What Do They Want and Why Does It Matter?
Attention to detail is a common requirement for jobs where the consequences of a mistake are particularly drastic or difficult to fix. For example, pharmacists and nurses often need to be very diligent in ensuring the details of a medication are correct, since the wrong medicine at the wrong time could injure or kill a patient. In an office or retail environment, this skill may be required for people who manage money, important documents, and sensitive relationships with important customers and public officials. If getting the details of a task wrong would cost the company money or embarassment, they will probably ask for this skill. The ability to notice small things and ensure they are handled correctly is often called to as "attention to detail" and people who are good at this are labeled "detail oriented".
So What Are They Looking For?
While almost every employer expects you to follow instructions, some jobs are particularly sensitive to small mistakes. An executive assistant who doesn't spell a customer's name tag or write down a message correctly might offend an important customer. A billing clerk entering the invoice as a $5000 charge rather than a $500 charge could cause countless hours of drama when the customer realizes their bill is wrong. A lawyer missing a single word (or comma!) in a hundred page contract can cost the company millions of dollars! In other cases, certain mistakes may be very hard to correct (loaning money to the wrong person) and the company will want to prevent these errors.
The recruiter and HR manager are probably referring back to a job competency sheet. It will list off characteristics such as:
- Provides accurate, consistent numbers
- Provides information in a useable form and on a timely basis
- Maintains lists and schedules to ensure details are not overlooked
- Able to manage tasks in compliance with company policies and operating procedures
- Writes down important details so the details are not lost or forgotten
- Able to notice patterns in data and turn them into useful insights
- Work requires little or no checking
We can boil all this down to a couple of key ideas. First, you are capable of carefully reviewing your work to find mistakes. Second, people with good attention to detail will organize processes and policies to prevent errors for complicated projects. Furthermore, you can spot when something is out of place and figure out why it is important. Above all, you are trustworthy: you can be relied upon to follow orders and complete your work within the expected time.
For an example of the first one, checking your work, this is a common requirement for many marketing positions. One of my first jobs involved working on direct mail campaigns, where we mailed a letter with a credit card offer to millions of people. Each letter had several phone numbers, the terms of the offer (how much credit, an interest rate), legal terms and conditions, and a website address. We had to check every letter template before they were mailed, to ensure all of the necessary legal language was present, the details of the offer were correct, and the phone numbers worked. Being successful required two things: organizing the list of things you had to check into a process and being disciplined enough to consistently follow that process. It can be surprisingly hard to do this well!
The second idea, organizing policies and processes, gets into how can you ensure you are delivering quality work on an ongoing basis. This set of skills is particularly important if you are going to be regularly managing large and complicated projects. It also is an important requirement for managers, since you must think about how to check your team's work (without redoing every task yourself).
For an example of the third idea behind attention to detail, spotting subtle insights in data, this is very common in fraud investigation and financial analysis. When I worked as a fraud investigator, many of my colleagues had very high attention to detail. Many fraud cases start when someone notices a very small thing that is out of place, which leads the investigator to a larger problem. Along the same lines, high attention to detail is often required of financial analysts and business consultants who are asked to figure out the truth behind a report or rumor about a business. And - this will be a surprise - the best sales representatives often have outstanding attention to detail when it comes to noticing customer behavior.
And finally - trust. You mean what you say and are capable of following through on your commitments.In simple terms, your future boss wants to know they can trust you to complete your work accurately and notice small details when they are important. People with high attention to detail can be trusted to work alone and on sensitive tasks.
How to Demonstrate Attention To Detail On A Resume
This is a suprisingly tricky skill to describe on a resume. Merely writing "attention to detail" or "detail oriented" at the top of your resume doesn't add a lot of credibility. Honestly, it probably hurts you - everyone does this and thus, it doesn't really mean anything anymore. Focus on showing rather than telling future bosses you have good attention to detail. You can do this a couple of ways:
- Talk about how you have been trusted with highly detailed tasks in the past. In some cases, you may need to shamelessly cater to stereotypes about your role or education. Everyone thinks accountants have good attention to detail. When you tell someone you're a fraud investigator, they immediately think Sherlock Holmes. Talk about being trusted to keep official records of an event or organize a complicated project. I'd trust someone who organized a large charity event was pretty detail oriented. Being asked to handle money, as the treasurer for a group or the closer / keyholder (retail) for a business, is another big trust signal in retail jobs. Human resources administrators can point to being asked to manage critical documentation (payroll, legal filings) which your company would be sued for if you made a critical mistake. The key words here are being trusted with highly sensitive and highly detailed tasks by your past managers.
- Statistics are great if you can find them. Look for things like error rates or acceptance rates, especially for administrative processes. Because you had all your paperwork in order, perhaps bills got paid faster and with fewer deductions by the customer. Or talk about the impact of your being organized - for example, cleaning up a bookkeeping mess and finding a large sum of money.
- Awards, other recognition, and progressive responsibilities are another great way to communicate your talents to a future employer. The nice thing about awards is most of them are generic enough you can spin them however you want on a resume, to showcase the skills you want to promote for that job. Similarly, if you were so organized on a small project they asked you take over a bunch of other things, that's a great story to tell. Another good mark of trust from your management: being asked to train others on a particular activity or being placed in charge of quality inspection for the team. These are the kind of things that can reassure a hiring manager.
