Decoding Job Ads: Why to Avoid a ‘Fast-Paced Work Environment’

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Job ads are loaded with overused phrases such as “detail-oriented” and “team player.” What do these buzzwords really mean? Here’s how an expert translates one of the most common phrases: “Fast paced means you’re going to work more hours than we’re paying you.”

After reading a typical job ad, hopefully a candidate has a decent idea of what the job entails. It’s pretty likely, though, that the job seeker will be wondering: Um, so what’ll the work environment really be like? Will I love it, or will I want to quit before lunch on the first day? Will I get time for lunch at all?

Helpfully, a neat Fortune post asks recruiters, career coaches, and other experts to read between the lines and offer layman’s explanations for what commonly used buzzwords such as “multitask,” “self-motivated,” and “fast-paced work environment” really mean.

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Speaking of which, the “fast-paced work environment” is not for everyone. Here’s a translation:

This means that the employer wants high productivity at all costs and you’ll be fielding a steady flow of emergencies. “Fast paced means you’re going to work more hours than we’re paying you,” interprets [Kathryn] Ullrich.

Ullrich is a recruiter based in Silicon Valley and the author of Getting to the Top: Strategies for Career Success.

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Another expert, Kevin Fleming, who owns a career- and life-coaching company, issues warnings about seemingly harmless terms such as team player (“code phrase for someone who will allow us to do whatever we want to you”), detail-oriented (“watch out for control freaks”), and self-starter (“code phrase for, ‘Can you make ambivalence and lack of direction work?'”).

Why do the folks who write job ads insist on rolling out these phrases time after time? In the same way that realtors want to paint the property for sale in the most flattering language, hiring managers hope to describe job openings in ways that will attract the best candidates possible. Certainly, they do not want to scare off potential candidates by being completely upfront and honest about the fact that, say, you’re going to work 70 hours a week and only get paid for 40, or that the boss is so passive-aggressive he’ll put your mother-in-law to shame.

Then again, the jargon-y buzz phrases that pop up all over job listings may not mean much of anything. According to Fleming, jargon and clichés in job ads could just be a sign of “lazier decision making in corporate cultures.”

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Because the people writing job ads don’t have the energy and creativity needed to come up with new, more meaningful descriptions of the workload and environment, they often resort to the same old tired clichés like “self-starter” and “out of the box.”

Brad Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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