Today’s Ask A Manger had a very sad, troubling, and (unfortunately) realistic dilemma. An intern wrote about his/her nonprofit that is supposed to specialize in helping low-income people with their resumes, but the end result does more harm than good. On its surface, the letter describes an incompentent and ineffective organization, but the implications go much deeper than that.

I don’t pretend to be a resume expert–I’m still finishing up my BA–but some of the edits my boss asks me to make do not seem in the clients’ best interest. For instance, my supervisor requires that every bullet point answers how the task was completed. This makes sense in certain instances (“tracked expenses using Microsoft Excel,” “communicated with security guard via two-way radio”), but my boss takes this principle a bit too far. When a client was employed as a janitor, my supervisor wouldn’t approve the bullet point “cleaned toilets and mopped bathroom floors.” She expected that the client write “cleaned toilets using toilet brush and Chlorox, mopping floor with industrial sized bucket…” There is no such thing as “unloaded new merchandise on shelves.” This should become “unloaded new merchandise on shelves using upper body strength” according to our management.

It gets much worse.

My boss is also very rigid about including at least three bullet points for each position description. I once had a client with an occupational license and asked why it wasn’t included on her resume. She responded, “I had it on there, but {boss} told me I needed to add more bullet points to the job I held back in 2008 so I deleted it.” Is the three bullet points rule so important that it’s worth leaving off training/certificates directly relevant to the opening?

I’m reminded of when I was a young intern, and I thought that working (unpaid of course) 70 hour work weeks was something everyone did. My psychotic boss told me it was, and she frequently reminded me that if I wanted a recommendation letter (my only form of compensation), I’d better be a “team player” and work until 11 PM again. By the way, budgets are tight so no more cab fare from the petty cash. You’ll have to pay for your own way now.


Yes, this situation seems bizarre now, but I was raised by two immigrant parents who didn’t believe in taking vacations (“That’s just a waste of time and money!”), spending as little as possible (“Save that Ziploc bag! SAVE IT!”), working constantly (“We didn’t get to this country by being lazy, and we’ll be damned if we raise spoiled American children.”), and not complaining to anyone about anything (“Don’t ever complain about the opportunities someone gives you because you’re lucky.”)

I was lucky to leave that stupid mindset, but the working poor are not. They only know what they know. If a nonprofit organization, that is designed to help low-income people with job searching, says to say stuff like, “Alphabetized customer files using my fingers, dictionary, eyes, and brain,” then you’re probably going to take their advice. There aren’t a lot of realistic options to compare it to either.

What’s worse is that these individuals are clearly applying for low-skill jobs that don’t require a degree — jobs that will garner hundreds of applications. Unlike a high level executive search that allows for nuance and the occassional benefit of the doubt, the candidate selection for this job will have a much lower tolerance for gimmicky nonsense. The nonprofit is right about one thing: these resumes will “stand out” alright. Stand out from the garbage can.


This terrible nonprofit isn’t solely to blame. Economic imobility prevent America’s working poor from access to resources like mentors, competent head hunters, industry networking events, dues-paying organizations, connected alumni, and other tools the rest of us utilize without thinking. Couple that with policymakers’ indifference to the low-income community, then it’s no wonder they struggle to look for work that has a liveable wage.

Since Republicans and libertarians worship the bootstraps analogy, I’ll tailor it to this (and millions of other) situations. This nonprofit takes a poor person’s bootstraps, burns them, hands the ashes back to the original owner, and says, “There. Now they should work better.”

This letter explains quite well how and why poor people stay locked in the cycle of poverty and unemployment far better than any economic graph ever could.