Job ads

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.  More

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