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A truthful guide to the phrases you see on every resume

My friend Candy gave up her job as an accountant to focus on raising her three little boys (or four, if you count her husband). One recent lunchtime we gave her the job of sorting out the bill after a restaurant meal for 50, among whom were meat-eaters, vegetarians, children, people on strange diets, individuals doing religious fasts, and my youngest child, who would only eat items colored green. (Now you know why I carry bottles of food coloring with me).

Working out who should pay what was harder than sorting out the collapse of Lehman Bros (and involved roughly the same amount of money). "Why don’t you go back to work?" I commented. "You do the same thing but get paid." But I wasn’t serious. The job market is a mess. One financial headhunter friend said she was seeing mass layoffs and staff-shortages at the same time. "And sometimes in the same firm," she said.

But the thing she said that really stuck in my mind was this. Ninety per cent of "referee" recommendation letters contained the same few phrases. "There are only about 20 of these terms, and people just use them in a different order each time," she said.

After 17 years reading referee letters and meeting the candidates they supposedly describe, this headhunter now recognizes what each phrase REALLY means.

First, the adjectives. "Loyal" means "Couldn’t get a job anywhere else". "Quick thinker" means "Comes up with amazing excuses for failing every task". "Ambitious" means "Obnoxious". "Aggressive" means "Highly obnoxious". "Has leadership qualities" means "Highly obnoxious and very tall".

Then come the phrases describing personal qualities. "Good communicator" means "She is the office gossip". "Team player" means "Bone idle when left to himself" "Social" means "Heavy drinker". "Highly social" means "Party animal", and "Works hard, plays hard" means "Certified alcoholic".

Then come the phrases describing work habits. "Self-starter" means "Runs his own small business on office time and thinks we don’t know". "Shows Initiative" means "Runs a major listed company on office time and thinks we don’t know". "Good sense of humour"means "Spends his time forwarding joke emails". "Works long hours" means "Always misses deadlines".

Particularly important are phrases showing "gray area" skills. "Good negotiation skills" means "Expert in bribery". "Good dealmaker" means "Expert in corruption". "Never takes no for an answer" means "Expert in blackmail". "First in the office every morning" means "works as an industrial spy checking you out on behalf of your competitors".

And last but not least, there are the phrases giving clues about the candidate’s personal qualities. "Has long list of qualifications" means "spent ten years at university because he was unable to tear himself away from beer, bowling and bars". "Meticulous" means "covers his tracks well". And "Live-wire" means "Sexual harasser".

The most dangerous phrase to find in a referee letter, she told me, was "fun to have around". She said: "I’ve seen it twice, and both times it meant ‘this guy is completely useless but he’s a friend of my daughter so I promised to write a positive recommendation’."

Anyway, it’s time for me to wrap up this column and do some serious work. I’ve just remembered that my last appraisal form said I was loyal, social and fun to have around.

*Send ideas and comments via www.mrjam.org

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