How To Decode 10 Of The Most Common Job Listing Phrases

Here's what buzzwords like "fast-paced environment," "unlimited PTO" and "works well under pressure" really mean.
If a job listing is looking for a “self-starter” who can “work well under pressure” in a “fast-paced environment," there's a message in there about the company's priorities.
If a job listing is looking for a “self-starter” who can “work well under pressure” in a “fast-paced environment," there's a message in there about the company's priorities.

Before you apply for a job, you probably first read a listing that includes overused keywords and vague mission statements like “We are seeking a self-starter who can work well under pressure in a fast-paced environment.”

Those common job listing phrases can inadvertently reveal a lot about the company’s priorities, its ideal job candidate, and who belongs or doesn’t in the organization’s culture. Here’s how recruiters and job search coaches say you should decode them:

1. “Fast-paced environment”

Job search strategist Melanie L. Denny said this can be code for a heavy workload. “It typically means there’s a lot of work to do and things are always busy, so be ready to work quickly because almost everything is time-sensitive,” she said. “You’ll have to learn fast and work fast and your job may be in jeopardy if you can’t keep up.”

If this sounds like the worst job environment ever, think twice before applying.

2. “Self-starter”

A request for a self-starter could mean that you’ll be given little training and have to come up with ideas on your own, Denny said. She said it’s a popular listing in startups since leaders are likely still working out the specifics of business operations and procedures.

“This could be considered a red flag for someone who is relatively new to the field and still [needs] training. But it’s ideal for a leader who has similar experience under his/her belt and is ready to execute his ideas with little to no direction,” Denny said.

Job search coach Ashley Watkins said if a company asks you to be a self-starter, you need to go beyond just self-identifying as one in your job application. Back it up by sharing times you initiated a process or took the lead when your supervisor wasn’t there, Watkins said.

3. “Be flexible” or “agile”

Both flexibility and agility are subjective requirements and you may need to ask for clarity. “Sometimes they’ll say they want you to be flexible, but it’s more about compromise than it is about being flexible,” Watkins said. “And when I say compromise, I mean you’re always on the losing end of that compromise, meaning that you’re going to do whatever they ask, because you’re flexible.”

One way to get at what their version of flexibility really means is to ask, “How was the person that I’m replacing expected to be flexible?” Watkins said.

Tejal Wagadia, a senior talent acquisition specialist at MST Solutions, said if a job listing wants an agile candidate, that means “you need to be OK with dropping something mid-project, mid-assignment, whatever it is, and going to something else. It also means you can’t be stubborn. They want somebody that will be like, ‘OK, let’s move on.’“

4. “Unlimited paid time off”

Unlimited vacation time is a popular policy pioneered by companies like Netflix. The thinking goes that since you’re a working adult who doesn’t need to be micromanaged, you get to decide how much time off you take. But with the lack of clear structure, workers end up taking less time off.

“From an employee’s perspective, you feel bad about taking vacation,” Wagadia said. “Most people thrive in knowing what they have, and how much they have, and how they can utilize it.” There could also be a cultural expectation that you don’t take long vacations. An employee taking a month off at a time in their first year could be considered a red flag by managers, she noted.

Former recruiter and career coach Diana YK Chan said if you want to get a better understanding of what a company’s vacation policy really means, talk to someone in the know and ask them, “Typically, how many days do people take time off and what percent of people are using that?”

5. “Competitive salary”

When you see “competitive salary” in a job listing, this doesn’t mean you can’t negotiate your pay, Chan said. “I have a lot of clients and they look at the research and think, ’OK this is the only band I could get in terms of range,′ but if you’re considered at the higher range of salary, meaning you have more negotiation power, you should really stand strong on your value and ask for more,” she said.

To get clarity on what exactly they mean by a competitive salary, ask what the range is during the interview process, Chan said.

6. “Wears many hats”/“And other duties as assigned”

Denny said if you read “wears many hats,” you will likely be asked to do things that are outside of your job duties. That interpretation may be reinforced by the phrase “and other duties as assigned” appearing elsewhere in the posting.

“This could be considered a red flag for a candidate who appreciates the structure of a predetermined set of responsibilities and doesn’t want to be pulled in many directions,” she said. “For another candidate, they may enjoy switching up his/her daily tasks.”

Chan said if you find a job listing that expects you to take on multiple responsibilities and handle it all, ask a clarifying question in the interview process such as, “‘How much time, in terms of percentage, do you envision me doing this part of the work?’” she said. “That helps as a job seeker to see, ‘Do I actually want to spend that much time on that?’”

7. “Works well under pressure”

“You are going to be put under lots of projects and deadlines that will not be realistic, and management knows that’s the case,” is what this phrase could mean, Wagadia said. “Most people will leave in one to two years; most people won’t thrive on that for long-term.”

To succeed in this environment, you need to accept imperfection, because “you are going to need to produce mediocre-level stuff and be OK with it,” Wagadia said.

8. “Be passionate”

Being passionate does not mean you have to be genuinely enthusiastic about the industry, but you do need to come to an interview prepared to showcase your expertise in the subject, Wagadia said. “Even if you’re not passionate, do enough research that show you have interest in them,” she said.

9. “Be a problem-solver”

If you get this in a listing, you are likely to hear interview questions like “Tell me about a time you had to pivot your strategy,” or any other question that asks you to share how you troubleshoot, Chan said.

Chan said if you see this kind of standard request, you should anticipate what are the challenging problems facing this role and be prepared to explain how you would actually tackle them.

10. “Ninjas,” “rockstars,” “jedis,” “gurus,” “unicorns,” and other superstar titles

With these fancy titles, “there’s a certain level of expertise and expectation that you will know what you’re doing, that you know how to do it. But often these expectations are unrealistic,” Wagadia said.

If these phrases make you less likely to apply, you’re not alone. Research has found that phrases like “ninja,” which suggest an aggressive expert in their field, can be a major turnoff to female job seekers.

These vague superstar titles can also be an indication that the company does not know what they want. “Most jobs, if you can’t define in easy-to-understand 5-7 sentences, you don’t know what you’re looking for,” Wagadia said.

With these buzzwords, there’s a difference between needing some clarity and being straight-up confused. “If they are creating confusion before you even start working, imagine how much confusion you have the potential to face once you start the role,” Watkins said. “You want to know what success looks like in that particular role.”