Your Weird Job Titles Are Making You Miss The Best Candidates

by Lydia Dishman – Fast Company

Rebranding tired old job titles, so they seem fresh and exciting (read: appeal to new talent), has been happening for decades. For example, one 30-year veteran of customer care at various tech companies says that “customer success manager” is a new spin on a role that hasn’t changed in decades. But the proliferation of playful monikers for traditional jobs continues unabated.

According to jobs platform Indeed, the top five are genius, guru, rockstar, wizard, and ninja. The winning titles were identified as the most common “weird job titles” as calculated by the share of postings containing them over the last two years. Rockstar, in particular, has grown in frequency by 19%, followed closely by guru, although the latter has lost some steam as it’s declined by 21%. Ninja itself is experiencing a slow assassination, declining by 35% since its peak in March 2017. But does the quirkiness really result in surfacing qualified candidates?

Paul Wolfe, senior vice president of HR at Indeed, thinks they just serve to confuse people. “When you do your [job] search,” he contends, “you’re not going to put ninja” in the search box. “Companies use these to express what their culture is like,” Wolfe concedes, “but there are other ways to get that point out.” Career pages on a website that contain videos, photos, and other descriptions of what it’s like to work at the company are a better vehicle than a cutesy title.

So why use them at all? Wolfe speculates the trend started in the tech industry. “For example, genius at Apple retail,” he says, which is now a more mainstream title open to interpretation. “Other industries picked it up to get talent attracted to their industry,” he explains.

According to Indeed’s analysis, weird job titles are now more prevalent outside of California. You’ll find the highest demand for rockstars in Idaho, Wolfe notes. And Delaware has 1.32% of all genius job listings nationally, even though it only has 0.29% of the country’s population.

Ninjas, although generally falling out of favor in terms of use, are still in heavy rotation in Maine and other states. However, the title is being pressed into use to define a variety of jobs including marketing ninjas and customer experience ninjas. Indeed’s analysis revealed that one of the most confusing uses is time ninja “which is not an assassin who travels back in time but apparently somebody who works in human resources” judging from the job description. Says Wolfe, “That is another way industries attract talent in a state that may not have a heavy talent population.”

The problem is that even though the tactic is to broaden the talent pool, it may actually be responsible for excluding some qualified people. Kieran Snyder, cofounder and CEO of AI startup Textio, says that women, underrepresented minorities, and people over 40 (of all genders) are less likely to apply for a job that uses genius in the title, according to Textio’s data. Any insider baseball corporate jargon tends to drive certain candidates away, Snyder says.

“These examples are coded to select for white men,” she asserts. But when you remove that language from a job title, Snyder says, companies such as Nvidia (a customer of Textio) had two and a half times more women apply.

Snyder observes that the tech sector seems to be moving away from weird job titles, thanks to negative PR that shone a light on its insular bro culture. Yet while some hiring managers are hyperconscious of discriminatory language that could alienate underrepresented minority candidates, she says “that doesn’t mean they’ve solved their problems.”

Ageism, in particular, is very common among people who purport to be concerned about other kinds of bias, Snyder explains. “They assert a really strong commitment to hiring women or veterans or people of color,” she notes, but their use of language indicates that they are actively discriminating against older candidates. “It’s particularly confounding to me to work with customers who want to hire more young people and write job descriptions to attract them,” she says. “Tech founders don’t have trouble hiring people who are 23.”

Textio’s recent analysis shows that the unconscious bias went deeper than just the job title. More than 25,000 job postings were analyzed for language usage within the job description. “In large organizations, you don’t end up with thousands of people using the same language by accident,” Snyder says. “So when Amazon’s managers write “maniacal” 11 times more than any of their peers, or Uber managers write “whatever it takes” 30 times more, that’s saying something significant about their internal culture.”

On the flip side, Snyder says companies such as Slack and Atlassian avoid such language and have both managed to boost their numbers of female tech staff. Atlassian’s latest diversity report indicates that underrepresented minorities in tech roles did increase to 13.1%. Over one-third (32%) of all new hires since last August were women, including 36% in leadership roles. And the share of staff over 40 years old went from 11% to 15.7%.

Ultimately says Snyder, “The language you use changes who wants to work for your company. If you want the best people it behooves you to describe a job in a more objective way.” And she adds nodding to the growth of both Slack and Atlassian, “It turns out that companies nicer places to work tends to lead to economic success.”


Lydia Dishman is a reporter writing about the intersection of tech, leadership, and innovation. She is a regular contributor to Fast Company and has written for CBS Moneywatch, Fortune, The Guardian, Popular Science, and the New York Times, among others.


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