Here Are the Red Flags To Avoid on Job Descriptions
Can we please eliminate "rockstar" from every job posting?
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It’s no secret that everyone—everyone—is hiring right now.
You’ve likely been confronted with job postings that read like pleas, as if the writer had fallen to their knees and begged you to drop off an application. Every time I go into Target, I’m confronted with a sign that says: “Now hiring! Starting at $15.50 an hour!” On a recent road trip, I pulled into a Culver’s (a regional Midwest chain that serves cheese curds and frozen custard, among other local delicacies), and their marquee—usually reserved for the custard flavor of the day—just flashed: “Hiring! Starting at $16!”
But then someone sent me this:
This is a poster advertising a position at Subway, an international sandwich chain that’s recently invested in a costly spokesperson campaign, including commercials featuring Serena Williams, Stephen Curry, Megan Rapinoe, and Charles Barkley. The post read:
Right now, seriously get in here…hustle!
And smile! Don’t forget the interview starts when you apply!
Still reading? Wow, attention to detail and a great smile??? Assuming you are responsible, punctual, reliable, professional and happy, our customers and team will love you.
Does anyone else feel like this poster is … trolling them? “Hurry up and hustle in here to make sandwiches for us for minimum wage! We expect you to be punctual, responsible, reliable, plaster a smile on your face, and be grateful for a job—but don’t ask us anything about what you’ll receive or what we’re about.”
Job postings can reveal a lot about a potential employer. A thoughtful and well-crafted listing, one that considers what an employee might care about—what they can expect from their pay and benefits, and what the company’s values are—can indicate that an employer is prioritizing their staff and their needs. On the flip side, an overly pushy description that focuses too much on the employee (like this Subway poster, which shares no details at all about the work itself) can indicate that you’re about to enter shark-infested waters full of bosses who care little for worker well-being.
A job posting is, weirdly enough, not that far off from a dating profile—and it helps to think of it that way if you’re in the process of writing one. In both cases, you want to attract people’s attention, but you also don’t want to waste their time if they’re not the right fit. In both job-seeking and dating, there will be a give-and-take between two (or more) parties, so for that reason, it helps to be open and honest about who you are and what you’re looking for.
Most companies that are hiring get that part wrong. A good job posting shouldn’t just say something about the type of person who’d thrive in a given position—it should also say something about the people writing the description, and what they can offer to the potential employee.
I recently posted on Instagram Stories about issues that crop up frequently in job postings, and invited people to share the red flags they’ve come across during their job hunts. Here are a few crowdsourced phrases, values, and descriptions to look out for:
“Looking for ‘a rockstar’ employee”: Do you feel your Spidey senses start to tingle when you see this phrase? For good reason. “Rockstar” isn’t just one of a slew of gendered words used to recruit applicants—it’s also totally meaningless. How do you measure if a person is a “rockstar” employee? How are they supposed to know if they’re doing a good job? What level of training are you willing to give someone so they can become a rockstar?
Truthfully, I think the term “rockstar” is often a way for employers to say, “Hey, we don’t have a lot of time to train you—we sort of need you to be good at this job very quickly.” That’s fine. As long as you can compensate someone who brings a high level of skill and know-how into your workplace accordingly, you can be honest with your needs instead of hiding behind an absurd term that unfairly puts the onus on employees to be standout workers from the moment they walk in the door.
“Multitasker”: First, multitasking doesn’t work. It just doesn’t. Second, using a phrase like “needs to be able to multitask” is an invitation for employees to be saddled with responsibilities that go well beyond the scope of their job descriptions. It’s also an excuse for employers not to nail down what they want from a worker, and becomes a conveniently vague catch-all term that can encompass almost anything.
Listing the qualities you want from an applicant rather than the responsibilities of a job: This means a job poster really isn’t thinking about what they can offer their employees—and might not even know. They want someone who’s competent … but at what? You probably wouldn’t swipe right on a dating profile that only listed what the person expected from a romantic partner—and for good reason.
“Start-up culture”: A restaurant or coffee shop cannot use this term fairly. Many tech start-ups offer lucrative salaries and stock options for people as they bear with the company’s growing pains (and even still, such work environments can often be toxic for employees, and shouldn’t be de facto aspirational). If you’re hiring a server or a barista—and your business is new—they’ll never get the same benefits as an early employee in a start-up, and equating the two is unfair.
You can be honest with where you’re at instead. “We’re a new company still trying to figure things out,” is a totally legitimate way to describe a burgeoning business. If that’s the case, you can admit some level of uncertainty, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Instead, think of it as a way to invite new employees to shape your company—but you have to mean it. You can’t say you want input from people and then brush it off when they make suggestions.
A few other red-flag phrases that were shared with me on Instagram include:
Any mention of “family.” We’ve covered this on the newsletter before.
“Not offended easily.” This one is … weird? And a sign of a work environment where tasteless or even bigoted comments could be commonplace.
“Self-starters.” See “rockstar.”
Lack of specificity on location and hours. You’d think this would be a basic requirement, but as I cruised Craigslist to research this piece, I was surprised by how few job descriptions even mentioned the neighborhood the business was in, or the availability they were looking for.
Loooonggggggg job descriptions. If you’re hiring for a job and paying on or around minimum wage, you’re not allowed to list a zillion responsibilities.
“All other duties as assigned.” If we view employment as a contract (an employer agrees to pay you for a specific amount or type of work done), then this is a flat-out breach.
“Perks” that are a legal requirement. Holidays, paid lunch breaks, and sick leave aren’t perks if they’re required by law. Don’t list them as such.
“Flexible scheduling.” I will die on this hill: Making a schedule that is consistent and fair to your employees is important. Doing so should be a requirement for a leader or manager, and the onus should be on them to do this competently and ahead of time.
Discriminatory qualifications. There are very few jobs that truly require background checks, high school or college degrees, or drug testing. If you really want to go to these lengths to screen employees, ask yourself why you’re doing this, and consider how it could be discriminatory to marginalized groups.
Alongside the red flags, it’s also worth pointing out the traits that make a positive job listing. Here are some tips if you find yourself writing a job description:
Be specific: If you find yourself gravitating towards catch-all terms, try to narrow down your phrasing to get to exactly you mean. Euphemisms have no place in a job description. If you truly believe you need someone who can multitask, say why: Perhaps it’s because you manage a very busy restaurant or the team is small, so people end up trading responsibilities throughout the day. Say those things!
Ask current employees who have the job you’re hiring for to look at the description: These folks will be the best barometers of any job description. They know what the position requires, can walk you through how to assess a person’s ability to do said job, and are a good gut-check for how straightforward or complex the job is.
Be transparent about wages: Always put a salary range. Always. Wage transparency has a net positive effect on workplace equity and it helps build trust.
Talk about you: People don’t apply for positions because they see some obscure set of qualifications—they apply for a position based on the work they’ll be doing, the wage they’ll be paid, how a place treats its employees, and the company’s goals and values. Listing the qualifications you’re looking for is certainly helpful (I’ve never been a server, for example, and if a job I was looking at required serving experience, I’d know not to apply), but you should also talk in detail about the work itself, as well as your business.
Applying or hiring right now? I hope these pointers are helpful and clarifying. And speaking of a two-way street: If you have the time, take a moment to fill out this survey to help make Boss Barista better. I’m so grateful for your thoughts and feedback!
A special thanks to Jen Bishop for sharing the Subway photo!
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