The Importance of Language in Recruitment

Language is a funny old thing. Seemingly harmless phrases can be saturated with hidden meaning. Study after study has found that this can put talented people off applying for jobs and halt their career progression in the process. Added to that, poorly worded job descriptions and job adverts can cost businesses money.

Let me give you a few examples. An advert stating the candidate must have “strong English language skills” may sound reasonable, but you may put someone off from applying who is a fluent, if not native, speaker of the language.

How about this one. A requirement that candidates must be “clean shaven” could put off candidates who have facial hair for cultural or religious reasons. This also suggests the recruiter is looking to recruit a male.

As I’ve touched on race and ethnicity, let me expand on this. The inability of employers to fully appreciate BAME talent is costing them dear. According to the 2017 McGregor Smith Review of race in the workplace, if BAME talent were properly captured by the UK’s employers, it could add a cool £24billion to the economy.

Sexist Language to Avoid

Job adverts can also be unwittingly sexist. According to one academic study, frequently used words such as: Ambitious, assertive, decisive, determined and self-reliant are seen as masculine. Women are less likely to apply for roles described this way, not because they feel they’re unqualified, but because they don’t feel they’ll fit the working culture.

Conversely, words such as: Committed, connect, interpersonal, responsible and yield are seen as feminine words. Use these in an advert and you may reduce the number of male applicants.

Remember Essential Job Details

A much more basic mistake employers frequently make is to miss essential details from an advert. If a role is available on a flexible basis from day one, say so in the advertisement. Staff have many different reasons for wanting to work flexibly and if you don’t say so at the start, you’ll be reducing the number of applicants your role will appeal to. Remember also to include details of parental leave.

Back in the days when I worked full time, I would always look at a job advert to see if childcare vouchers were part of the employee benefits package. This can be a deal breaker for employees with children under the age of three.

In fact, I once got to interview stage with a job. I asked the interview panel what the benefits package was like. This was a trick. It was their chance to tell me if they offered childcare vouchers or to say something about the pension scheme.

The lead interviewer was flummoxed by my question. After a brief pause, he said “Well you get a salary.”

As I had the one child under the age of 12 months, I took this as a signal that I wasn’t going to fit in. Not that it mattered as I was never offered the job!

Age and Physical Ability

Age is something else to be wary of. To be successful you want a diverse workforce and this includes having older and younger workers. Don’t underestimate the knowledge and experience that older staff can bring. Phrases such as ‘energetic’, ‘work hard/play hard’ and ‘digital native’ could be off-putting for older, more experienced applicants.

Another population to be mindful of are those living with disabilities. Individuals with disabilities may have a greater need to work flexibly so make sure your job description makes this clear. Likewise, phrases to avoid include ‘able-bodied’ or ‘bending and crouching to install equipment under desks’ (someone with a disability may not be able to bend and crouch, but have other ways to get under a desk!).

Main Language points to Remember

Having outlined what you should avoid, here are the main points to keep in mind to ensure your job advert is inclusive and attracts applicants from diverse backgrounds. Firstly, make sure essential details such as right to flexible working, parental leave and childcare vouchers are in the advert.

Keep in mind various phrases display unconscious bias and will be off-putting to both women and men. Take the time to look at your job advert and question whether staff really do need to be clean shaven, have short hair or free of piercings. Such requirements could make you seem out of touch at best, sexist at worst.

Are you familiar with the phrase “show me don’t tell me?” Could you make a video about the job and your requirements? A video can do wonders to showcase your organisation’s culture. You may also get across more in a two or three-minute video than you will on paper and you’ll stand out from other employers.

The final point is just to spend time looking at each word and phrase you use. A ‘work hard/play hard’ culture may sound appealing to you, but it could put off the enthusiastic 60-year-old who could make all the difference to your business. You don’t want to miss out on recruiting them just because a phrase appeals to you.

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