News & Opinion | December 15, 2022 6:55 am

Why Do Job Descriptions Still Suck?

Firms wanted rockstars and ninjas. They're getting quiet quitters instead.

A creative "help wanted" sign on a window in New York.
For years now, companies have more or less copy and pasted similar jargon. Prospective applicants have taken note.
Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The year is 2015.

You have been hired by a direct-to-consumer startup without any vowels in its name. The job description promised unlimited PTO, a stocked kitchen and quarterly ping pong tournaments. It all sounded too good to be true, but then again, the company was explicitly looking for “rockstars,” “gurus” or “ninjas,” so the standards around here must be high. Little wonder the perks follow in kind.

However long you remain at the company — two months, two years, you’re still there — you eventually realize that this firm does not employ Mick Jagger. There are no gurus or ninjas on the payroll, either, and that’s probably a good thing, right? Rockstars are overconfident and rarely punctual, gurus shouldn’t have to settle for entry-level wages, and ninjas…are trained to throw death stars, not write JavaScript.

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Writers who cover workplace trends spent most of their 2010s begging companies to stop using buzzy terms like rockstar, guru or ninja in their job descriptions. Here’s a post decrying the practice in 2012. Here’s one in 2015. And another in 2017. And another in 2018.

What was their issue with those descriptors? Aren’t they just goofy, harmless euphemisms for boring job titles like Credit Analyst or Software Application Developer?

Well, as they argued throughout the decade, it’s false advertising — and in the employment process, false advertising can foster false expectations. Take “rockstar,” for example: a prospective applicant might get their hopes up, imagining a whimsical work-life, replete with late wake-ups, exciting retreats and coworkers who swear like sailors. At the very least, they might be anticipating a post where they matter, where people listen when it’s their turn to speak.

But in reality, management is usually just looking for someone willing to stay after hours, pick up impromptu assignments and assume more responsibilities if a team shrinks.

What are the new disingenuous descriptors?

Ultimately, a miscommunication in the hiring process wastes the company’s money, while wasting everyone’s time (whatever micro-lessons either side may or may not glean from the experience). So as public exhaustion with the terms finally reached the fore, hiring managers started phasing out the nonsense terms. That’s not to say you won’t find a stray “ninja” if you spent tomorrow on Glassdoor, but the peak days of these phrases have past.

And yet, the jargon train keeps chugging along. The 2020s have built out their own bullshit doublespeak. Some of these might read as familiar:

  • “Work hard, play hard”
  • “Able to adapt to a fast-paced environment”
  • “We’re one big family”
  • “Looking for self-starters”
  • “Capable of wearing many hats”
  • “Thrives under pressure”

According to a recent article by The Wall Street Journal, the terms “fast-paced” and “family” have seen meteoric growth on job listing sites over the last three years. But increasingly, LinkedIn influencers (who are clowns in their own way, yet useful at times) have taken to codifying these scriptural crutches as red flags. Hollywood scripts have gotten in on the action, too lampooning corporate America’s “one big family” pitch in hilarious and unsettling ways on shows like Severance or Succession.

Families after all, are a bit of an odd standard to shoot for, considering they’re often messy, secretive, envious and maladjusted. But even at their best, they’re intimate and generous to a degree that’s probably inappropriate for the workplace. A good brother might pick up his phone at 11 p.m., but should an engineer be expected to, as well?

Enter quiet quitting

The phrase “quiet quitting” landed in most word-of-the-year rankings (along with finalists like “goblin mode,” “sentient” and “queen consort,” FYI), after the concept took social media by storm over the back half of the year. In case you somehow missed it, a quiet-quitter is someone who does exactly what’s asked of them in their job, but nothing more.

Burnt-out employees and indignant executives — already on either side of debates around workplace boundaries and RTO — each latched onto the term. The former seemed to enjoy the cheeky camaraderie, while the latter felt like their worst, peak quarantine fears were being realized: My workers are lazy, incorrigible and spend their days online shopping. They aren’t “rockstars,” after all.

Still, while a Gallup poll confirmed that about half of the American workforce would meet quiet-quitting qualifications, their engagement (or lack thereof, in the eyes of many managers) isn’t necessarily a middle finger. In many cases, it’s a redress of outsized office expectations, which begin with wordy job descriptions…that can snowball into sapping professional experiences.

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What kind of employee are you?

It’s worth assessing worker-types through an academic lens; over the years, researchers have identified three different subspecies — people who work because they need to put food on the table, people who work because they want to climb the ladder in a chosen field and people who work because they see whatever they do as their calling. These “purposes” can coexist, obviously, and modulate over time.

Fascinatingly, while the first of those three reads as almost taboo (what prospective applicant, in their right mind, would lead off with that at a job interview?), it’s also the one that the majority of employees subscribe to. Most workers — and especially millennials and Gen Z — identify as work-to-live, which means they’re making money so they can pay bills and maximize time with their loved ones. That doesn’t mean they wouldn’t welcome a promotion, or a raise, or even more responsibility, but good luck asking them to channel as much fervor into the future of a company as its founder.

Managers shouldn’t see these hires as detriments to the company. They should see them for what they are: people showing up to do what’s asked of them. In some cases, that might mean asking a lot (think of analysts in investment banking, or clerks at high-octane law firms) but, that’s fair, too. The key is expectation-setting. it’s on the part of applicants to have done their research and asked the right questions. But it’s also contingent on companies to stop copy and pasting a slew of phrases that don’t really mean anything into their job descriptions.

How hard do I have to work to earn my play, after all? Does unlimited PTO actually mean I’ll feel pressure to take days off? (Word to the wise: we leave an average of 9.5 days on the table each year.) How about that whole “self-starting” notion? Will I be left on an island, expected to pitch projects or manage myself without proper guidance?

How to fix the job posting — and interview process

Ultimately, if we can exorcise “ninja,” we can put the nail in the “fast-paced” coffin, too. If a lot goes on during a workday at your company, acknowledge that reality and give a brief example. Save yourself all the characters you think you’re supposed to write. Across the board, commit to writing less; descriptions are already way too long, and research indicates that applicants spend around 45 seconds reading them, max. For the interview stage, deploy employees who are capable of communicating your company’s core truths — including, and especially, expected work-life balance — without slipping into patter.

Some companies, especially young ones, are at a stage in their development and growth where they could be professionally characterized as…absolute shitshows. It’s reasonable for them to want to keep some of their vulnerabilities close to the chest. First-date comparisons are very apt here. But as we’re so keen, apparently, on characterizing the workplace through the prism of the family, then here’s something to remember: trust and communication are the bedrock of any stable and fruitful long-term relationship.

Whatever reason people came to you in the first place — whether to pay rent or to change the world — they’re likelier to stay, and do a good job while they’re there, if you know why they’re there. Why do you need them? What can they provide? And critically, how can this be expressed without using the word “hats”?