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8 Red Flags in Tech Job Postings You Shouldn’t Ignore

Leslie Stevens-Huffman , Dice Insights

January 31, 2022

While job postings are meant to provide valuable information about a position and attract culturally compatible candidates, they often contain code words, descriptors or phrases that subtly signal a potentially toxic work environment, a boss with unrealistic expectations, or biased hiring practices.

Reading between the lines can keep you from pursuing a company with a bad work environment.  Here are eight red flags to watch out for in tech job postings.

“Work Hard, Play Hard”

Why anyone still puts “work hard, play hard” in job postings baffles Grant Fritchey, product advocate at Redgate Software. The term portends a 24/7 work culture and poor work-life balance. Yet a keyword search on a popular job posting accumulator returns thousands of jobs with that description, many in tech.

Fritchey’ s interpretation of a work hard, play hard environment: “Death marches, but hey, a ping pong table.” Got it. Other environmental descriptions to watch out for include “scrappy,” “roll up your sleeves” and “fast-paced.”

“Need a Highly Collaborative Team Player to Lead Us Into the Unknown”

Be cautious of postings that oversell and under-explain the position, warned Katrina Kibben, who teaches recruiters how to write better job postings as CEO of Three Ears Media. Especially when they use ambiguous terms like collaborative to describe desirable traits (which means different things in different organizations) or buzzword salad that doesn’t mean anything, that’s a big red flag.

“What are they hiding?” Kibben wondered. Job postings should detail the position’s requirements and what success looks like. 

“The ‘No One is Good Enough’ Mindset”

Don’t fall victim to unrealistic expectations that eliminate good candidates during the screening process. 

For example, don’t waste your time applying when a job posting specifies five years’ experience with SQL Server 2022 or a new development tool. Or when they request experience with development, administration, construction and maintenance for an entry-level support position. You should also be skeptical when the same job is posted over and over again for months.

“Flexible Hours”

You should dig deeper when an employer advertises flexible schedules. Does the company really promote work-life balance, or are people rolling in at 10 in the morning because they worked until midnight? At some companies, developers are expected to burn the midnight oil without question.

Ask how many employees start at 6 in the morning to see if the schedule is really “flexible,” Fritchey suggested.

“Need to be Relentless and Obsessed with Results”

The language that companies use in job postings reveals a lot about its culture, priorities, values and management style, advised LaTonya Wilkins, founder and CEO of Change Coaches. As further proof, check out these most commonly used phrases in tech company job descriptions.

This language is telling you up-front that the company is number one, Wilkins added. In all likelihood, the manager will be focused on what you can produce and won’t care about you as a person.

“If the language in the job posting offends you or rubs you the wrong way, move on,” Wilkins said.

“Need a Rockstar, Ninja or Guru”

There was a time when companies tried to recruit high performers with specialized skills by jazzing up traditional tech job titles with terms like ninja, wizard and guru. Now companies often use superlatives like rockstar when they want to attract a diverse candidate who “checks all the boxes,” Kibben noted.

The first step to inclusive hiring is to remove gendered terminology or adjectives often associated with a purple squirrel—a term used to describe someone with rare skills and experiences—from job postings. Advertising for a “guru” (among other somewhat-gendered terminology) often means that a company hasn’t done the deeper work needed to create an inclusive workplace.

“Perks, Perks and More Perks”

Beware of style over substance. When companies boast about virtual happy hours and catered lunch instead of respect, job growth and professional development, they may be trying to compensate for a high-stress, high turnover work environment.

According to researchers at the Missouri School of Journalism’s Novak Leadership Institute and Kansas State University, today’s young workers are placing more value on cultural aspects of employment such as meaningful work, respectful communication, job satisfaction and retention over trendy perks.

“We’re Like a Family Here”

These aren’t words you want to see in a job ad from a prospective employer. Family cultures tend to be dysfunctional, and no one wants to work in a business where people are expected to trade work relationships for family relationships.

You can’t choose your family, but you can choose your co-workers and where you work. That’s an important distinction.

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