Watch your language: Three ways your job ads can boost diversity

Diversity in the workplace isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s good for business. A study from McKinsey has shown that companies ranking higher for gender, racial and ethnic diversity make more money than their less diverse peers.

So it pays to make sure your job ads appeal to as diverse a group of talented people as possible (they’re adverts, after all). And yet, the language used in job ads can often put people off. Consciously or not, they can feel biased or suggest a culture where not everyone fits and thrives.

Here are three simple things you can do to make sure your ads are making people of all ages, gender, race and abilities consider hitting apply.

1. Check your job ads for gendered words

A 2011 study by Gaucher, Friesen and Kay showed that we see words as gendered – either male, female or neutral. And that, regardless of expertise and skills, women found job ads with male-gendered language to be less appealing, and they felt they’d belong less in those jobs. Similarly, men found job ads with female-gendered language to be slightly less appealing.

According to Total Jobs, the five most frequently used male-gendered words in job ads are: lead, analyse, competitive, active and confident. And the most frequently used female-gendered words are: support, responsible, understanding and committed.

By using lots of either male or female-gendered words, you’re setting yourself up to appeal to a particular gender, and have talented people deselect themselves.

Of course, we can’t do away with gendered words altogether. But we can check our job ads to make sure they’re not unfairly weighted in one direction. This gender decoder tool is helpful.

And like with any piece of writing, get a second opinion before you sign off on job ads. You could make it the norm to even get a third or a fourth. Especially from people who can give you a different perspective from your own.

2. Tune in to ageist language

In 2021, more than a third of the UK workforce is over 50 (ONS), a stat that will be similar around the world. And it stands to reason that working for longer means many people will want to move jobs or even try something new.

Just like with gendered language, there are terms and phrases that slip into our job ads that will put older applicants off. The Centre for Better Aging found that older workers said they were put off from roles when the language seemed to appeal to a younger group.

And we’re not talking youth speak or slang. Words like ‘innovative’ and ‘dynamic’ made some older workers feel they’d be less likely to get an interview or offer – while ‘tech savvy’ made them doubt they’d fit in.

So what can you do to avoid being unintentionally ageist?

  • Avoid non-specific terms like innovative. Instead talk about the skills needed or the tasks the person will need to do.
  • Use more neutral terms that would appeal to older workers, like knowledgeable or dependable (which it seems younger people are just as drawn to.)
  • Don’t ask for criteria that will exclude certain age groups. Like ‘recent graduates, which would make a career changer feel unwelcome. Or asking for 5 years of experience in something, which could put off people with less experience but transferrable skills.

3. Ban business-speak and jargon – it can exclude people

The problem with business-speak, internal language and jargon is that it almost always falls to the reader to work out what it means. Who reads the words ‘synergy’ or ‘holistic approach’ and doesn’t have to translate it into normal speak? And do you always work out exactly what someone is talking about?

When you’re not in the know – when you can’t immediately call to mind what that three-letter-acronym means or why you’re being told to ‘peel the onion’ – you feel excluded.

So there’s no place for internal language in job ads. You wouldn’t put it in your marketing ads, and you shouldn’t here. Not only that, but your job ad is the successful applicant’s first interaction with your brand. Do you want business-speak to set the tone for how they communicate with customers and staff from day one?

So, unless you are 100% sure that everyone will understand you, cut the business buzzwords and acronyms. Instead tell people what you actually mean, using everyday language that everyone understands. You’ll be more welcoming to more people, and get more talented people through the door.

And finally, never stop examining your words

These three tips are just for starters. As workplaces become more aware of diversity and inclusion, there’ll be more you can do. You train your people to give them the skills they need. Or look at your employee journeys, your policies, your forms, and see how those can improve and include?

That can sound like a lot of work. You can’t do it all at once. But by starting with the job ads, you’re laying strong foundations.