The Fallacy of Job Posts That Yield a High Quantity of Applicants

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Sep 28, 2022

The Wall Street Journal recently reported on a study of the top phrases in job postings that turn off job seekers, including “must handle stress well,” “willing to wear many hats,” “responsibilities may include those outside the job description,” and more. The article’s argument is that those phrases likely disguise a disturbing workplace reality; a phrase like “must handle stress well” could be code for “this company is unsupportive” or “we don’t prioritize work-life balance.”

The problem with this argument is threefold.

First, if those phrases accurately describe your organization, then you absolutely have to mention those issues upfront. If you hire someone with the pretense of having a warm and fuzzy culture only to surprise them on their first day with a hard-charging and competitive workplace, they’re virtually guaranteed to quit soon after.

Imagine that one of your core values includes something like, “We set ourselves goals we know we can’t reach yet, because we know that by stretching to meet them we can get further than we expected.” (That’s from Google). Does anyone really think this company should pretend that its values don’t include stretch goals?

Authenticity and transparency will engender far higher employee engagement than masquerading as something anathema to the company’s daily reality. A recent Leaderhip IQ study on corporate values discovered that employees are 115% more engaged when their organization has a well-defined set of company values, and people are 107% more engaged when their company has detailed the specific behaviors necessary to live those values.  

Second, not everyone wants a job with clear boundaries and a gentle pace. It’s heretical to say this in certain quarters, but some people like competitive and fast-paced workplaces.

For example, about 18% of employees want a leader with high standards and even a dose of competitiveness. By contrast, more than 60% of leaders adopt a style focused on interpersonal harmony and forging personal bonds with their employees — even though only 19% of employees consider that the style of their ideal leader.

Your most ambitious employees are far more worried about having opportunities for advancement and pursuing audacious goals than being asked to wear many hats or perform tasks outside the job description.  

The research shows that, overall, about 9% of employees are driven by a need for adventure; they’re motivated by risk, change, and uncertainty. There are many more driven by a need for security — they love clearly defined job roles, consistency, and predictability — but there are certainly companies that prize adventure far more than security. And in those organizations, adventure-driven employees greatly outnumber the security-driven ones. Pretending that’s not true to boost response rates to a job posting is a recipe for disaster.

Third, everything so far presumes that your company has defined the attitudes that differentiate your high performers from the rest of the workforce (after all, the goal of hiring should be to recruit more high performers). But only 15% of organizations have actually done that. That’s one reason why 56% of HR executives said that half or less of their current employees have the right attitudes and why only 39% of companies say their recruiting process represents their employment brand.

If you know what motivates and drives your current high performers, then those are the characteristics that should figure prominently in your job ads, even if you use some phrases that chase away other applicants. Your goal should not be to get the greatest number of applicants to your job postings; you should be much happier with a smaller group of great candidates than a huge pool of questionable candidates.

Not everyone likes the lack of seat assignments or first-class seating on Southwest Airlines. Not everyone is willing to pay the price to stay at a Ritz-Carlton. Who cares? Those companies are not trying to appeal to every person on earth; they know their audiences, and they serve those people accordingly. Hiring should operate with a similar mindset. If the phrases in your job postings are accurate reflections of your culture, it doesn’t matter if there are people who dislike them. As long as you’re appealing to the people who most closely resemble your high performers, your hiring process will be successful.

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