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September 15, 2022

Want to hire someone new? Avoid these 'red flags' in your job posting.

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    As workers continue to place more value on finding fulfilling jobs with good work-life balance, many job seekers are hesitant to apply for job postings that contain commonly used phrases they consider to be "red flags," Ray Smith writes for the Wall Street Journal.

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    Why phrasing matters in job postings

    Across social circles, Twitter chats, and Reddit forums, workers have been sharing opinions, thoughts, and warnings about common red-flag phrases in job postings. For example, many workers believe that the phrase "we're like a family" is often code for verbal abuse in the workplace. In addition, many believe that job postings that highlight perks like free meals and on-site entertainment can signal that management will expect employees to work long hours.

    "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," Smith writes.

    According to 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, young workers' expectations about work-life balance typically differ from their older peers. Many young professionals are at a stage of life where they are willing to trade higher paying jobs for increased control over their time, Kramer noted.

    For instance, when Becky Phillips—a pharmaceutical industry scientist—searches for jobs, she tends to shy away from job postings that contain the phrase "fast-paced environment," even when the job sounds otherwise appealing.

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

    "The puzzle for companies is figuring out how to be honest without being too honest," Smith writes. "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 digital marketing firm HubSpot. "But if your workplace is fast-paced, I don't think it's a bad thing to call it fast-paced."

    The phrases applicants view as 'red flags' in job postings

    When a recent survey by payroll processor Paychex Inc. asked 800 U.S. adults who searched for a new job in the past year which phrases were likely to discourage them from applying for a role, the top answers included "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."

    In addition, a Glassdoor analysis found that the terms "self-starter" and "hustle" appeared more frequently in negative reviews of employers than in positive ones. However, both phrases have appeared more in recent job postings, according to Indeed.

    In the past three years, Indeed also found that the number of job postings that included phrases similar to "like a family" quadrupled, the use of "unlimited PTO" increased by 250%, and the use of "fast-paced" in job postings doubled from 2019 to 2022.

    Ellen Noble, a 26-year-old who recently began searching for a marketing job, said she was confused by some of the common phrases in job postings, including one company that said they were 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 additional pay, Noble said.

    When Noble asked her 11,900 Twitter followers what phrases they viewed as "red flags" in job postings, many of the responses, which included "'fast-paced environment' = fast track to burn out," confirmed some of her suspicions.

    Separately, Rod Eskew, a 26-year-old financial analyst, said the term "unlimited PTO" seems too good to be true. In a previous role, Eskew said his former employer frequently highlighted unlimited PTO, but he felt pressure not to take time off.

    "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," Eskew said. 

    According to Smith, phrases that compare the workplace environment to a family is also a red flag for some applicants.  

    "Families can be very dysfunctional," said Ujjaini Moulik, a communications specialist in New Jersey, referencing listings she has seen during job searches. "What it means is maybe no boundaries and no free time or life outside of the 'family.'"

    Many applicants are also wary of the phrase "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 pediatric orthopedic surgeon who trains medical residents and helps them find permanent roles.

    "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 added.

    Ultimately, candidates should not avoid applying for a promising job if they notice these "red flags." According to Abigail Kies, assistant dean of the Yale School of Management's Career Development Office applicants should instead ask the interviewer to clarify what the phrase will mean in practice. (Smith, Wall Street Journal, 9/13)

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