‘Must handle stress’: Red-flag language in job ads is on the up—and over 75% of Starbucks postings use ‘toxic’ phrases

March 1, 2023, 2:00 PM UTC
Businesswoman looking uneasy at her laptop
Unsurprisingly, companies that signal a toxic culture in their job ads are more likely to struggle with hiring talent.
Maskot—Getty Images

There are some workplace phrases that instantly make workers’ toes curl, for example, the use of “family.”

The term might have once been endearing, making workers feel all warm and fuzzy inside.

But today, when an employer describes their workforce as “like a family,” many modern workers hear something akin to: “We expect unconditional loyalty and out-of-hours devotion from our staff.”

Why? Because workers have been calling out the euphemisms that some employers use to package overworking, across social media and on company review websites like Glassdoor.

You may think hiring managers would now avoid such language at all costs.

Think again. Not only are employers still using “red-flag” phrases that signal a high stress or toxic work culture, they’re also dropping them in their job ads. 

Red-flag language in job ads is on the up

The workforce analytics firm, Revelio Labs combed through job ads for phrases like “must handle stress,” “able to work under pressure,” “can multitask,” and “fast-paced environment”—and they found that the use of “red-flag language” is becoming more prevalent

By the end of last year, over a quarter of job postings contained at least one phrase that applicants would consider a red flag. Despite the recent focus on inclusivity from businesses, this is up from 18% in January 2016.

Indeed there are some instances where the use of such language is important—for example, some jobs generally are more stressful than others, so it may be better to highlight that sooner rather than later.

However, companies that use such phrases often are more likely to struggle with hiring talent. 

On average, the researchers found that a one percentage point increase in the share of postings with at least one red-flag phrase is associated with 0.48 more days to fill a job.

“Job applicants pay close attention to the language in the job postings,” the report says. “Red-flag phrases that implicitly describe a demanding job with no work-life balance could turn them off.”

This resonates with Revelio Labs’ previous research, published in MIT Sloan Review, which found that a toxic work culture was the main driver of the Great Resignation and more off-putting to workers than a low salary.

Top companies and industries

The researchers also analyzed the job posting at the 20 largest companies in the U.S. for red flags—and Starbucks was the biggest offender by a long shot. 

Since 2020, over 75% of Starbucks’ job postings have included at least one red flag, and on average, it took 82 days to fill a vacancy at the coffee chain.

Bank of America came in second place with 57% of its job posting containing phrases that could foreshadow a toxic environment, followed by Amazon with 45%. 

By comparison, Walgreens Boots Alliance was the organization using red-flag lingo the least, creeping its way into around just 1% of job ads. On average it took 31 days for the pharmaceutical retailer to fill postings.  

Starbucks did not reply to Fortune‘s request for comment at the time of publishing.

Sector and job trends

The researchers found that marketing vacancies have had the highest share of red-flag phrases in the last two years. 

Red-flag postings in marketing commonly use the phrases “fast-paced environment,” and “work under pressure,” according to the report.

Meanwhile, around 30% of job ads in the finance sector and 29% in the sales industry contained at least one red-flag phrase—ranking them in second and third place for the title of the most red-flag-using industry. 

For businesses still struggling to use inclusive and welcoming language in 2023, the researchers have one tip: “Perhaps ChatGPT would be able to help them get the text of job postings right?”

Is ‘red-flag’ language actually justified?

Most candidates want to know the scope of a potential role when applying for it. No one wants to be surprised by a job’s undisclosed need to be contactable out-of-hours or its stress-inducing tight-turnaround deadlines.

“Some roles are high-pressure and stressful, and to imply that they aren’t will only mean new hires are either ill-equipped to perform in the role or consider leaving soon after joining,” warns Miranda Kyte, career trends expert at Glassdoor, while adding that sugar-coating or avoiding red flag terms is a pointless exercise.

In the end, “omitting less favorable aspects of a job from the description may lead to more applications, but this practice is unlikely to deliver the right candidates.” 

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