What Job Ads Can Tell You About An Organisation’s Culture

If you're working for an organisation where mild challenges to the organisation's image are perceived as an attack, you are in an organisation that refuses to learn or change.

By Chally Kacelnik

I’ve seen some truly horrendous job advertisements in my time, and I’m sure you have, too. They might be designed to knock people out based on factors like class or gender (must be a graduate of x institution for the prestige factor, must have y years of continuous employment so we can knock out people who’ve been staying home to raise kids). Sometimes they’re just unreadable, whether they’re full of jargon or badly copy edited – and especially where they don’t tell you what’s actually involved in doing the job.

What’s really telling is when they get to descriptions of the organisational culture, however. I’m talking about descriptions that work hard to inflate the company’s self-image in terms that don’t make it clear what they actually stand for or want to achieve. There might be an emphasis on perks and “working hard and playing hard,” which tends to communicate that you’ll be underpaid for the work of the role. “Humour is a must” is a seemingly innocuous one that ends up as a red flag for controlling behaviour. It routinely indicates that there’ll be forced smiles in the face of endemic bad behaviour, and that grievances in the past have been framed as complainants not being able to take a joke. Strong hints that you must be endlessly available speak to poor boundaries and worse management.

Organisations that repeatedly talk about themselves and their requirements pretty much exclusively in cliches like this do not have a clear understanding of their current state, an inspiring vision for the future, or respect for their workers. They have a pile of defensiveness where a productive and positive organisation should be.

This organisational self-image is brittle, and breaks when you nudge it even a little. And if that lack of awareness is evident to a stranger from a job ad, you have a serious problem. It’s sure not a problem that’s going to be solved by the excellent candidates who are going to pick up on it and run far away before you can hire them.

Some years ago, I applied for a job that had an ad with some of the elements I described above. I went in for an interview, and a few more red flags popped up. The kicker was when it was time for me to ask the interviewers some questions. The company had received some bad press: they’d done a disability-related event that got a lot of pushback from disability activists. I asked about what the impact had been of that for how they were operating now. I was expecting a thoughtful response about consultation and strategy.

What response did I get?

“Haters gonna hate.”

And then an absolute shutdown of body language and manner. (If you were wondering, I didn’t get the job.)

Now, if this were happening today I would have framed my question more carefully. However, I’m glad I had the instinct to be a little belligerent, because I dodged a bullet. If you’re working for an organisation where mild challenges to the organisation’s image are perceived as an attack, you are in an organisation that refuses to learn or change. If an organisation’s response to legitimate criticism is to frame it as hate and an external problem, that organisation is unable to diagnose and solve its problems.

An organisation with a good culture, even a nascently good culture, can handle seeing how they’re really doing and how they can improve. As a management consultant, I find it really satisfying to help them get there.

Job ads are often a window into organisational culture in a way the organisation did not intend. How organisations talk about themselves and potential employees can tell you a lot.

At LKS Quaero, we help organisations to build positive and productive cultures. For more information, visit us at lksquaero.com or follow us on LinkedIn and Facebook.