Don't scare away job applicants with these phrases

9/20/2022

When Becky Phillips, a pharmaceutical industry scientist, has looked for work, one phrase in job ads has turned her away from applying to otherwise promising-sounding opportunities: “fast-paced environment.”

“Usually fast-paced sounds like that would be fun, like you’re going to make lots of progress on projects,” Ms. Phillips, 34 years old, said. “But, I think in practice, it just means that there’s no work-life balance.”

As workers grow more vocal about finding fulfilling jobs that they can mostly perform from 9 to 5—a practice that has been called ”quiet quitting” or “anti-hustle”—many job seekers are scrutinizing job postings for commonly used phrases they view as red flags for potential overwork.

Among friends and in Twitter chatter and Reddit forums online, workers trade opinions, thoughts and warning signs about job postings. Some say that “we’re like a family” can read as code for being subject to verbal abuse, and descriptions touting perks like free meals and on-site entertainment can signal bosses will expect employees to be in the office long after the sun goes down.

For companies, the challenge is conveying that they offer an exciting place to work without turning off applicants, while also finding workers who will get the job done.

Younger workers have different expectations of work and life balance than their older peers, says Amit Kramer, a professor of labor and employment relations at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign who studies the relationship between work, family and health. Many young professionals are at a stage of life where they are willing to give up higher pay for more control over their time, he adds.

The top phrases that turn off job seekers include “must handle stress well,” “willing to wear many hats,” “responsibilities may include those outside the job description,” “we’re one big happy family,”’ “applicants should be humble” and “looking for self-starters.” That’s according to a recent survey by payroll processor Paychex Inc., which asked 800 U.S. adults who had looked for a new job in the past year which phrases were likely to dissuade them from applying.

In reviews of employers by workers posting on Glassdoor, the terms “self-starter” and “hustle” came up in more negative comments than positive ones, according to a Glassdoor analysis.

Yet companies appear to be using those two terms in more job postings lately, according to Indeed.com, an employment-search site. Over the past three years, the share of job postings that included variations on “like a family” quadrupled, while use of “unlimited PTO”—short for paid time off—rose 250% in job listings and “fast-paced” in job ads doubled between 2019 and 2022, Indeed said.

Ellen Noble recently began searching for a marketing job after retiring from professional bike racing.

When Ellen Noble, who is 26 and lives in Amherst, Mass., recently began searching for a marketing job after retiring from professional bike racing, she came across job listings with terms that mystified her, including one company looking for “a motivated self-starter to work in a fast-paced environment.”

“I was wondering if it may have sort of a subliminal meaning, like am I going to be thrown into the deep end without a lot of oversight? And is a fast-paced environment going to mean a lot of overtime in a salaried position” with no extra pay, she said she wondered.

Ms. Noble took to Twitter to ask her 11,900 followers what phrases they considered to be red flags in job postings.

The replies, which included “‘fast-paced environment’ = fast track to burn out,” confirmed some of her suspicions, says Ms. Noble, who’s still looking for a job.

For Rod Eskew, a 26-year-old financial analyst in Boulder, Colo., the term “unlimited PTO” is too good to be true. He says he left a previous job that touted unlimited paid time off partly because he felt pressure not to take vacation time.

“After I left, I was looking for a job and I would see things like ‘able to adapt quickly in a fast-paced environment’ and it’s pretty easy to kind of identify that as you’re not going to have a whole lot of instruction and you’re going to have to take things on pretty quickly without a lot of help,” Mr. Eskew said.

Language in job postings likening the company environment to family also raises suspicions among some.

“Families can be very dysfunctional,” said Ujjaini Moulik, a communications specialist in her 40s in Princeton, N.J., referring to listings she’s seen while job hunting. “What it means is maybe no boundaries and no free time or life outside of the ‘family.’”

The puzzle for companies is figuring out how to be honest without being too honest. Hiring managers say it isn’t easy, for instance, to balance conveying that their company won’t be a dull place to work without making life on the job sound frenetic.

“I don’t believe any job description is perfect,” said Katie Burke, chief people officer at HubSpot, a Boston-based digital marketing firm. “But if your workplace is fast-paced, I don’t think it’s a bad thing to call it fast-paced.”

Such postings could also add language to say the company cares about employees having lives outside of work, as long as it’s true, she added.

When in doubt, before nixing the idea of applying all together, candidates should ask the interviewer questions about what such terms mean in practice, said Abigail Kies, assistant dean of the Yale School of Management’s Career Development Office, which advises students.

Another potential red flag, according to some: “Work hard, play hard.”

“The implication there is that if you do one, you get to do the other, and that’s not always the case,” said Bob Umberhandt, a 44-year-old pediatric orthopedic surgeon in Portland, Ore., who trains medical residents and helps them find permanent roles. The catchphrase implies there’s a boss who isn’t going to take their well-being too seriously, he adds.

“I tell them ‘work hard, play hard’ and things along those lines are things you should probably look out for. The amount of playing hard that physicians-in-training do at the end of 80 hours a week is very limited,” he says.

Write to Ray A. Smith at [email protected]

 
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