Is Biased Language Reducing your Candidate Pool? How to Write More Inclusive Job Descriptions.
Words are powerful; they paint pictures, and their tone evokes feelings. When you create a job description, you create a picture of the work opportunity and establish a style reflecting your organization. But do the words you choose reflect a bias? We all have blind spots. This article dives into biased language in job descriptions and how bias might lurk in phrases and terms you didn’t suspect.
Today’s recruiting landscape is challenging from just about every standpoint. Using biased language in job descriptions can reduce your candidate pool even further, causing well-qualified people to needlessly self-eliminate based on the feeling that they do not fit with the company culture.
But what is biased language?
Simply put, biased language—in the context of job descriptions—slants a job description toward a specific gender, personality trait, or type of person. Biased terminology or jargon is exclusionary to certain individuals and can be seen as discriminatory, prejudiced, or offensive.
Examples of biased language include any specific statements made about:
- Physical traits
- Ethnic background
- LGBTQ+ status
- Social Standing
Is Jargon a Bias, too?
Using jargon, speaking, or writing for a high-level audience can also exclude and alienate. Using sports metaphors – “knock it out of the park,” or “touch base” – or Americanisms, like “24/7/365” or “piece of cake,” for example, may not be understood by non-Americans. If that’s the case, the person reading the job description could easily assume that the job is only for a particular person. They are unlikely to pursue the opportunity if they do not understand the reference or take the statement too literally.
Though bias in this context is usually unintentional, it can be incredibly hurtful to the candidate and the company. As bias awareness grows in the public sphere, ignoring the issue could eventually impede your company’s ability to advance. Excessive acronyms and technical jargon could also cause promising job candidates to self-eliminate. Who would want to apply for a job they do not understand?
The bottom line is that if you have not made a conscious effort to de-bias your job descriptions, it could be the one thing standing between your company and a strong, diverse, and highly productive workforce.
Examples of Biased Language in Job Descriptions
Job descriptions are often the first interaction a candidate has with a company. A candidate will choose to apply or move on based on the information contained in the job description, so it’s vital to look closely at what you’re saying and how you’re saying it.
Here are a few common examples of biased language in job descriptions:
- “Waiter/Waitress” is gender-specific. “Server” would be more inclusive.
- “Salesman” is gender-specific. Salesperson or sales rep are better terms.
- “Aggressive” or “dominate” denotes a masculine quality.
- “Grandfather clause” could be changed to “legacy clause.”
- “Master/Slave” is jargon used in the software industry, which some of the larger companies have altered to read “primary/replica.”
- “Maternity Leave” refers specifically to motherhood, although people of all gender identities may choose to become a parent. “Parental leave” is more inclusive.
- “Young” is a vague descriptor that could alienate pretty much anybody who doesn’t consider themselves to be young. Similarly, a posting for a “recent college graduate” or anything that narrows the field in that way could put you at risk of a lawsuit for age discrimination.
- “Digital native” infers that you only want to hire people who grew up with technology and may eliminate older individuals.
- “He/she” is a form of pronoun bias. Remaining neutral works best; using them/they/you can easily replace any gendered phraseology or terms.
- “Junior” or “senior” should not be part of the job description unless it is part of the job title.
Specifying a preference for candidates with a particular degree from a specific school or type of school is also a limiting practice. Alternative schools, boot camps, and practical experience often provide better foundations for success, especially in fast-moving areas like cybersecurity and software development.
Tips on How to Avoid Job Description Bias
In the wake of the Great Resignation, hiring is not getting any easier. If you’ve been wondering what you can do to reach more candidates, reviewing your job descriptions with an eye toward debiasing is an excellent place to start.
Here are four actionable tips to help you debias your job descriptions.
1. Describe the role, not the person.
When writing a job description, you might be tempted to describe the type of person you imagine for the job—down to their personality traits. It’s important to take the person out of the job description and focus on the role and its requirements. Think about the competencies, skills, and responsibilities of the job. These are definable, concrete, and do not depend on a particular aspect of character.
2. Consider ADA perspectives.
The Americans with Disabilities Act offers protections for people with disabilities. It prevents employers from discriminating against qualified applicants in all aspects of employment, including applying, hiring, promotions, compensation, training, and more. While the ADA does not require employers to maintain job descriptions, it is the first thing they will want to see in the event of a dispute.
Disability is a broad term, and the terminology is constantly evolving. Within this category are several subcultures with varied preferences regarding how they want to be referred to. This is important because getting it wrong could make the person feel condescended. In general, it’s preferable to choose people-first over identity-first language as it puts people before their diagnosis. An example of people-first vs. identity-first language would be:
- “person with a disability” vs. “handicapped person” or “disabled person.”
- “person with epilepsy” vs. “epileptic person.”
Identity-first language is acceptable as long as it is not derogatory. Deaf people, for example, prefer to be called Deaf (with a capital D) or Deaf person rather than “person who is deaf.”
The words you choose can make all the difference. However, it’s also vital to accurately describe the job and its tasks, so there is no ambiguity. Suffice to say; this will take some consideration.
These concerns may not directly involve your job descriptions, but depending on the job requirements, they might. Consider whether an accommodation can be made for specific jobs that would allow differently-abled people to perform them.
Think about the tasks or functions essential to the job that must be performed independently or without assistance or accommodation. If it is impossible to reassign the task to another employee or remove those functions without fundamentally altering the position, it would be considered an essential function, and this should be stated.
- “Excellent verbal and listening skills” can be “excellent communication skills.”
- “Carry” can be “transport” or “move.”
- “Walk” or “run” could be “traverse.”
- “Standing/sitting” could be “stationary position.”
- “Climb” would be “ascend/descend.”
- “See” could be “detect” or “observe.”
For more detailed information on non-prejudicial language to use for ADA-compliant job descriptions, this paper by Kenneth H. Pritchard is a good resource.
3. Be objectively honest. Listen for tone and feel.
Job descriptions serve a specific purpose. They outline and inform the candidate and hiring manager what the job entails and what success looks like in the general scope of the job. As such, there is little need to exaggerate or insert glamorous language to describe the employee’s actions. Stick to the facts, be truthful and detail-oriented, and change any biased language you identify to be more neutral and generalized. Explain complex terminology rather than jargon-y acronyms, even if you feel they are common to your industry.
4. Involve multiple stakeholders in the review process for different perspectives
Creating job descriptions can be a tedious and time-consuming task! In most companies, the person writing the job description isn’t usually the one doing the job. This is where collaboration with other managers, department heads, employees who have held the position before, and subject matter experts can help. Soliciting feedback from diverse perspectives during the review process might help you illuminate unconscious biases or ideas you hadn’t considered.
Writing inclusive job descriptions might seem like a daunting task. Still, with empathy, objectivity, and input from your colleagues, it is a task that will almost certainly increase your candidate pool and help you create a strong, diverse, and inclusive workplace culture.
Much evidence shows that diverse companies outperform others by a significant margin in terms of profits, innovation, and productivity. Organizations that prioritize inclusion and continue to challenge biases will successfully rewrite the rules and conventions we’ve become accustomed to. It all starts with that first point of contact—the job description.
In the words of Mary Martin, VP of Client Success at Equiliem:
“The right cultural fit is when someone feels valued and respected. Employers need to attract workers through belonging, inclusivity, and offering options to conduct work on different terms than in the past. Job descriptions are an opportunity for employers to become more inclusive, to reach more people, and to achieve their business goals through equity, inclusion, and diversity.
Equiliem (www.equiliem.com) believes in empowering success. It’s our job to cultivate relationships that connect people and employers in a way that is inclusive, intelligent, and allows both to thrive.
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