Could the personality language you use in your job ads be harming your hiring goals?
By Rhiannon Robinson
What I learned by spending a year of my life studying job ads
I’ve spent the last 12 months with my head buried in job ads. At this point, I see their bullet-pointed lists and abundance of buzzwords in my sleep! As well as working at Do Good Jobs and keeping a close eye on all the jobs that come through our board, I completed a piece of research on the personality language used in job ads for my Master of Communication at VUW. My data sample consisted of all the full and part-time roles listed on Do Good Jobs over a one-month period. Once the data set was assembled, I analysed it multiple times- at least six ‘coding’ interactions, or ‘close reads’ of the data, breaking each word down to the micro-level.
My research was Qualitative, so went beyond analysing hard data. I’ve performed a Thematic Analysis and a Critical Discourse Analysis on the data set, which is a fancy way to say that I looked for patterns and themes in the way the ads talked about the ‘ideal candidate’ and their personality. Don’t worry, this is about as technical as we’re going to get! I’m going to share some of the learning from my research in non-academic speak so you can apply the practical knowledge to recruitment. Here’s what I took away from this mahi;
Personality Language was ubiquitous in the ads and very generic
As a pre-curser to my qualitative studies, I did an initial quantitative ‘count’ (Content Analysis) of the personality words used in the data set of job ads. Not surprisingly in the for-purpose sector, ‘passionate’ was the most sought-after personality trait, present in just under half of the ads. The top ten personality words for the ideal candidate were:
6. Team Player
The top ten words were shockingly similar to the frequent words found in international studies of job ads, with personality traits related to team-work, flexibility, organisation, enthusiasm, energy, motivating the self and others and creativity cropping up again and again.
While it may not seem to be an issue at first glance that the ‘ideal candidate’ personality in job ads is highly generic, we can easily imagine what it might mean if we didn’t fit that personality profile ourselves- less jobs are ‘for us’. The generic-isation of this personality language also leads to ‘personality adaptation’ or ‘self-marketisation’ by candidates, adapting the personality they present in the recruitment process to what the employer wants to hear, rather than their true selves.
The use of personality language in job ads hasn’t always been common, it’s been increasing steadily over time- reaching new heights in the past two decades. In the UK, studies have shown that 70.6% of job ads across all industries and locations contain personality language. Interestingly, the use of personality language in Aotearoa’s job ads seems to be higher than in other countries. The percentage of Do Good Jobs ads that contained personality language, 91.4%, was higher than the 70.6% found in the UK. The average number of personality traits per ad was also higher than in international studies, sitting at an average of 7.2 in my data compared to 3.5 in Denmark and 1.7 in the US (See Cremin, Born & Taris in research cited).
Again we may say ‘so what?’’- employers in Aotearoa focus on personality, and that’s not necessarily bad, right? Well… the prevalence of personality language in ads could actually be harming your equity, diversity and inclusion goals.
The use of Personality Language has the potential to exclude and can be a back door for bias and discrimination
Words are powerful. European studies have shown that the personality traits used to describe the ideal candidate in job ads are deeply gendered and can be a vehicle for meta stereotypes. In simple terms, meta stereotypes are personality requirements that job seekers feel threatened by, as they believe they are traits that majority groups stereotype them as not possessing. Many studies have focused on gender, but personality language has the power to construct other signifiers like ethnicity, as some studies indicate.
Studies with participants have shown that candidates can pick out ‘female’ and ‘male’ gendered personality traits in job ads on a consistent basis. Crucially, women’s application decisions were affected by the personality language used in job ads, but men’s weren’t. While females were less likely to apply for roles with male-gendered personality traits, men applied for roles regardless. This is particularly salient given that generally, leadership roles are heavily gendered male. In my data set, female-gendered personality traits like being ‘empathetic’, ‘caring’ and ‘friendly’ were ubiquitous (see Wille & Derous, Duffy & Schwartz, Taris & Bok and Askehave).
In Aotearoa the use of criteria that has the potential to negatively affect the application decisions of minority groups, such as the physical appearance, gender, age, religion, marital status, ethnicity and disability status has become governed by The Human Rights Act 1993 and is not permissible in job ads by law. The fact that employers can still legally make personality requests of the applicant in job ads, and the evidence that these personality traits are heavily gendered, make them a ‘back door’ mechanism for gender discrimination and the expression of bias and stereotypes.
Personality language was also used to ‘assign’ an extra workload of emotional labour
I’m not going to get into this too much here, but my research ultimately concluded that the over-arching personality themes in the data set were highly gendered female. The dominant personality themes constructed a candidate responsible for relationships and social life, who was self-motivated, ultra-flexible and ultimately accountable for organisational culture as well as the performance and emotional well-being of others. Personality language was used to assign an additional load of emotional labour for the female ideal candidate, outside of the skills and experience that were assigned monetary value. This concurred with findings in international research on gender and job ads (see Duffy & Schwartz). I’m now co-authoring a paper on the types of emotional labour found in the ads, and we go beyond gender, so watch this space for more.
What does this all mean? And why should you care?
After bending my brain, and many people’s ears with this stuff over the past year- there are some simple tasks I have of you, an employer in Aotearoa.
- Consider how the use of personality criteria for the ideal candidate in your recruitment materials is serving you as an organisation. What message are you sending about who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’?
- Review your recruitment materials, how much personality language is in your job ads, what traits are you asking candidates to have and what does this have to do with the actual competencies needed for the role? Do some of these traits even contradict one another?
- Who writes and comes up with the personality criteria that go into your recruitment materials? How do they come up with them? Has this person had extensive training in bias, diversity and discrimination?
- Is the personality criteria in your job ads a cut and paste job that gets auto-filled into every job ad along with the organisation bio? Is the answer yes? Consider this, if you’re asking for exactly the same personality type for, say, a creative copywriting role and a financial role crunching data all day- does that add up? Isn’t a diverse range of personhoods and personalities needed to fill diverse roles?
For my ten cents, after spending (too many) hours of my life with this data, deeply interrogating the personality constructed for the ideal candidate in each job ad, I’m for removing the use of personality traits as ideal candidate criteria in job ads. Other researchers agree, recommending that, for the best diversity outcomes, person requirements are expressed as behaviours and not personality or character traits (see Wille & Derous). This is because we tend to view our personality as fixed or innate, but see behaviour as something that can be changed, or learnt. We’re more likely to discount ourselves based on personality traits when reading a job ad, thinking “that’s not me and I can’t change it” Food for thought!
About Rhiannon Robinson
Rhiannon Robinson is Do Good Jobs’ Business Development Manager and looks after our community of employers. She is a labour market and organisational culture nerd and is currently doing research on the use of personality traits in job ads. Read her 2022 labour market predictions here.
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