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Cracking the Code: The Truth About Job Descriptions

Like online dating profiles, job descriptions are often written in a cryptic, euphemistic language that takes an experienced eye to decode. Just as “free-spirited” in a dating profile hints at a lack of full-time employment, words like “self-starter” or “multitasker” may give subtle clues about the type of work and the work environment you’ll find at the company. For your amusement (and edification), here’s a list of commonly used job-listing jive and how to decode it.

“Lots of growth opportunity.”

This phrase is a favorite among start-up companies with big dreams and small budgets. What they often don’t tell you is that they expect you to work for minimal pay in exchange for the “opportunity” to toil away on weekends and maybe exercise your stock options if the company finally goes public (most don’t). Before you get sucked in by a phrase like this, make sure that the company is actually one where you can see yourself working for a long time (i.e., you’re passionate about the idea and there are a few deep-pocketed investors who are equally in love with the concept). After all, long-term growth opportunities don’t do you much good if you decide to leave after a few months or the company goes bust.

“Flexibility on work hours.”

This is another favorite among start-ups (and nonprofits, too). In my first job, this meant that I spent Saturday nights lugging heavy metal objects to company events. Other times this will mean you’ll be expected to pull an all-nighter to finish a PowerPoint deck or maybe you’ll have to come in half an hour early a few times a month to prep for a meeting. It varies, but usually when this is outlined as a requirement in the job description, they don’t mean they’ll be flexible with your schedule. Instead, you’re expected to be flexible on their terms.

“Ability to identify and resolve problems.”
Translation: “This company is dysfunctional and we are expecting you to turn things around.” Some people get a thrill out of really sinking their teeth into a challenge and coming up with solutions. Other people will convince an interviewer that they can solve problems, but they’d rather call in sick with a raging case of the Ebola virus than face a conference room full of bickering employees. If you’re the first type of person, then you might consider working as a consultant. That way you’ll be constantly exposed to new challenges but won’t get bogged down by day-to-day minutiae.

“Willingness to work independently.”
Obviously, most people like to have a little autonomy to get their work done without someone constantly looking over their shoulder. But sometimes this phrase means there is a lack of cohesive leadership, so the person in this position needs to be able to work without much direction. Some people see that as a blessing, others find it a bit frustrating. If you’re interviewing with your prospective boss, try to see if he has a sense of the day-to-day responsibilities of this position (beyond the big-picture stuff like “support sales goals” or “generate media coverage”). If he doesn’t, then that’s a good indication that you’ll have to fend for yourself. 

Susan Johnston for NicoleWilliams

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