THERE IS an old Army joke about a sergeant-major who asks his platoon whether any of them are interested in music. When four hands go up, the sergeant says “Right, lads. You can carry this grand piano down to the officers’ mess.”
Job recruitment has become more sophisticated since that story first did the rounds. Today’s careers require a lot more than just raw muscle but that sometimes makes jobs hard to define. The unfortunate result is a form of “adjective inflation” in recruitment ads as employers attempt to make routine tasks sound exciting.
Candidates must sometimes wonder whether they are applying for a 9-to-5 role or to become part of the Marvel “Avengers” franchise. On the Indeed website, a cocktail bar was recently looking for “bartenders who are people-focused, quality-driven, (and) have superhero hospitality powers.” The ability to give customers the correct change was not mentioned.
Another British company advertised for “a call-centre Ninja, a superhero in people”, a job description which sounds a little over-the-top for what was in fact a role at an insurance broker in Isleworth. Lest you think that ad was an aberration, Indeed also featured jobs for “a black-belt prioritisation ninja”, and another demanding a “ninja-like attention to detail”. Short of turning up for the interview dressed from head-to-toe in black, and then sneaking up behind the managing director at his desk, it is hard to see how candidates could demonstrate their ninja-ness.
Not all companies require candidates to possess the qualities of a Japanese warrior, of course. Instead in an echo of the 1960s slogan, “make love, not war”, they require applicants to be passionate. The Bluewater shopping mall in south-east England was looking for “passionate sales-driven brand ambassadors” while “passionate crew members” were needed at a pretzel-bakery in west London for a wage of just £8.23 ($10.32) an hour.
Bartleby feels passionate about his wife, the fortunes of England’s sports teams and the absurd and alarming notion that Boris Johnson might become his country’s prime minister. But when it comes to work, passion may not always be the most appropriate emotion. Would patients prefer a “passionate” surgeon or one renowned for keeping a cool head? As emotions go, pride in one’s performance seems important, as does a degree of empathy for colleagues and other people (customers, patients, readers) affected by what you do. In any case, passion is pretty hard to maintain consistently for 40 hours a week, month after month.
There are undoubtedly jobs in the caring professions where people’s devout belief in the social usefulness of their role persuades them to put up with long hours and low pay. But selling pretzels or shoes is not in the same category.
Instead of talking about passion, employers should really be asking for enthusiasm. Workers may not learn to love their jobs, but with the right attitude, they can get enjoyment from the simple act of performing their task well. As well as keeping workers content, it ought to be enough for most bosses.
Alas, another newish management mantra is “bring your whole self to work”. This slogan, dreamed up by Mike Robbins, a motivational speaker, seems well intentioned. Workers should not have to suppress their personalities. They should not hide the fact that they are gay, for example, or caring for children or elderly relatives at home.
But it is easy to see how the slogan can be turned into the idea that workers should give 100% commitment all the time. That is asking too much. It is great when people enjoy their work but the fact is a lot of people are doing their jobs to pay the bills, and dreaming of the few weeks in the year when they can take a holiday. They may have hobbies and interests outside work, but the word “outside” is key. Those are the moments when the company has no claim on its employees. Workers should be allowed to leave parts of themselves at home.
Job applicants should take their cue from the kind of ads that companies place. Think of it like a first date: if the other person started talking of marriage and how many children you will have together, you might avoid seeing them for a second time. So if a job ads talks about passion or superheroes, run away faster than a speeding Batmobile. Being a ninja should be reserved for teenage mutant turtles.
This post was originally posted at https://www.economist.com/business/2019/07/06/the-absurd-language-used-by-job-ads.