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To attract or not to attract great talent – 3 tips to avoid biasing job descriptions

While a rose by any other name still smells sweet, when it comes to jobs a name and description could be the difference between attracting great talent and falling flat.

Job titles and descriptions are the first windows into the job. They allow potential applicants to imagine the stage of the organization, the role they would play, and determine if they would want to take on that role.

When done well, job descriptions will resonate with those that will be great for the position while sounding uninteresting to those that would not do well. For example, if you are looking for someone to write content for a website and blog, you don’t want to attract people who hate writing and have no love or knack for storytelling.

However, when done poorly, job descriptions could unintentionally attract and repel the wrong people. For example, if the job description for that content writer is full of language on ‘fresh perspectives’ in an ‘energetic, fast paced environment’, it could be off-putting to older people who see ‘fresh’ as synonymous for young. And for those with high standards for quality, ‘fast paced’ could be seen as ‘sloppy’.

Job descriptions must be deliberate, each word true to the nature of the job and written with purpose. Forgoing the purpose for effect will attract the wrong candidates while alienating others. And while it may glitter more brightly, keep in mind not everything that glitters is made of gold.

Here are three tips to avoid the biasing language in job descriptions:

1. Being great vs. proof of greatness [gender bias]

Looking for “A-players”, “go-getters”, “rockstars”, and the like. Jobs descriptions seeking those that “are at the top of their game”, “Gurus in their fields”, and “simply the best” are not necessarily doing what you think.

Rather than attracting the top talent, language like this can attract the most confident talent – either confident in the skills or in their ability to sell their skills. This is not the same as attracting the best. This is particularly impactful across genders. Men will tend to credit themselves more than women for the same level of talent.

Rather than talk about those “A-players”, consider what makes your employees “A-players” and describe that in the job description in a way that potential applicants can objectively qualify themselves.

For example:

No: “A fantastic writer gifted at writing and managing compelling blogs”

Yes: “Proven success in writing and managing blogs such as double-digit follower growth, tens of thousands of readers, or content re-posted in multiple venues”

2. What I say vs. what I mean [age, gender, + biases]

“Junior marketing analyst”, “Senior engineer”, “Salesman”, “Coding ninja” that will “bring a fresh perspective”, “have a mature approach”, “aggressively beat the competition”, within our “fast-paced energetic”, “take no prisoners”, “work hard, play hard” environment. From names to descriptions, language can give a very clear ‘unspoken’ signal, and not necessarily the one you intend to say.

Language that imply age such as “junior”, “senior”, “fresh”, “mature”, “energetic” are sending strong signals to potential applicants that if they are over or under a specific age, they need not apply. With ageism being a prolific concern among job seekers, these signals can be particularly potent.

Language that implies personality types such as “aggressive” or “ninja” alienates personality types that may be more common in one gender. Or, more potent language that implies gender such as “salesman”, clearly signals to women that they don’t belong.

Language that incorporates non-work time activities “work hard, play hard” implies that those who have obligations outside the office (family obligations, non-profit or volunteer obligations, pets, for example) or those who chose to otherwise not partake in “play hard”, are not welcome.

Rather than imply, say what you mean. Avoid age-specifying and personality language and focus on what the work and atmosphere will be like.

For example:

No: “Looking for a marketing ninja that will bring a fresh perspective to the organization to help bring down the competition.”

Yes: “Looking for a marketing manager with experience running campaigns in competitive markets to help lead the organization to gain market share against the competition. Will be working with a team of enthusiastic marketing and advertising specialists passionate about what we do, and how we do it better than anyone else.”

Bonus tip: To further avoid age bias, when using experience ranges, don’t use maximums such as “Three to five years of experience at…” Are you really not going to hire someone with more than five years of experience?

3. References vs. clear language [culture, socioeconomic, interests, + biases]

“Those who join our team must embrace risk as nothing can come of nothing and it is not in the stars to hold our destiny, but in ourselves.”

What? What is this about stars?

“And when the bases are loaded with two outs, we need someone who is not afraid to swing.”

Swing at what now? What does this have to do with blogs?

Language full of references are not universal. Job descriptions that require applicants to know baseball or Shakespeare, for example, to understand or appreciate the job description, will alienate those that don’t. At best, references will add a preference bias (those that like baseball vs. those that don’t), but it could be far worse. Depending on the reference, those preferences may have socioeconomic and gender biases. For example, football references could attract more men than women, whereas references to literature may attract more highly educated individuals or those higher on the socioeconomic scale who had more opportunity to read.

References can add color and personality to a job description, but make sure that the meaning is clear, and the references are diverse.

For example.

No: “Must be able to read the field, know when to call the Hail Mary and when to punt the ball”

Yes: “Must be able to understand the market and business situation and know when to throw the Hail Mary and make a high risk-high reward strategy, and when to punt the ball by taking the lower risk option to save resources for another day with another, better opportunity.”

Bringing it all together – calling a rose a rose.

Unlike people, no job description is born great and they don’t have greatness thrust upon them. They must be deliberately created to be great. Take the time to be deliberate. Avoid the flashy, glittery language that adds bias without value, or those references that confuse or put-off those that can’t relate. Keep age and other unspoken meaning out and embrace saying what you mean. In other words, mind your speech a little lest you should mar your fortunes.

Having a clear, deliberate job description is just the beginning. The hiring process is full of opportunity to remove bias and become more inclusive to all qualified candidates. Take a look at some of the other tips and content for inclusive hiring.




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