Sunday, January 30, 2011

Job ads: Choose your words wisely

Back in 2007 I began a project through this website to collect survey data from passers-by on words found in job ads. You may have seen a link to the survey on this blog's home page--or even taken the survey itself.

I was motivated to undertake this project because at the time (and this may still be the case) there was very little research on how attractive/effective certain words are in job advertisements. Seems like a simple question, and I was curious.

After 3.5 years I've decided to share what the data shows. My hope was to get a large sample, and I'm settling for just under 150, so take that into account. And of course the generalizability of the results is questionable, although the fact that it was gathered over such a long period of time and the sample group is fairly diverse may help us feel a little more comfortable.


SurveyMonkey. Four questions. Began collecting data in June of 2007, last data point was November of 2010. Questions were followed by a series of fifteen words or phrases generated pretty much off the top of my head with an "Other" option. Unfortunately I didn't think to randomize the presentation of options, so keep that in mind. I had to use two different collectors in SurveyMonkey since I have a free account and they max at 100 responses. When graphics are presented below they are for the first collector only (couldn't download/combine the data sets because of free account), which has more responses but is older data. You can see/take the survey here.


One hundred and forty-seven blog visitors. I expected most to primarily identify as HR professionals or academics, but most (43%) chose job seeker. The respondents generally fell evenly into the other categories, including just being interested in the subject matter.


Word Frequency

The first question asked participants what words they see most often in job ads.

The #1 answer? By far....."Motivated" Selected by 70-80%, depending on the collector, also the first choice presented.

Other frequent answers (in the 50% vicinity):

- Professional
- Organized
- Works Well Under Pressure

Interestingly, "Motivated" seems to have become more frequent over time, as has "Works Well Under Pressure" and "Flexible". "Independent", "High Energy", and "Friendly" were among the words becoming less frequent.

How about least frequent?

- Conscientious
- Smart
- Friendly

Both "Conscientious" and "Smart" became less frequent over time.

Emotional Response

The second question asked participants to rate their emotional response to the same words or phrases presented in the first question on a seven-point rating scale from "Very Negative" to "Very Positive". Generally most words/phrases received positive responses, and the difference in means between the best-liked ones and least-liked ones was less than one point.

So which received the most positive ratings?

- Motivated
- Reliable
- Professional
- Independent

How about least positive?

- Works Well Under Pressure
- High Energy
- Detail Oriented

I'm guessing that to the extent that there is a difference here, the most popular words seem to describe jobs that would allow applicants a fair amount of flexibility over their work and involve a stimulating work environment. The least positive words are likely associated with fast-paced (hey that would have been a good option) jobs, such as customer service, that may not be particularly stimulating.

Application Intentions

The last question asked respondents to select how likely they would be to apply for a job that contained the same list of words/phrases (knowing no other details). As with emotional response, most responses were associated with high intentions to apply, and the difference between most likely and least likely means was less than one point.

So which led to the highest application intentions? "Professional" and "Reliable" were consistent across the two collectors. "Motivated" became more positive over time, as did "Independent". This is consistent with emotional response.

How about the ones least likely to lead to application intentions? Matching the emotional responses, "High Energy" and "Detail Oriented" were bottom on the list. "Smart" has become less associated with application intentions, as has "Works Well Under Pressure".


Judging by this data, it appears that organizations wishing to distinguish themselves using job advertisements should feel comfortable using words that directly speak to applicant personality, such as "conscientious" and "friendly"--these were less frequently found and not associated with particularly negative responses. Organizations should try to use words that imply an environment that allows applicants to use their own judgment when making decisions and stay away from words that imply a hectic, always-on work environment.

Of course all this depends on the particular job being advertised. As we know, presenting candidates with a realistic job preview is immensely helpful (for them as well as the organization), and if the job is heavy customer service, well, it just is. In addition, this data says nothing about the quality of applicants--it may be that higher performing employees prefer different words than lower-performing ones.

I hope at the very least you found these results interesting. It's something to think about when crafting your job ads, and of course one could run a much more sophisticated study by including things like occupation and demographics.

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