Decipher job listing jargon

As yet there's no universal translator for job listing jargon.

Read between the lines of recruitment ads and get yourself short-listed.

“We’re a cutting-edge start-up seeking an appropriately skilled, detail-oriented candidate with a high level of organisation and can-do attitude.

You’ll need to be an independent self-starter who can hit the ground running. An ability to think outside the box is essential.

You will be required to exercise game-changing, value-adding innovation to escalate portfolios into a new paradigm and seamlessly deliver win-win outcomes.

You will need to leverage solutions to empower synergy between bottom line objectives and overarching corporate strategies. We want someone who can set expectations moving forward. A proven ability to lock in deliverables would be highly regarded.

In return for a commitment to excellence and pushing the envelope, the successful applicant will be generously incentivised.”

Sound like gobbledegook? It is.

Unfortunately, there is no Google Translate option for learning “corporate speak”. You tend to pick it up as you go along, either in meetings, the coffee room or around your desk listening to co-workers or your boss converse in what may at first seem like alien metaphors and phrases.

Compounding the issue is that many organisations have their own preferred jargon, be it because of the industry they’re in or just that certain words have become entrenched in their cultural vernacular over time.

"Some job ads can seem very vague at first, but there will always be words in there that carry more weight than others." – Anne Morrow

Whatever the case, it’s not helpful when employers use such words in job advertisements.

In fact, jargon like “detail-oriented” and “self-starter” has become so overused that many ads have started to sound almost the same, with the words themselves often overlooked by would-be applicants or at best skimmed over.

But these buzzwords all signal something and, according to South Africa-based human resources professional Anne Morrow, decoding what recruiters are really trying to say is essential for a successful job hunt.

“You can take a shotgun approach and send applications off en masse, but if you’re not sure what the keywords and phrases really mean, you’re probably wasting your time,” she says.

“Some job ads can seem very vague at first, but there will always be words in there that carry more weight than others. It’s important to pick up on them.

“Others can read like a Christmas wish list, but by reading between the lines you’ll usually see that some skills are essential, while others are preferred.

“For example, there’s a difference between being knowledgeable about something, and an expert.”

Related: Do your skills measure up? Assess yourself with CPA Australia's Career Guidance System.

Morrow believes that if you can tick 80 per cent of the boxes in terms of what an employer is looking for, you may be in with a chance.

“Even if you’re not across all the desired skills – perhaps because you haven’t yet had the chance to demonstrate them – you might still be able to mount a case as to why you have the right potential.

“Most candidates who are eventually hired don’t match all the criteria in an ad. Other factors, such as cultural fit, come into play.”

Although some attributes might be more important than others, if you want to get short-listed you still need to address everything being asked for, Morrow says.

“Don’t leave gaps, because they will be noticed.

Before applying for any position, it is in everybody’s interest to first decipher what knowledge, skills and abilities (KSAs) an employer considers non-negotiable – qualities you not only need to have, but be able to prove you’ve got.

“When something is described as required or mandatory, applicants without the requisite KSAs simply won’t be considered,” Morrow says.

“If an employer says they would be ‘highly regarded’, or words to the effect, it means candidates who possess them will be given preference, but others with a strong background who might not tick every box, could well get a look in.”

Decoding the jargon


An old chestnut that’s as common today as it ever was, but depending on the context in which it is used, could mean different things.

If, for example, you’re applying for a job as a forensic accountant or proofreader, you’ll definitely need an eye well-trained for detail.

On the other hand, it could mean your prospective boss is a control freak who’s hinting that everything you do will be micro-managed, cross-examined, second-guessed and then put through the wringer again – until you get it “right”.


This phrase is frequently code in sales roles for a willingness to close a sale at any cost, meet ambitious budgets and possibly work for commission. The term is often coupled with wishy-washy wording such as “committed to growth” which, in any case, provides insight into how your performance will be measured and the aggressive culture of the organisation.

Independent self-starter

Be careful with this one. Synonymous with the equally tired and overused expression, “able to hit the ground running”, it generally means there won’t be any induction program of note and certainly very little in the way of on-the-job guidance, supervision or support from management.

More likely, you’ll be shown to a desk your predecessor briefly tenanted and without any real direction, given an open invitation to sink or swim.

But if you prefer working autonomously and have confidence in your ability to make the right decisions, such roles are not without their advantages and, for the right person, potentially rewarding.

Technology and leadership skills

Will you need to be proficient in Microsoft Office or have a degree in Linux to do the job?

Because of their technological transformation, the way many industries now function is almost unrecognisable from the way they did 10 years ago.

Obviously, some technology skill sets are transferrable across different industries, but before drafting an application, do some checking.

It might take a little extra work, but a simple phone call to ask about the software programs a candidate should be familiar with could go a long way towards landing a job you not only really want, but are perfectly qualified for.

The same goes for ads that stipulate a need for “leadership skills”, but leadership of what? Personnel, internal initiatives, new business projects?

“Find out what it means,” Morrow says.

“Does the position require candidates to have worked in the same field as a manager, or is an ability to take ownership of something and run with it what’s important?

“Ideally, it’s a good idea to talk to someone in the know, but if you can’t do that, LinkedIn can help you assess the skills and responsibilities of people in similar roles.”

It's easy to get confused when perusing job listings, but as Morrow points out, the onus is on applicants to work smarter, not harder.

October 2021
October 2021

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