Avoiding hell at work by spotting Dilbertian job descriptions

Everyone wants that dream job, but it's often hard to tell a dream job apart from the Dilbert job - you know what I mean - boring work, lots of finger pointing, technical people marginalised, pointy haired boss makes all the money...

So here's the thing about job descriptions - they always contain a certain amount of hyperbole. It's a fact of life. The trick is to take a close look at the bits which use words like 'leverage', 'teamwork' and more recently, 'rock star'. Examining the hyperbole in a particular job description can give applicants a fair idea about the nature of the company, and possibly even the nature of their future boss.

Here are some of the standard JD patterns that any Google search will turn up. I'm compressing job description to JD - I'm too lazy to type it every time.

1) Requirements that aren't filters
So there's this JD which has a requirement 'should be a team player'. Do you seriously think any applicant is going to look at that, say 'Nah, teamwork isn't for me' and move on? Or to put it another way, some requirements simply state the obvious. This is especially true if adjectives are used, but without any subject. For example, compare these two extracts:

+ Should be passionate about Ruby

+ Should be self motivated and open to learning and working on new languages and platforms

as opposed to

- Should be passionate and self-motivated
- Should be dynamic, with high energy and enthusiasm

In the first case, it is clear that someone who knows something about the job has used those adjectives, not some HR drone trying to create meaningless filler content. The subjects to which those adjectives are applied are clear and applicants can use them to make decisions.

Count the number of requirements which don't really help you as an applicant decide if you're a fit for the job. Less is, of course, better.

Some key phrases to look out for:
  • Excellent team player
  • Strong work ethic
  • Highly motivated, dynamic, passionate
  • High energy and enthusiasm
  • Flexible
  • Open and honest (ha ha, I'm sorry, remembered some Dilbert cartoons)
2) Requirements that are plain impossible
This one is simple and obvious, so I won't spend too much time on this one. If you see any of these, run for your life - the company hasn't a clue.

Look for stuff like:
  • Minimum of five years experience with Rails
  • Minimum of nine years experience designing and developing enterprise class applications in .Net
Rails was released in 2004, and .Net in 2001. This article was written in 2007.

3) Requirements that are all over the map
I'm talking about a JD where the requirements are so generic and broad that they cover just about everyone in the field. The requirements aren't necessarily contradictory - but they aren't complementary either.
Here's a sample:
  • Extensive experience developing in Perl/PHP
  • Strong foundation in XHTML and CSS
  • Extensive experience in developing in Visual C++ including MFCs
  • Strong foundation in networking protocols
Steer clear of such JDs unless there is a clear thread linking all the requirements. It's most likely that their HR is just fishing or there is a major disconnect between HR and the department looking to do the hiring. In India, there's a clear and present danger that you're being hired for the bench.

4) Weird or pompous designations
Watch out for weird designations for the job in question, especially if not accompanied by an explanation - either the job is really cool or really mundane. The people writing JDs often invent weird designations for a position if

a) They want to stand out and attract cool people
b) They want to disguise a mind numbingly mundane job as a funky one
c) They want to use your ego to get you do something fairly run-of-the-mill

It's the latter two that you need to watch out for. For example, in Bangalore, it's now understood that if someones designation is 'Marketing Executive', they are essentially salespeople. Every fifth person in Bangalore is an executive of some sort these days. Unfortunately there is no hard and fast rule to tell the first apart from the second and third except to research the background of the company. A designation of 'Hacker Dude' at a startup is much more plausible than 'Hacker Dude' at any one of our 70,000 employee local outsourcing behemoths. Companies which let you choose your own designation are the best (shameless plug: guess which company fits the bill...)

5) Corporate babble
You've seen this in a thousand places - stuff like "As a senior architect, you will focus on developing collaborative strategies to leverage the latest technologies and maximise productivity". Yeah. Whatever.

OK, my example is a bit over the top, and you'll always find some amount of this gunk, especially around the description of the company itself. Often it's fairly innocuous - stuff like 'work on cutting edge technologies', or 'leading innovator'. Sure, that's sort of OK, you can understand why it's there and it doesn't directly affect you.
However, the more babble there is, the more care you need to take. If meaningless babble like that is being used to describe the job itself, steer clear - PHB ahead.

6) Appeals to a misplaced sense of duty
I've met people who've been brainwashed by their employers into thinking that working fourteen hours a day, every day, is really cool. They (the employers) manage this by appealing to employees (misplaced) sense of duty and loyalty. JD writers know this, so watch out for stuff like "aren't afraid of working around the clock to make things happen". Again, this depends on context. Working for a startup is very much a 24 hour job, and you're doing it because you own a part of the gig. Not so with your regular company.

All things said and done, there are a bunch of cool people out there, and a bunch of cool companies where they'd like to work, and who in turn would love to hire them. We just need to figure out standard patterns to identify each. In this case, the cool companies somehow tend to have a minimum of these JD anti-patterns so it isn't too hard to identify them simply by examining the JDs they put out.

Do let me know if you've come across any JD patterns or anti-patterns of your own.

Read the other side of the story: Be the nail that sticks out - how to get hired by an interesting company
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