There is a whole industry concerned with regulating what can and can’t be said in a job advert, yet there appears to be no requirement at all to accurately describe the work that will be involved.
Instead, the recruitment columns are filled with half-baked jargon which their authors think will make a dreary job in the filing department sound like a lifetime’s adventure.
It has exactly the opposite effect, we learned this week. Applicants were being put off by phrases like “open the kimono”, “cloud-first” and “thought shower”, said a firm that specialises in finding jobs for graduates.
I’m not surprised. There isn’t an ounce of meaning in any one of those – although the first will get you arrested if you do it in public. Apparently.
Even more misunderstood were “growth hacking” and “low hanging fruit”, which might be fine if applied to a clearing an allotment, but not to working in the IT department.
There is a reason for the proliferation of language like this, and it’s not cleverness. Quite the opposite.
It began in the upwardly-mobile 1980s, when marketing types tried to distinguish themselves from their competitors by wearing the biggest bow-ties and using the floweriest language. Hyperbole has a place there: marketing is built on it.
But their penchant for phrasing job descriptions in the most ludicrous terms has spread to every corner of what we used to call the Sits Vac page.
It is at its silliest when applied to government job ads, which are now peppered with references to “strategic thinking” and to being a “team player”.
Councils especially are fond of the word strategic in almost any context, because they think it adds gravitas. In fact, it’s part of the word spaghetti that passes for English in the public sector these days. Sentences are not so much written as compiled from lists of random adjectives that mean the same in any order.
“Box-ticker wanted” would be a more honest description of some of the vacancies, but I’ve yet to see it used. “Self-starter” is a favourite, though. It’s code for “the boss is never here”.
In Leeds, the Home Office is currently telling job applicants that they will be working in “a fast-paced Government department”, which is a contradiction in terms.
And in Sheffield, a council advert for a £37,000-a-year “information management officer” to investigate data protection requests reveals more about the department’s shortcomings than it realised. Prospective applicants are instructed not to mark their emails private and confidential, because their new colleagues might not know how to open them.
The same advert goes on to say that it particularly welcomes applications from “individuals with a black, minority, ethnic background, as they are under-represented in this service”. So much for a level team-playing field.
Speaking as someone who is neither black nor a team player – I may have lied about one of those in the past – I concur with the findings of this week’s survey. The jobs firm that produced it, incidentally, calls itself Milkround, which suggests that it doesn’t listen to its own advice. But it is right to imply that the majority of candidates are more literate and intelligent than the people who write the adverts. They can see through flim-flam a mile off.
It might not be a coincidence that nearly half of the country’s employers are worried about a shortage of skilled candidates, according to another report. Is that true, or have the best ones simply gone elsewhere, to jobs with firms that did a better job of selling themselves?
The reality lies somewhere in between. Good people with the best qualifications are indeed hard to find, but so are HR departments who mean what they say. If the recruitment pages were subject to the same scrutiny as other adverts, half of them would be banned outright.
Actually, the Home Office had a taste of this the other day, when the Advertising Standards Authority did indeed blackball one of its campaigns. It wasn’t a job ad, but one for the Government’s settlement scheme which allows EU citizens to remain in the UK. The words were misleading, the Authority said, not mincing its own words.
I expect they will have to advertise now for a fast-paced person to rewrite it for them. Growth hackers and those with open kimonos need not apply.