Brought to you by TAtech: The Association for Talent Acquisition Solutions

Amid all the talk about optimizing the candidate experience, one topic has been all but ignored. The vocabulary we use has a significant impact on the perceptions of those we are trying to recruit, and one widely used term in particular conveys a message that turns off top talent — or, worse, drives them away completely.

Author A.S. Byatt once opined that “[v]ocabularies are crossing circles and loops. We are defined by the lines we choose to cross or to be confined by.” Today, we’ve replaced circles and loops with “boxes” to describe the lines we create with words, but the impact of these boxes is just as great. Our boxes have meaning, of course — they typically have explicit definitions — but they also transmit subliminal messages that color the way the definition is perceived or interpreted.

For that reason, words matter as much for their insinuations as their definitions — whether the insinuations are intentional or not. This is especially true in recruitment. In the minds of the people who visit corporate career sites and read job postings, an employer is defined as much by the subliminal messages of its words as it is by the information it provides or the practices it follows.

That’s why the words “job seeker” are so problematic. Though widely used by recruiters, the term is anathema to every high performer on the planet. Its definition is explicitly benign, but its insinuation is exploitative and demeaning. It says an organization views those in the job market as nothing more than supplicants for work.

The Active and Passive Interpretation

To put it bluntly, top talent — whether they are actively looking for a new job or passively considering a change — think the term “job seeker” signals an organization that is prejudiced against them. Why? Because countless surveys reported in the media have found that many employers view today’s job seekers as damaged goods — obsolete, unskilled, or defective in some other way. Why else would they be investing the big bucks on social media sites that promise to connect them with people who aren’t looking for jobs?

boxerThose actively in the job market look past the term — they have no choice — but to them, it says the employer considers them the least desirable alternative, even if they have a track record of high performance. Passive prospects, on the other hand, don’t see themselves as job seekers, refuse even to acknowledge that the term applies to them, and, in most cases, conclude that any organization using it is not a place they want to work.

If you have any doubt about that latter point, do a survey of the visitors to your corporate career site. Ask about their employment status, and you’ll almost certainly find that the vast majority are either unemployed or expect to be unemployed soon. And yet, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, at any point in time, just 16 percent of the workforce is actively in transition.

In other words: Your site is plumbing the depths of the small cohort of the population that has no choice and missing out altogether on the much larger cohort of people who do.

How can you redress this situation? Not simply by using different words. To be credible, your talent acquisition vocabulary must be more than what you can find in a thesaurus. It must reflect your organization’s culture and values.

The first step is to audit your organization’s view of employment candidates and, if necessary, change the prevailing mindset to remove any conscious or unconscious bias against prospective hires because of their employment status. Make sure that hiring managers as well as recruiters see the person and evaluate their capabilities, not their position in the job market.

Second, change the vocabulary on your corporate career site and in your job postings, and explain your rationale for doing so. Jettison the term “job seeker,” but only after you’ve made sure your hiring managers and recruiters understand the importance of the switch and support it. Then, implement the change and tell those in the job market why you’ve done so. Make your vocabulary a part of your organization’s employment brand.

letterFor example, you might decide to replace “job seeker” with a more respectful word like “candidate.” Site visitors and ad readers will undoubtedly notice the difference — it’s such a rarity among employers — but they may not understand what that change means for you and to them. So, post a visible statement — not one hidden six clicks deep in your site or 12 paragraphs down in your ad — that explains the vocabulary shift is a public affirmation of your organization’s commitment to treating everyone as a valued employment prospect.

Jargon is often criticized for its lack of clarity, but in the case of the term “job seeker,” its impact is exactly the opposite. Whether they are active or passive in the job market, top candidates are locked in a box by the term “job seeker,” and that box implicitly defines them as damaged goods. This is an insinuation they resent, and, in many cases, the best candidates will walk away from organizations that use this term. A better term will accurately define prospective employees, but not put them in a box with such a negative insinuation. It will acknowledge their potential availability for employment while offering a subliminal affirmation of their potential contribution as a person of talent.

TAtech: The Association for Talent Acquisition Solutions is the global trade association for the talent acquisition technology industry.  Collectively, its members power or operate more than 60,000 sites worldwide and provide state-of-the-art products and innovative services for virtually every facet of talent acquisition. Don’t miss the TAtech Conference & Expo – connect with the real experts in talent acquisition technology and get your hotel room for free!

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