What's hiding behind the buzzwords in job ads?

February 28, 2012: 5:00 AM ET

You've heard the job ad jargon so often, your eyes glaze over: detail-oriented, fast-paced work environment, team player. But these well-worn phrases can expose the dirty little secrets of your potential future employer.

By Katherine Reynolds Lewis, contributorjob_ad_buzzwords

FORTUNE -- Read enough help-wanted advertisements, and you'll soon realize that they all basically sound the same. Jargon like "detail-oriented" and "self-starter" is so overused that the positions advertised begin to sound unremarkable: part of the expected landscape of hunting for a job.

But if you stop and think about what all of these buzzwords are signaling, you'll realize how much information you just might miss if you fail to read between the lines. First of all, when employers fall back on the same old jargon to advertise positions, it could very well be that they actually have no idea what they are looking for. They just know they have a spot to fill.

"Jargon is our way to grow lazier decision making in corporate cultures," says Kevin Fleming, owner of Grey Matters, a neuroscience-based executive development and coaching firm based in Jackson Hole and Tulsa. "We use these words to cover up something. It could also be a way to hide some ambivalence."

For instance, an employer may ask for two qualities that seem to conflict -- such as "entrepreneurial" and "team player" -- because the hiring manager and the human resources director have different ideas about what the position requires. Or, the employer may simply have unrealistic expectations of all the qualities that a single individual could possess.

"The hiring managers are thinking about the ideal person. 'If I could get everything I wanted on my Christmas wish list, what would I put on that list?'" says Kathryn Ullrich, a recruiter based in Silicon Valley and author of Getting to the Top: Strategies for Career Success. "They'll take the best attributes of the five best people they have."

Or perhaps, confusing jargon suggests that the company has an ill-defined mission or strategy. "Most people have no idea what the development plans really are; they don't know where they're going," says Fleming.

With that in mind, we've asked Fleming, Ullrich and other career experts to help us decode the most commonly used jargon in job ads, often the same buzzwords that fill up resumes. 

Detail-oriented. "Watch out for control freaks," Fleming warns. Unless the position involves detail at its core -- like a forensic accountant or administrative assistant -- this phrase hints that your every move will be scrutinized and second-guessed.

Team player. It may sound innocuous, but be wary that this innocuous phrase really means that you'll take whatever the bosses dish out, "for the team." "Team player is code phrase for someone who will allow us to do whatever we want to you," Fleming explains.

MORE: 6 networking mistakes job hunters make

Fast-paced work environment. This means that the employer wants high productivity at all costs and you'll be fielding a steady flow of emergencies. "Fast paced means you're going to work more hours than we're paying you," interprets Ullrich. Some industries, such as journalism or communications, are truly fast paced, but you should already know that going into those fields. "Fast-paced work environment means it's a little bit of a crazy office," says Kate Giannini, senior recruitment manager at Edelman Public Relations in San Francisco.

Multitask. Neuroscience tells us it's actually impossible for the human brain to multitask successfully. By trying simultaneously to complete different tasks, we reduce our performance and effectiveness at each individual job. "Multitasking is an utter violation of reality. What they're trying to say is, 'We may switch up your job description without telling you and we want you to be okay with it,' " Fleming says. You'll need to be able to quickly prioritize initiatives and figure out which competing task is the most important, Ullrich says.

Self-starter. "It's saying, 'When we don't give you any sense of direction, we want you to pull it out of thin air,'" interprets Fleming. "Self starter is a code phrase for, 'Can you make ambivalence and lack of direction work?' "

Results-oriented or self-motivated. "What this really means is that they want someone with incredible drive, often used to opaquely reference sales positions where you will have to work to make commission," says Shawn O'Connor, founder and chief executive officer of Stratus Careers, a career counseling and training firm based in New York.

Early-stage or venture-backed. While these phrases legitimately describe startups backed by venture capitalists, it's important to understand the subtext. "There aren't a lot of resources; you may not get paid a lot; and we hope you're going to work for that Holy Grail of going public or some successful exit," Ullrich translates.

Experience in an entrepreneurial setting. Similarly, any job ad that describes an "entrepreneurial position" will demand a willingness to do whatever task needs to be done from the person who takes the gig. "This job is definitely not the right fit for someone who wants clearly delineated responsibilities or doesn't want to have to take out his own trash from his desk," says O'Connor.

MORE: The best cities for job hunting

Creativity for "out of the box" solutions. If you relish charting your own course, respond to the job ads that reference creativity, problem solving and "out of the box" thinking. "That's jargon for: we don't have it figured out yet," Ullrich says.

To be sure, any one of these phrases might appear in an ad for a position that you'd happily fill. But when you understand the hidden meaning, you'll be in a better position to decide whether the tradeoffs that come with this job make sense for you. And don't expect the jargon to disappear from help wanted ads any time soon.

"Job ads are full of jargon for the same reason sugar is part of good fattening food: it feels good," Fleming says. "There's a little bit of a high when you say the job you're looking for has impact and has a bandwidth that's powerful."

Join the Conversation
About This Author
Katherine Reynolds Lewis
Katherine Reynolds Lewis
Contributor, Fortune

Katherine Reynolds Lewis is an award-winning Washington D.C.-based journalist specializing in finance, work, and family issues. She has written for publications including the Fiscal Times, Money, MSN, the New York Times, Parade, Slate, USA Today magazines, and the Washington Post Magazine. Previously, she worked as a national correspondent for Newhouse News Service and reported for Bloomberg News in Washington. She began her career in New York at the Bond Buyer, after graduating from Harvard College with an A.B. in physics. She is active in the Asian American Journalists Association and serves as founding co-chair of the AAJA Digital Group.

Current Issue
  • Give the gift of Fortune
  • Get the Fortune app
  • Subscribe
Powered by WordPress.com VIP.