Mind your language

Language is not only a reflection of society and community, but also a reinforcement of it. Think of your company as a community and you’ll realise why it’s so important to choose your words carefully. This is particularly true when promoting and representing your company in any way, and especially in your job adverts.

What we write and how we write it reveals more about us than we realise. It gives the reader an immediate perception of the writer and in the case of job adverts, the company advertising the role. Sometimes this is completely subconscious, the reader may not even be aware, and this could result in them not getting the impression that you want to give! Depending on the language you choose, it sends signals to the reader as to the type of candidate you might be looking for, and this can mean losing out on top talent just because they don’t believe, incorrectly, that they will fit your candidate profile.

There are 3 main areas to consider:

  • Grammar and composition (decent writing skills)
  • The Equality Act 2010 (avoiding discrimination)
  • Equality, diversity and inclusion (inclusive language use)

Grammar and composition

The standard out there isn’t great. According to a well-touted statistic, 80% of job ads are badly written. If that’s true, how many potential candidates are you putting off at the first hurdle? Incorrect language use makes a business seem less professional and creditable, never mind that the advert may be hard to read, losing the candidate before the end of the first sentence. The better the readability, the higher the engagement will be. Don’t forget, it’s not only potential candidates that will see a job advert, but current and potential clients. People can be hugely (and sometimes disproportionally) offended by linguistic inaccuracies, and the wrong word choice could even lead to you being sued if considered discriminatory.

To help you avoid these problems, use your dictionary and thesaurus. If in Word, ensure it’s set to the correct language, else the over-keen auto-correct function may inaccurately ‘correct‘ without you noticing. Always proof your writing, ideally after some time away from your screen or on another project.

The Equality Act 2010

The legislation states that, “All forms of job advertisement… should not discriminate against anyone on the basis of any of the protected grounds unless there is objective evidence that the discrimination is lawful.”

The 9 protected characteristics help to ensure fair treatment of all

Direct discrimination is the treatment of someone ‘differently and worse than someone else for certain reasons’. For example, a job advert from Body Shop Malaysia, which advised, ‘(We are) hiring ethnic Chinese candidates only’. There’s also indirect discrimination, where you might be treating someone the same as everyone else but it has a negative effect on them, owing to one of the 9 protected characteristics. For example, requiring all employees to wear company hats, but their religion requires them to wear a head covering.

There are some exceptions to these rules know as Genuine Occupational Qualifications (GOQ), such as the specification of gender for Care Assistants and Support Counsellors, ethnicity in actors and a certain level of fitness for firefighters. However, there are some more obvious linguistic lapses that it’s easy to avoid:

  • Don’t be gender-specific – avoid the use of ‘man’, ‘he’ or ‘his’, even when you mean it in the sense of ‘mankind’, i.e. as a false generic. Instead use ‘they’, that way, you also include those who identify as non-binary. Avoid job titles with ‘-man’, e.g. Wireman (Wirer) or Chairman (Chair or Chairperson)
  • Avoid words that can be seen as age-related – ‘dynamic’, ‘youthful’, ‘mature’, ‘X years’ experience’
  • Ability-related – Don’t ask for a driving licence (unless it’s a role requirement). For ‘degree educated’, instead use ‘degree or equivalent’ or ‘similarly qualified by experience’

Inclusive language

This is more subtle than the above examples. ‘Unconscious bias’ is a term that’s come to the fore in recent years, describing the associations we hold, outside our conscious awareness and control. Unconscious bias in candidates is the reason they may be put off by a job description, without realising it or being able to explain why.

In 2011, Canadian and US researchers identified that job posts using more masculine wording, “led women to have a lower sense they would belong in the position or company than the same ads using more feminine wording.”

Terms such as ‘competitive’ or ‘leader’ appeal more to men and are stereotypically more likely to be used to describe men than women. Conversely, the words ‘interpersonal’ and ‘support’ are more likely to be applied to females. Using these in a job advert therefore can subtly convey the attributes of the person the job poster is looking for, as well as stopping those whose unconscious bias kicks in from applying. Other more inclusive language examples are ‘create’ instead of ‘build’ and ‘develop’ instead of ‘manage’.

Attracting a variety of candidates will enrich your business

Some subconscious word associations are more mysterious. For example, The word ‘stakeholder’ has been shown to signal to people of colour that their contributions may not be valued, but it’s yet to be explained why. To help you avoid non-inclusive language in job adverts, as well as taking into account the above, you could invest in recruitment technology, that reviews your job adverts and suggests substitutions to potentially troublesome words. Alternatively (and more cheaply!), check-out the gender decoder by Kat Manfield, an extensive list of masculine- and feminine-coded words. Ask your colleagues to review your adverts and identify anything that makes them feel uncomfortable or doesn’t feel inviting and recommend alternatives. And of course, a good recruitment consultancy will be able to advise you on appropriate language use.

And finally…

These principles also apply to any written media, produced in, and distributed by, your business. Any internal literature circulated, such as company newsletters, new policies and training documents, creates an impression on your employees. Externally, your brochures, proposals and, most importantly, every single email sends a subconscious message to your customers, potential clients and future employees.

So be aware of how important your words are and their effects, mind your language, and potentially enrich your business.

For support with your candidate search and all things related to recruitment, contact us today!


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