchable, they begin to think of themselves as easily scannable, easily searchable, a mere part in a vast inventory of parts — inert, generic, conforming. They lose faith in their ability to meet and exceed sales goals and customer expectations. They doubt their capacity to thrive in fast-paced environments of increasing responsibiity. Their potential employers assess them with all the interest of a minimum-wage shipping clerk plucking pieces from a storage bin. Is it any wonder the national unemployment rate currently hovers around 8.5 percent? Who wants to hire a part?

Most of the paper mills that produced the kind of fine, heavyweight stock that can truly inspire confidence in both potential employee and potential employer are gone now, but luckily a few remain. They remain because businesspeople need to do something with their hands at job fairs and preliminary interviews, and smoking is no longer allowed indoors. So ceremonial resumes on rich sheets of pure cotton are printed up by a discerning few and exchanged on these occasions, then promptly chucked in favor of more conveniently storable and retrievable digital versions.

But is it time perhaps to return to an older way of doing things? Is it time to ban digital resumes and require every job-seeker to print his resume on nothing less impressive than 24 lb. pure cotton paper? On its Web site, paper manufacturer Southworth makes a compelling pitch for its product. “When shown resumes and proposals printed on Southworth’s Fine Business Paper and equivalent documents printed on ordinary copy paper, the businesspeople indicated that they would be more likely to favor a job candidate whose résumé was printed on Southworth paper,” the company reports. In addition, it reveals that the businesspeople interviewed in the study also felt that “the writers of documents printed on the Southworth paper possessed superior personal attributes such as a more positive personality, greater enthusiasm, and greater skill.”

Naturally, such broad, vaguely quantified assertions would be far more convincing had Southworth printed them on fine business paper, instead of merely publishing them on a Web site. But they feel true, don’t they? Of course we prefer the attractive and polished-looking to the not-so-attractive and kind of sloppy-looking.

And Southworth only tells half the story, because it’s not just employers who appreciate the sense of professionalism and competence that high-quality resume paper can impart. When a job-seeker prints his resume on 32 lb. acid-free paper with an antique vellum finish and a projected lifespan of 100 years, he’s making a statement about himself. He’s saying, “My experience is so impressive, my skills so wide-ranging that only the stuff used for replicas of the Bill of Rights and Little League All-Star certificates is a suitable canvas for them!”

That’s the kind of employee any organization would be lucky to have on its payroll. That’s the kind of employee we need about 10 million more of right now.

Especially if he considers the fancy paper a mere starting point. In between the late 1980’s death of typewriters and the late 1990’s adoption of text-only digital resumes, there was a brief golden era of resume creation. Desktop publishing programs gave job-seekers the power to use multiple typefaces and fonts, add artwork and other graphic elements, and ultimately jazz up their paper facsimiles of themselves in ways that resume consultants, human resources managers, and other professional creativity-killers deemed unpolished and inefficient. Out of such garish freedom, however, a culture of risk-taking, experimentation, and innovation sprung forth, and economic prosperity followed. Those glory days are ours to resurrect, as long as we’re willing to hire that woman with the pale pink resume that smells like baby powder and is emblazoned with teddy bear clip-art. • 6 May 2009

 

Greg Beato is a contributing editor at Reason magazine. Follow @GregBeato on Twitter.
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