- Proofread Your Resume. It should go without saying that a manager looking for attention to detail will be very sensitive to resume errors. Use spell check liberally - or even use a tool like Grammerly to check for other errors.
Again, think "show" vs. "tell". When everyone writes "detail oriented" at the top of their resume, the words lose their impact. But if you hand the hiring manager a resume that shows how you have repeatedly been trusted with complicated and sensitive tasks, especially if you have been given progressively more important tasks. Here are some other good things to talk about to showcase your attention to detail, which you can use as resume bullets:
- Managing Sensitive Paperwork: Were you responsible for handling your company's application for a quality or industry certification? Were you responsible for handling an audit? Keeping careful records? That can make a great resume bullet, talking about how you organized your company's documentation so they passed the audit, got the certification, or were recognized for having their act together due to your great documentation.
- Quality Improvements: Did you make changes in work processes or procedures which made it easier to detect errors? What about preventing errors in the first place? This is a great bullet for your resume - if you can show you improved a quality metric, mention it...
- Signs of High Trust: If you performed a highly trusted role, describe your duties and who your boss is. For example: "Coordinated SEC and IRS audit preparations for the CFO and senior executives." That would indicate someone had placed a high amount of trust in the quality of your work. If someone would have gone to jail for your mistakes (or write a large check with lots of lawyers running around), that sends a powerful message about how much your bosses trust your attention to detail.
- Managing Complicated Projects: Did you have to manage a complicated project with a lot of moving parts? Describe it!
Improving Your Attention To Detail
Did you get feedback you need to improve your attention to detail? Try these tips to see if you can sharpen your skills.
- Proofread your work. The human eye jumps to spelling and grammatical errors. Like it or not, this is the first impression your work leaves on the reader and can be very difficult to overcome. Invest the time to proofread your documents and get them correct. Finish your memos and reports in advance and give yourself time to revise and edit them several times. Proofreading is an important skill because it proves that if you care about the quality of your work. In the mind of the reader, if you invest the time to get a single document correct, you’ll likely do the same for any larger, more important projects they entrust to you.
- Make lists. If you have a number of things you need to accomplish in a particular time frame, make a list and check off each item as it's completed. If you can’t finish everything on the list, start a new list for the next day and include those leftover tasks.
- Practice Active Listening: Take the time to understand other people’s emotions and intentions. Listening is critical if your job is investigation or negotiations. Relax, sit back, and let the other party speak instead of rushing to talk. You will get priceless insights into their position and goals.
- Take Notes: Simple yet powerful, especially when combined with active listening. First, the mere act of having a notepad and writing down important points shows respect to the other party. Taking notes indicates you are taking them seriously. The act of writing things down also helps you remember the meeting and the flow of the conversation (beyond the notes themselves). Finally, the act of note taking forces you to listen rather than speak - and can slow your brain down enough that you spot the larger patterns.
- Create a detailed work plan for your daily jobs and key tasks. This could take the form of a process map or checklist. Use this as a guide if you find yourself getting distracted or confused.
- Reduce distractions. Scientists have learned that being exposed ringing phones and text messages are as bad as being drunk when it comes to work quality and attention to detail. This is particularly true if you're doing detailed technical or financial work. It often takes a little while to get back in the flow of things after being interrupted. Don't be afraid to close your door or set specific office hours if you have a problem with unscheduled visitors. Use headphones if you've got a lot of noisy distractions around you. Worst case, set aside some time each day in a quiet place where you can take some time to plan your day and make a checklist of what you need to accomplish.
- Manage Your Workload. Be aware of how much work you are taking on and do what you can to prevent being overloaded. While a little pressure can be good, be wary of putting yourself in situations where you don't have time to adequately check your work or update your notes.
Resume Bullets That Show Attention To Detail
Here are a few good examples of resume bullets that show attention to detail:
- Received consistent top-tier rating for call quality and documentation accuracy as a customer service representative.
- Handled all aspects of preparing the weekly payroll and expense reporting for a 400 person facility; achieved 100% on-time payment and was recognized for maintaining detailed records during the annual audit.
- Responsible for managing all details of the Senator's travel schedule, coordinating their appearance at up to a dozen events per day. Subsequently asked to assume management of all public appearances, including working with media representative and the security team.
Note the key points here of a good "proof of skill" bullet for your resume. First, talk about the complexity of the assignment. Next, offer some indication that you satisfied your objectives in a timely or impactful fashion. Statistics are great, particularly if you can tie them back to measurements that direct show how you helped the business perform better. Finally, offer "social proof" that your bosses were happy with your work by referencing awards, positive feedback, and increases in your responsibilities.
Preparing for The Interview
The best way to prepare for an interview for a job where attention to detail is important is to think about several stories you can tell the interviewer which feature this skill. You have more flexiblity in the face-to-face environment of the interview to describe how you were able to apply your talents to help past employers succeed. Along the same lines, be ready to showcase examples of where employers trusted you with sensitive tasks, particularly as a reward for having performed well before. That is a very convincing indicator of being trusted.
Want more examples of how to set yourself apart on your resume? Check out our guides on career strategy: