The workplace has changed, but when it comes to job listings, too many times they haven’t evolved at the same pace. While companies have realized that prioritizing diversity in their teams is crucial to their success, the way those same firms go about recruiting new talent can undercut their plans.
Katrina Kibben, CEO and founder of recruitment copywriting firm Three Ears Media, said she’s looked at “Help Wanted” ads going back more than a century, and, sadly, not much has changed.
“We are using a lot of the same language and tactics that were used back then,” Kibben said. “The job postings actually don't look that different.”
Companies seeking to hire a diverse workforce and attract more people of color, women, LGBTQ+ workers, disabled folks, and employees of different ages and social classes could be sabotaging their own efforts with stale, outmoded job descriptions. It’s a daunting task to overhaul your whole system, but by implementing some key changes and a few best practices, HR experts and executives say making job listings as inclusive as possible doesn’t have to be a mystery. Here’s how to get started.
Experts agreed that the words a firm uses to describe both the job and the candidates they’re seeking to fill it are critical — and can be sending unintentional messages.
One common example: “The phrase ‘able-bodied’ is extremely antiquated, but often used as a general fluff word in job descriptions,” said Camille Chulick, cofounder of plant-based skincare line Averr Aglow. “This is a big way to exclude disabled people, who will be more aware of such language.”
Similarly, while terms like “recent college graduate” clearly show a bias for younger workers, less overtly ageist terms like “digital native” still flag that the company has an age range in mind.
Sometimes it’s the descriptions of the job function itself that are the issue.
“Interestingly, certain soft skills have gendered connotations, such as emotional words like ‘compassion,’ ‘collaboration,’ or ‘trust,’ [which] imply you are looking for a feminine candidate. [Conversely], words like ‘confident,’ ‘ambitious,’ or ‘fearless’ [are] associated with masculine candidates,” said Ian Kelly, VP of Operations for NuLeaf Naturals. “Since becoming aware of these connotations, we have tried our best to balance out word choices with actual job requirements. By avoiding exclusively listing qualities that are gendered, you not only attract more candidates but more well-rounded ones.”
Kelly added that the firm now uses gender-neutral terms like they/them or “the candidate” or “applicants” throughout their listings instead of he/she.
Listing minimum educational or experience thresholds for a given position is so common it passes for a requirement. In fact, on some job boards, it is. But that doesn’t mean it should be, experts said.
“We avoid requiring educational backgrounds, as this could exclude people from low-income backgrounds who could not afford to go to university,” said Matt Bertram, CEO at digital marketing agency EWR Digital. “Skills and experience can be acquired outside a university setting, and we would be missing out on many talented individuals if we did not recognize this.”
And industry experts agreed, keeping job descriptions focused on the essentials of the job itself makes them more appealing to a broader cross-section of good candidates.
“Many applicants will not apply to a job posting if there's a lot of very specific language in it. Even if the job posting emphasizes these things are preferred or ‘ideal’ but not requirements, applicants get the impression they won't be hired without [them and] therefore they just don't apply at all,” said Jennifer Walden, Director of Operations for online lawn and garden resource WikiLawn. “This affects women most of all, and Black women especially. So when writing job postings, we just imagine the barest necessities of the person we're looking to hire and explore more during the interview process.”
Keep in mind that many candidates — especially from historically underrepresented groups — look at job postings as lists of requirements as opposed to being wish lists, which can have a measurable effect on responses.
“White men are much more likely to apply for jobs when they don't meet the qualifications,” said Ravi Parikh, CEO of RV travel booking site RoverPass. “Women, BIPOC, and other minority groups tend to shy away from applying for these jobs because they feel they already need to be the perfect candidate just to get a foot in the door. Stick to the essentials, and you'll see a better variety of applicants.”
If your firm is committed to hiring a diverse workforce, it’s important to explicitly say so.
“You can proactively state in the job posting your desire to create an inclusive workplace as you describe the company itself,” advised Laura Handrick, an HR professional at the mental and behavioral health site Choosing Therapy. “Add statements like, ‘We're seeking to create a diverse work culture that closely matches the diversity of our client base,' or ‘We seek applicants from all backgrounds to ensure we get the best, most creative talent on our team.’”
Being clear that you’re not only open to but encourage a wealth of backgrounds and experiences helps; being euphemistic doesn’t.
“Don't use phrases like ‘culture fit’ in your posting, because this can sound like exclusive language to some job seekers who aren't sure what that signifies to you,” said Eric Sachs, CEO of Sachs Marketing Group digital marketing agency.
The bottom line: Letting candidates know that you see diversity as a valuable asset, not just a box to check, will strengthen your appeal.
Sachs said prioritizing inclusivity can mean ignoring some conventional wisdom.
“One counterintuitive way to be more inclusive when seeking new employees is to focus less on referrals from current employees. While you love your team and want to hire people who are great culture fits, hiring mostly from direct referrals decreases your pool and diversity,” he noted. “Try a variety of places to post your opportunities so you can cast a wider, less exclusive net.”
According to Kibben, making sure that your listing is seen by a wider group of candidates is absolutely necessary.
“You can invest in sourcing that is focused on diverse pipelines. You can post on job boards that are niche to different communities,” she said. “You have to recruit in different spaces to get different talent.”
Kibben said online connection platforms like Black Tech Pipeline help bring employers and candidates together, and that starting to search online is a great place to start. “This is the beauty of the Internet,” she said. “There are communities everywhere — pick any social channel, Google anything — you'll find a niche.”
Putting in the effort to make your firms’ listings as inclusive as possible may take some work, but in the end, it’s worth it for the positive change it will create.
Diane Danielson, Chief Strategic Advisor and founder of Future Proof Research Collaborative advisory firm and a former COO of a commercial real estate company, said that employing a number of strategies, including revamping the language they used in recruitment efforts and standardizing outreach, meant that her former employer increased the number of women in their brokerage practice firm to almost 30% in 2020, up from just 10% in 2014.
But, experts cautioned, the effort shouldn’t begin and end with new hires.
“The most important starting place is talking to your [team] and making sure you've built a company where people can belong,” Kibben said. “It’s not just about attracting more people and acquiring diverse talent. It's about creating places where diverse talent can thrive, and then bring them in.”