It starts early these days — the boosterism, the upbeat personal statements.
University applicants have to sell themselves on their Ucas forms (University application forms). Social media accounts are dotted with self-promotion and self-congratulation. And professionals are filling up their LinkedIn pages with a series of overfamiliar claims.
If you believe what you read on LinkedIn, Britain is a nation of “motivated” and “creative” people. Everything is awesome, and everyone is “passionate” and “enthusiastic”. Britons are “driven”. They are “strategic”. They have a “track record” of “extensive experience”.
These are some of the most frequently used terms LinkedIn says are seen on its site. And of course they tell us nothing about anything. They are words that anyone can use. But if you have to say it, can it really be true? Why would you need to boast about your “integrity”, for example? Dead words conveying limited meaning are a sign that something has gone wrong. First, it shows that in their insecurity about their job prospects, people feel obliged to make the same old empty claims. It betrays both a lack of imagination and a disappointing vocabulary. It also shows that many people have a narrow, stereotypical view of what they think employers want. Perhaps TV shows such as The Apprentice reinforce the idea that business is mainly about being “passionate”.
Few approach the world of work with the blunt candour of Lester Burnham, played by Kevin Spacey in the film American Beauty, who said he was looking for “the least possible amount of responsibility”. Why do we feel the need to make these predictable statements about ourselves when going for a job? It cannot really set us apart from the other applicants. But maybe the cliche-mongers are being cleverer than we think. The use of “applicant tracking systems” by many companies might tempt you to repeat the usual lines about being “energetic”, “dynamic” and so on. Of course, some recruiters will see no alternative to using software to help them get through thousands of applications. But more fool them if they set the algorithms up to create a shortlist of two dozen seemingly identical “driven” and “passionate” people.
Dead language reveals inert thinking. The Financial Times’ Lucy Kellaway scored a direct hit on the global consulting firm Deloitte this week by pointing out how dire the chief executive’s New Year message to staff had been. The CEO, Punit Renjen, had said his New Year resolution was “to deliver an exceptional, and consistent, global talent experience across the Deloitte network”. Bosses who talk to their staff like that are asking for a mountain of identical, bland job applications to tumble onto their desk. The firm and the applicants deserve each other.
How can we break out of the business “buzzword bingo” trap? When in doubt, some of George Orwell’s rules on clarity and simplicity in writing are worth remembering: Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech that you are used to seeing in print; never use a long word where a short one will do; if it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
But more importantly, it ought to be possible to apply for a job without pretending to be something we are not. It shouldn’t be necessary to repeat a list of hackneyed workplace virtues. We should tell a potential employer who we are, in plain terms. If they are looking for someone like us, good. If not, we will have avoided the unpleasant experience of getting stuck in a job that didn’t really suit us. A performance bonus should go to LinkedIn for alerting people to their cliche-filled ways. But wait a minute. In revealing these overpopular words and phrases, a spokesman for the company said: “It’s really important that people are authentic on their profiles.” Oh dear: “authentic” — a no-no in the job application and personal statement business. And it gets worse: “It’s never been more challenging to stand out from the crowd,” we are told. “Show individuality ... treat LinkedIn as your professional portfolio ...” LinkedIn: Heal thyself.
— Guardian News & Media Ltd
Stefan Stern is a management writer and visiting professor at Cass Business School.