When it comes to recommendation letters and phone calls, adjectives like "ambitious" and "independent" trump "helpful" and "nurturing" and will help you get a job.
That's the takeaway from ongoing research being conducted by Rice University. In a study that was published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, researchers examined 624 letters of recommendation for junior faculty positions at a U.S. university. They discovered that letter writers used more communal adjectives to describe females and more assertive ones to describe males.
They then removed the names and personal pronouns from the letters and asked faculty members to rate the strength of the letter. They found that the more communal adjectives used, the weaker the letter was judged to be. More specifically, judges were less likely to give jobs to applicants whose rec letters contained communal adjectives.
For Michelle Hebl and Randi Martin, the professors who conducted the study, the findings confirmed that latent biases can influence hiring decisions, which may help to explain the dearth of women in academia.
"Stereotypes influence our judgment," said Hebl. "Even with people we're trying to promote."
Given that finance is a male-dominated industry, it isn't so much of a stretch to extrapolate the data to characterize this field, Hebl said. Perceptions of potential male and female job candidates can vary on how they're described in recommendation letters and phone calls.
"Agentic [or assertive] terms are more important in finance," said Martin.
How to Make Assertive Adjectives Work for You
Many firms rely on quick phone calls to previous managers to gauge an applicant's qualities instead of relying on a longer letter. Still, the same logic applies. If your recommender describes you using communal adjectives during the conversation, you are less likely to get the job.
In order to ensure you're being talked about using the right adjectives, speak to your recommender about what he or she intends to say. But telling them not to use communal descriptions is a mistake.
"I'd be very careful," said Dr. Timothy Butler, senior fellow and director of career development programs at Harvard Business School. "I would not say 'please don't use these types of adjectives.'"
Butler suggests presenting a list of relevant accomplishments that the recommender can draw on when describing you.
Lois Frankel, career coach and the author of "Nice Girls Don't Get the Corner Office: 101 Mistakes Women Make That Sabotage Their Careers," agreed.
"Most people don't want to be told what to say and what not to say," she said. "It can be a little aggressive."
To avoid coming off that way, Frankel suggests telling the recommender that the jobs for which you are applying are looking for people who are self-starting, go-getting, etc. Then say, "if you have legitimately observed these behaviors and can include them in your letter or conversation, I'd appreciate it."
Still, Butler warns not to jump to the conclusion that "relational qualities are less valuable or less desirable." He says many firms want team players who can contribute to the overall culture. So it's fine to project an image of wanting to jump onto the team, but keep in mind that those qualities alone could make it difficult for your application to go through the next round.
Write to Julie Steinberg