If you’re using terms like “make hay” and “peel the onion” in your job ads, stop. Just stop. Even words like “dynamic” and “self-starter” can trip a reader up. According to an analysis of 6.3 million job ads by the online design and publishing tool Canva, these “business terms” are causing confusion and potentially turning off good candidates.
While some of these words seem legitimate on the surface, they can also be “vacuous and superficial,” says Michael Handford, professor of applied linguistics at Cardiff University in the United Kingdom. “If potentially suitable candidates do not apply because they do not understand or feel intimidated by the language in the [ad], that is clearly a loss to both the candidate and the organization,” he says.
According to the study, the most common terms are:
- Team player
- Window of opportunity
- Proven track record
- Core competency
- Take it to the next level
Each state has distinctive jargon. For example, “make hay” has above-average usage in seven states, including Florida and Nebraska. “Peel the onion” is used above average in eight states, including Arkansas and Oregon. And “blue-sky thinking” is popular in Arizona and Colorado.
Why Companies Use Jargon
In many cases, hiring managers believe jargon is justified, says Handford.
“A job [ad] does a lot more than just announce the job to the general population; it serves as a gate-keeping tool to target the right type of candidate,” he says. “For example, expressions like ‘entrepreneurial mindset’ or ‘think outside the box’ may attract particular types of people whose values to align with the organization’s values.”
The goal of these terms is to help candidates recognize the traits that are needed to best perform in the role and culture.
Why It’s Problematic
The trouble is when words exclude. Most companies recognize the value of diversity and are actively recruiting a more diverse workforce. But some of the most common words and phrases can counteract this goal.
“Words and phrases can be exclusionary to certain groups,” says Handford, adding that ads often reinforce gender stereotypes. “If you’re hoping to attract more women, you should not use vocabulary that’s very ‘masculine’, such as describing the ideal candidates as needing to be ‘aggressive’ or ‘decisive,'” he says. “Men don’t get put off by ‘feminine’ words, like looking for someone who is ‘creative’ or ‘compassionate.’ They will still apply. But women don’t apply when the language is framed as ‘masculine.'”
And in some cases, candidates do not apply because they simply don’t understand the language. All types of figurative expressions, including jargon, can be difficult to understand because they are used by some communities and not others, says Handford. You may know what an expression means, but it may mean something completely different to someone else.
For example, the phrase “open the kimono” is sometimes used in North Carolina and New Jersey, despite being sexist and racist. “[It’s] inappropriate, but it’s used quite a lot,” says Handford. “Being aware of idiomatic language, abbreviations, and department-specific jargon can definitely help.”
Plainer Language is Better
When you get rid of jargon in favor of plain language, you can make your company feel more accessible and engaging to potential candidates. When you’re crafting your job post, Handford suggests asking yourself these four questions:
- What audience am I talking to?
- What is their background knowledge?
- Do they need to be specialists in this area or not?
- What do they want from this ad?
“If you ask these questions, then explain yourself in clear language, [you] need not risk sounding unprofessional,” he says.
Just to be sure, show the advertisement to colleagues or recent hires from different groups, genders, and ethnic backgrounds to make sure it’s not off-putting. “Go for clarity and focus on things the person needs to do their job,” says Handford. “Skills need action words. This is way better than being vague with terms and dead metaphors.”