Smoking continues to be a public health crisis, with estimated costs to the NHS at around £5 billion annually. Governments internationally have tightened legislation around smoking and are investing heavily in public health messaging to persuade people to stop smoking. However, recent research by the London School of Economics has found that these messages can stigmatise smokers, making them angry, defensive and lowering their self-esteem. The impact of this is that smokers are less likely to quit as a result. Government intention is positive, yet the outcome is not as intended.
Many organisations aim to be truly diverse employers and representative of society at large. Their struggle to achieve this target is driven by the clear advantages and benefits enjoyed by those organisations who are more representative. The intention that most organisations have is to recruit, retain and promote a more diverse workforce. However, much like government public health warnings related to smoking, organisational messaging is having the opposite effect. The language they use could be driving away diverse candidates, and discouraging diverse employees from seeking promotion.
The received wisdom that most organisations follow is to ensure their corporate websites have images of diverse employees and positive statements about diversity intention and performance. Many believe rightly that if they ignore these two themes they will reduce the attractiveness of their organisation to diverse candidates. However, organisations should be cautious. Positive diversity statements aligned with limited evidence of diversity in the organisation can lead potential employees to question the organisation’s integrity.
What most organisations also fail to realise is that the language they use to describe their vacancies can subtly signal whether diverse recruits will fit in or not.
Researchers have explored the impact of recruitment language both in terms of gender and ethnicity. What they have found is that despite organisations wanting to increase representation of diverse groups, the language used can have the opposite effect.
From a gender perspective, there are words that people associate more with men than women and vice versa. Use more masculine language and female job seekers will be put off, as they will conclude that the organisation is not a welcoming environment for women. Some of you will have come across websites such as ‘gender decoder’, which aim to highlight the use of masculine and feminine language in job adverts. Whilst interesting, the approach it leads to (removing masculine language) is a gross over-simplification. It can also make describing and assessing jobs very difficult. However, there are approaches that can overcome this problem.
Job adverts can also signal to minority ethnic applicants that they will not fit into an organisation. The mechanisms that lead to this are different to gender signalling. Where job adverts list traits that members of an ethnic minority community believe link to stereotypes that the ethnic majority may hold about them, they will be less likely to apply. In addition, further research has revealed that some job attributes (e.g. career development or level of autonomy) appeal more to some ethnic groups than others. It is important to remember that we can control and amend the subtle messages that job adverts communicate in order to support greater representation in our organisations.