Decoding the jargon in help wanted ads

help wanted ads

What are they really looking for in help wanted ads? Image: Photologue_np/Flickr/CC BY

Have you ever read a job ad that didn’t use one of the following phrases: “out of the box,” “fast-paced work environment,” “detail-oriented,” “self starter” or “team player”? A recent Fortune piece offers straightforward, if somewhat cynical, interpretations of those shop-worn phrases to alert job-seekers to red flags about potential employers.

Jargon can mean mean a lot or nothing

When an ad is overloaded with these oft-used snippets of Human Resources jargon, according Fortune, it can be loaded with covert messages. It can also be a smokescreen to hide something else. Or it can mean nothing at all, with its drafters simply relying on the handy phraseology because they really have nothing new to say.

Growing lazier decisions

Kevin Fleming, owner of Grey Matters, an executive development firm based in Wyoming and Oklahoma, said:

“Jargon is our way to grow lazier decision making in corporate cultures. We use these words to cover up something. It could also be a way to hide some ambivalence.”

Conflicting qualifications for help wanted ads

An example of this ambivalence would be when an ad asks for candidates to display conflicting characteristics, such as “self-motivated” and “team player.” This could indicate that HR and the hiring manager have conflicting ideas about what the job requires. Or it could mean the company has unrealistic expectations of its candidate.

Kathryn Ullrich, author of “Getting to the Top,” clarified:

“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?’ They’ll take the best attributes of the five best people they have.”

[Payday lenders are here to help make ends meet.]

Decoding the jargon

Here are the alternative meanings of some of the more common job ad jargon, according to Fleming and Ullrich.

Team Player

Everybody wants one of these, it seems. According to Flemming, it means you’ll take whatever management decides to dish out without complaining or rocking the boat.

“Team player is code phrase for someone who will allow us to do whatever we want to you.”


Fleming, whose executive training firm uses the principles of neuroscience, says that the human mind is not capable of true multi-tasking. Or at least not of doing it well. They are actually saying that a job description may change at any time and the employee had better be prepared to roll with it.

“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.'”

Out of the box solutions

According to Ullrich, this means that management isn’t sure what it wants.

“That’s jargon for: we don’t have it figured out yet.”

Detail oriented

Fleming warns to beware of control freaks. According to him, this phrase means you’ll be hovered-over, observed and micro-managed.


Fleming says this phrase again indicates that management is unsure of itself. According to Fleming, it actually means “Can you make ambivalence and lack of direction work?”

An informed job seeker

By understanding the thought processes behind the use of these jargon-laden phrases, job-seekers will be better equipped to make decisions about where to apply and what tradeoffs they are willing to accept for a new position.



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