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Is the language in your job descriptions turning away older applicants?

Terms like ‘rock stars’ could signal to older workers that they’re not welcome, one NYU professor explains.
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· 3 min read

There’s a reason why realtors use the words like “cozy” and “quaint” instead of “small” when describing homes. Descriptors can change perceptions. They can also affect who does and does not respond to job advertisements.

Research has shown that language can dissuade otherwise qualified job applicants from applying to jobs. But, as Michael North, assistant professor of management and organization at NYU’s Stern School of Business, explained via email, HR can help eliminate ageist language from job descriptions.

New meets old. A multigenerational workforce can have a positive effect on an organization, North wrote, thanks to “the unique combination of newness and old guard.”

As he explained: “It can be a recipe for a unique form of beneficial diversity, because younger workers aspire to be late-career workers one day and older workers know firsthand what it’s like to be just starting out.”

Words matter. Seasoned professionals can’t impart wisdom on younger employees if they are turned off from the jobs before they even apply. A July study from academics from the University of California Irvine and the University of Liverpool, UK, found that ageist language in job descriptions, including terms that focused on “stereotypes related to communication skills, physical ability, and technology skills,” is likely to deter older workers from applying.

“Job-ad language related to ageist stereotypes, even when the language is not blatant or specifically age-related, deters older workers from applying for jobs,” David Neumark, an economics professor at UC Irvine and the paper’s co-author, explained. “In addition to being borderline illegal, this practice inhibits policy efforts to encourage older workers to work longer, which is critical in light of population aging.”

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More specifically, North said, language about “fitting in with a young team,” having “high ambition,” or being “rock stars” can subtly exclude older job applicants. “We need to be careful to quickly add that not all older workers lack ambition or willingness to learn, but it is the case that many older workers read this kind of signal and see, ‘Over age X need not apply,’” North said.

Culture shock. North recommended that HR departments use language more intentionally so as not to exclude older workers.

Case in point: In January, UK insurance company Phoenix Group announced plans to change some of the language it was using in its job descriptions to be more inclusive of older applicants. “We haven’t taken the step to ban specific words, but we will be looking to replace words such as ‘innovative,’ with specific competencies such as ‘contributing new ideas’ or ‘problem solving,’” a company spokesperson told Business Insider.

He also said the same thoughtfulness should apply when describing culture.

“Boasting about your organizational culture being so great that workers want to work late into the night can inadvertently exclude workers who have family or other non-work obligations that make pulling those late hours tough,” North said. “And typically, those kinds of arrangements cater to earlier-life-stage workers who do not yet have family obligations.”—KP

Do you work in HR or have information about your HR department we should know? Email [email protected] or DM @Kris10Parisi on Twitter. For completely confidential conversations, ask Kristen for her number on Signal.

HR is challenging. HR news doesn’t have to be.

HR Brew keeps you effective in the fast-changing business environment.