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Interpreting employment ads
May 28, 2012
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by Ivan Raconteur

Graduation season is upon us once again, and legions of fresh-faced graduates will be venturing forth, hoping to secure their place in the workforce. They have my deepest sympathy.

One does not mean to be a wet blanket. It’s just that the gap between job expectations and job reality can be as wide as the Grand Canyon.

As an aid to those for whom the post-graduation hangovers are still a recent memory, we submit the following curmudgeonly advice to help unravel the secret code used in employment ads.

The term “fast-paced environment” may sound exhilarating, but it simply means the company expects you to get more work done than is humanly possible in the hours allotted.

It will be up to you to figure out how to make that happen. The company, meanwhile, accepts no responsibility for providing adequate resources to help you succeed.

Related expressions include “must enjoy multi-tasking” or “seeking candidates with a wide range of experience.” These are often used as code by companies that have been downsizing. They mean that the company hopes to hire one person to do the work that was previously done by several people who have fled or been fired.

Some companies optimistically describe such a job as “an exciting new position.” The reality, of course, is that it is much more exciting for management than it is for the employee. Management is excited because it is getting the same output for a fraction of the cost.

Another term that can be confusing for those who are new to the workforce is “leadership skills.” When a company advertises for someone with leadership skills, it is looking for a stooge it can stick with the duties and responsibilities of a manager, without the authority or compensation.

This person will be in charge of disseminating bad news, but if there is ever any good news to be dispensed, this will be handled by owners or actual managers.

Many of the expressions used in employment ads reflect a whimsical sense of fun and even humor on the part of a prospective employer.

For example, when an ad says “some overtime required,” it does not mean that overtime may occasionally be required. Overtime will definitely be required, especially in the case of salaried employees, who can be forced to work around the clock without costing the company a nickel. “Some overtime required” simply means that some days you will have to start early, some days you will have to work late, and sometimes you will have to work on weekends or holidays. It is not the “if” that is in question – just the “when.”

An employment ad asking for “good communication skills” is code for applicants who are psychic. It means that the management of the company does a horrible job of communicating objectives, so you will need to read your manager’s mind to figure out what the heck she wants you to do.

An advertisement for “an independent self-starter” means that the firm does not have any training program. They will push you off the dock, and if you swim, you may get to keep the job. If you sink, the company will find someone else.

When an employer posts an opening for applicants with “problem-solving skills,” this is an indication that upper management is good at coming up with wild ideas for new programs, but is absolutely clueless when it comes to thinking things through.

There are a number of buzzwords and phrases that are related to problem-solving skills, including “must be detail oriented,” “duties may vary,” and “flexibility required.”

A company that wants “detail-oriented” employees probably is not very good at working out details, so it is up to employees to figure those things out.

The disclaimer about varied duties is a sign that the company is disorganized and may ask employees to first do one thing, then another, and objectives will change with the wind (and all of them will be urgent priorities).

When an employer mentions flexibility, you may rest assured he is talking about yours, not his.

When a company demands a “team player,” you can bet you will need to have the diplomacy of Henry Kissinger and the patience of Job to deal with prima donna co-workers and lunatic managers.

When it comes to employment ads, one expression that is frequently misunderstood is “competitive salary.”

Those who are new to the workforce often assume that this means the salary offered is competitive with the salaries offered by other companies for similar jobs. That is not the case.

“Competitive salary” means that in order to remain competitive in the marketplace and make up for the blunders of upper management, the company saves money by paying its employees peanuts. The company may say that it values its employees, but employee compensation is at the very bottom of the list when it comes to company expenditures. In human resources, as in so many other things, if you want to know where the real priorities are, you simply have to follow the money.

Finally, one phrase that is practically useless in an employment ad is “works well under pressure.” It hardly seems worth putting that in. In today’s workforce, any employee who is not able to work under pressure will fold up like a cheap lawn chair long before his first happy hour.


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