The Buzzwords in Job Ads that Could Cost You New Talent

Terms such as “rock star,” “thick skin,” and schedule TBD” in job ads may raise a red flag for potential new hires.

It’s been years since I applied for jobs, but what always struck me back then was that employers would go out of their way to make the jobs sound as grueling as possible. There was often a long bullet-point list with tasks that looked impossible to complete given the hours the job ad was asking applicants to work. The logic, I assume, was to frighten away applicants who did not want to work hard, and those who were unqualified. In the process, I wonder how many good potential employees were scared off.

Today, there are other ways to scare off potential new hires. One of those ways is by using “buzzwords” in job ads. I didn’t know there was such a thing as buzzwords in job ads until I saw new survey findings from Preply.

Here are the terms Preply calls “buzzwords,” which are the most likely to be “red flags” to job-seekers (in this order):

  • Rock star
  • Wear many hats
  • Thick skin
  • Work hard, play hard
  • Schedule TBD
  • Urgently hiring
  • Ninja
  • Hit the ground running
  • Fast-paced environment
  • Overachiever

The “rock star” descriptor is a particular pet peeve of mine. Is there anything further from an actual rock star than a person who sits behind a desk and in meetings all day, feverishly concerned about being on time, meeting deadlines, and keeping everyone happy? From the stories I’ve read about real-life rock stars, it’s a silly metaphor. In almost all cases, no company would want an actual rock star as a full-time, salaried employee. That would be a preordained disaster.

It’s easy to understand why “wear many hats” and “thick skin” also would not be appealing. I see those descriptors and think to myself, “So these are insensitive people who will expect me to do whatever they happen to throw at me, meaning there are no defined job responsibilities. The job is whatever happens to need to get done on any given day.” The honesty is commendable, but being surrounded by insensitive people who expect me to do whatever they throw at me doesn’t sound appealing.

“Overachiever,” which takes the No. 10 slot, raises questions because it suggests the company will not be satisfied with employees who meet all of their commitments by completing high-quality work. Instead, the company wants employees who will make the job their lives, working well past the end of business hours and on the weekend. With the pandemic resetting many peoples’ perspective on work-life balance, the picture “overachiever” brings to mind may not be well suited to our times.

“Schedule TBD” brings similar concerns to mind. I would say to myself, “Oh, it seems like the company wants people it can contact any day and time, rather than committing itself to hiring employees to work specified days and times, so that the employee has defined “off” time.

Terms that were “least likely to be red flags” included (in this order):

  • Proactive
  • Empower
  • Leverage
  • Lots of perks and benefits
  • Proven track record
  • Resilient
  • Fun/amazing/unique company culture
  • Sense of humor
  • Passionate
  • Competitive salary

It’s not appealing or reasonable for a company to expect employees to work on what amounts to a rolling schedule in which they must do whatever work is thrown at them. However, it’s understandable that a company would want an employee who doesn’t have to be told what to do, who is capable of seeing what needs to be done (within the framework of their job responsibilities) and gets it done. In fact, a company that did not want proactive employees would be red flag for me. The opposite of “proactive” is a company that wants employees it micromanages, providing exacting instructions before an employee can get started on work. It’s understandable, then, that “proactive” would sound appealing.

The company culture language around “fun,” “amazing,” and “unique” would bring questions to mind that I would need to follow up on during the job interview. My assumption, until I heard examples of what those terms mean, would be that those descriptors were meaningless. When you use such descriptors, it helps to include a brief paragraph within the job ad with a few examples of how/why the company’s culture is “fun,” “amazing,” and “unique.” For instance, are there annual corporate retreats to fun places throughout the country, or even the world? Are there weekly or monthly work group gatherings at local bars or other nearby hangouts? During the pandemic, one of my friends said the company she freelances for hosted virtual happy hours, in which employees and contractors made themselves cocktails or other drinks to enjoy while virtually shooting the breeze. That same company has a site within its intranet devoted exclusively to sharing photos and stories about pet cats. Examples like that show me there’s a fun spirit and sense of humor at the company.

I have never written a job ad, but I bet one of the same principles of great writing applies: Show rather than tell. Paint a picture for job-seekers of what life will be like if they take this job. See if you can add a photo or two from a recent company event or hangout that shows happy employees.

The ongoing “Great Resignation” suggests that employees have many choices, and that more than anything else, they want to enjoy life in the moment—while doing good work that enables them to earn a comfortable living.

If you consider your own organization to have a positive culture—which is a huge draw today for prospective employees—how would you illustrate that culture? What concrete examples could you share briefly in a job ad to provide evidence of your great culture?