There’s a good chance you’ve seen or heard of “The Great Resignation” by now. Businesses are struggling to attract and retain staff. “No one wants to work” and all that. It’s so dire we’re apparently bringing back child labour. Can kindergarteners in the coal mines be far behind?
There are also several significant strikes going on in the U.S. in what has been dubbed “Striketober”. Apparently just about everyone is thinking about quitting their jobs, especially now that employers are starting to want us back in the office. Health care workers are chucking their scrubs after almost two years of what could mildly be called hellish working conditions. No one’s going to get Christmas presents in time due to supply chain issues, which are myriad and complex but labour is certainly a substantial (and often deeply inequitable) factor. Amazon... continues to be Amazon.
And so it goes. Basically, the world of work is experiencing some interesting times.
Which is probably why seeing this tweet about job-posting code – you know, words like “fast-paced, high-pressure environment” – has stuck with me. There’s a bunch of words and phrases that get used in job postings across roles and industries, which have been in use for many years, that, to paraphrase Inigo Montoya, do not mean what they think they mean. Or, perhaps more accurately, tell prospects more truth about the management and work environment than intended.
I thought of some I’ve come across, and asked assorted folks for their red flags. Now, sure, some companies may be just fine and their terminology isn’t intended to hide anything sinister. Regardless, I think it would probably be a good idea to retire a lot of these, just in case. In the meantime, caveat emptor, job seekers.
Pretty much every workplace gets described as “fast-paced.” Though I would say the “high pressure” bit is a red flag. “Thriving under pressure” and similar phrases are also common. Prepare to get swamped. And probably yelled at.
Basically, there’ll never be enough bodies for all the work, you will never be caught up, and you should really do your best to determine in the interview just how many people will have free rein to dump work on your plate. See also “juggling competing priorities.”
“Collaborative” and/or “team player” means you’ll have a lot of meetings. And too much work, which you can’t get done because you’re in meetings. Your projects will be like group work back in school, i.e. not everyone will be pulling their weight, someone will go completely AWOL, and someone will end up picking up all the slack. Will that be you?
“Self-starter” – don’t expect anyone to give you guidelines or set boundaries with other people’s access to your time. Your manager will be useless or also overburdened and so you’ll be the one figuring out project parameters, deadlines, resources, etc., all well beyond the scope of your job description, experience, and competence. If and when things go pear-shaped, which they will, you’ll be blamed for it. “Problem solver” fits here as well.
“Like a family:” Danger! Danger! Work will take the place of your life, friends, and real family. Maybe even your dog. You’ll be discouraged from leaving the office or logging off, like, ever. And why would you want to? It’s so fun here! There’s craft beer on tap! Jars of Skittles! Foosball! Bean bag chairs! (Great for a quick cat nap before getting back to crushing it, am I right?). Also expect lacking, or weird, boundaries from co-workers, and expect to attend many events that you don’t want to. But there’ll be t-shirts!
A posting that wants someone “passionate” isn’t looking for a romance hero(ine). As above, it just means you’ll work endless hours, be accessible any time, have your phone grafted to your hand, and take on any task without question, no matter how unrelated it is to your supposed job description. “Energetic” is similar, but also has a hint of “young enough not to fully understand that you’re being exploited, or to feel confident enough to act to fix it.”
If the company seems to have put a lot of effort into a fancy or quirky title, especially if they seem to really be pushing it in the interview, be prepared to get seriously lowballed on salary and other compensation. It’s also a trick companies use on existing employees to avoid giving them real raises. Relatedly, be careful if offered equity instead of other compensation, particularly at a startup. Startup failure rates can be as high as 90 percent, after all.
If a company touts its flat structure or hierarchy, expect chaos. I suppose it could be fun for a bit if you’re high up the food chain looking down upon the chaos. But generally, total chaos combined with low productivity.
If the list of job requirements is a mile long and really varied, one of two things is going on. One, they need two people (or three? or four?) and are trying to get away with hiring only one to save time and money (expect to be run ragged and regularly experience the attitude that they did you a favour by hiring you). Or two, the job posting was written by someone who is inexperienced, clueless, or incompetent. If this person is the manager for the role, flee. Even if it’s not, if the company doesn’t even know what skills and experience they need, or figures they’ll try and lasso a unicorn if they can, they’re invariably going to be disappointed by what they get. The mere mortal they hire is going to be exploited and miserable.
Similar to this is when the position expectations don’t line up with the job title (or salary offer, if you get that far). If they want a degree and five years of experience, no, it’s not an “associate” or “coordinator” role. But they’re sure as hell going to make senior-level demands of you while paying you a pittance.
Seeing “problem-solving” skills may actually be okay, but if it’s anywhere near “conflict resolution,” expect toxic co-workers, a mercurial boss who likes to yell, a lack of boundaries, and no functional HR to speak of.
“Strong personalities” means there are jerks. (The more accurate word is the same one we didn’t use in this column. I trust we understand each other.) Co-workers, managers, senior leadership – rude, demanding, volatile and make decisions based on emotions rather than data or logic. Only doormats and masochists need apply.
On the development side, if you still see words like “rock star,” back away. You’ll likely have sky-high expectations imposed on you, get zero support, be expected to know/do/teach everything, and bail out other developers (and possibly also other teams, products, or the whole company).
This list is not exhaustive. There are other words and phrases that should get your Spidey senses tingling. Also, as noted, there are decent managers from decent companies who just don’t have a flair for job postings. Do your research. Tech is a small world. Finding out the real deal about people and companies is not that hard. If you get an interview, ask questions. Many questions. Remember, you are always interviewing them just as much as they are interviewing you.
Good luck, you proactive rock star self-starter, you!