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Jobs, people and boxes: taking the humanity out of human resources

How the wording of job descriptions mean we all lose out

· Business,recruitment,Careers
One of the more eye catching pieces I’ve read this week was about the seemingly trivial subject of job titles, particularly those used in job adverts when companies want to stand out from the crowd in some way. To make anodyne positions sound more interesting there is an increasing trend to jazz them up in some way, by overcomplicating, adding unnecessary suffixes or introducing technical jargon. ‘Cleaner’ is a pretty succinct description of what the job entails and rebranding it as a ‘hygiene operative’ or similar arrant nonsense is neither useful or necessary.

Although I made that one up there are plenty of real world examples out there. Professor Cary Cooper from Lancaster University wrote the article I was referring to. He has unearthed some amusing and quirky job titles — ‘time ninja’ anyone? — but also some more serious research into why obfuscating the real nature of a post is counterproductive and alienating. He contends that this approach, while trying to be attractive and inclusive to applicants as well as trying to make employers sound more interesting, results in just the opposite. I agree with him and as I have been occasionally dipping my toe into the job market of late it’s a phenomenon I have been trying to make sense of too.

One position I recently applied for didn’t actually have a job title at all. Although I found it through a jobs board where there was a descriptor, the organisation’s website simply stated an invitation to join their team. There was the usual supplementary information about the role, their expectations of candidates and the type of person they were looking for, but for some reason they didn’t feel the need to give it a specific label. Now I don’t know if that was deliberate or an oversight on their part but it gave the impression of a more fluid, welcoming group of people that I’d like to work for (and with) and was one reason why I decided to apply for the job. I was halfway through writing my application before I had even realised. The language they used about themselves explaining their activities and culture was encouraging. Although they operate in a narrow, defined sector and it is obvious what the ‘why’ of the organisation and its output is, their ethos and approach to their work is seemingly sufficiently malleable to allow their employees to have freedom and personal agency in their work. It is very refreshing and to my mind goes beyond the usual corporate mission statement/values we all know and hate.

The job description reflected this outlook and immediately made it more attractive to me. I have read many job adverts that — consciously or otherwise — are written in such a way that excludes groups of people on the basis of age, experience, or background, which while not explicitly ruling them out makes it clear that they have a particular profile of person in mind. And, in my experience, as often as not that person isn’t me. How many times have you read the phrase “this position would be ideal for….”? If you don’t happen to fit into that category then you’re immediately put off. Whole groups of potentially great employees might have been sidelined because of a simple, throwaway phrase designed to be attractive.

This is important because employers are losing out too. Naturally they want to hire the best people who they hope turn out to be the most productive ones too, but how do they know who those people are? I’m sure it’s a subject of endless debate in the recruitment industry, but I would contend that no algorithm or constrictive, excluding language in job adverts is going to find that perfect person. So how should they go about it? A good start might be to consider their future employees as people. You know, actual human beings with personalities. We’re all unique and appreciate our individuality so why should we be expected to give that up at work? We all have things that we’re good at and many of them are useful in the workplace. I’m not talking about technical, functional skills gained through the absorption of knowledge we’ve been taught, I’m talking about the other stuff, what entrepreneur and blogger Seth Godin calls ‘real skills’: passion, honesty, empathy, self-confidence, and so on. (Do have a read of his blog about this, it’s excellent). Employees give up considerable amounts of their waking lives, not to mention brainpower, to serve their employer so why restrict all that activity to a narrow part of their personality when they can offer so much more?

Now I have some sympathy for employers; you can’t just run an advert saying “we’ll take anyone!” There’s no point hiring a taxi driver that can’t drive. Many industries require a certain set of those practical, technical skills that applicants have to demonstrate they possess. But imagine your company had a warehouse and you needed a fork lift driver, a job that for safety reasons, requires a qualification. Do you hire any old qualified fork lift driver that can technically do the job but has little to offer when he or she is not moving things around the warehouse? The one who soon gets bored because they’re not trusted to do anything else? Or do you take on the person who has perhaps never sat in the cab of a fork lift, but loves what your company makes, and how you go about it and the culture of the workplace? Someone who recognises that you will invest in him or her, which starts with training them how to drive a fork lift and doesn’t end there? The latter option is undoubtedly harder, more time consuming and expensive in the short term but in the long term who would you rather have on your payroll?

We jobseekers also have to share some of the blame for this state of affairs as we also conduct our own filtering. Cary Cooper’s article cites some research that finds people enter search terms for jobs based on the traditional notion of skills (engineer, coder, sales person etc.) rather than on their own personal values. I suggest that’s because jobs boards and recruitment websites are set up that way as we collectively outsource the humanity of finding a job to technology. This is somewhat ironic as the industry is often known as Human Resources. We contribute (aided and abetted by the industry) to maintaining the status quo by marketing ourselves using the same tired old language on a cv and in applications. I’d much rather write a freeform description of who I am and why that would make me a good fit for an organisation than churn out a list of achievements for the sake of it.


So perhaps it requires a culture shift on both sides and a willingness to take a bit of a leap and disrupt the system. It appears that there are a few early adopters out there, I just need to find them.

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