Advertising roles as flexible can deter some applicants, study finds

1 Sep 2021 By Caitlin Powell

Experts warn of ‘flex washing’ if companies are not specific with their language when writing job descriptions

Employers that advertise they are open to flexible working in job postings are likely to put some prospective candidates off, research has found, with experts urging firms to be as specific as possible about the types of flexible arrangements that are available. 

An online survey of 1,079 job candidates, carried out by Timewise Jobs, revealed that nearly half (45 per cent) of respondents were reluctant to apply for job advertisements which included the phrase ‘open to flexible working’. 

Those candidates who were reluctant said they would either not apply for a job that described itself as full time but ‘open to flexible working’ (12 per cent), or feel cautious about the vacancy and conduct research before making an application (33 per cent).

More than half (51 per cent) of candidates also said they did not want to waste their time applying for roles that included ‘open to flex’, as the messaging did not make it clear which forms of flexibility would be possible. 

Timewise found that candidates were additionally confused about how the phrase ‘flexible working’ was used in job advertisements. More than half (53 per cent) of respondents thought  ‘flexible working’ did not include part-time work, while nearly a quarter (23 per cent) did not think it included home working.

Responding to the research Patrick Brodie, partner and head of employment practice at RPC, said the language describing a role must reflect the nature of the engagement.

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Brodie, whose firm recently introduced a flexible working policy allowing staff to choose where they want to work, advised employers to move away from traditional descriptions which speak to the previous, and often more constrained, way of working.

"The nature of our working arrangements is changing, and our language must also alter to reflect this difference,” Brodie told People Management, adding that recruiters will look to avoid more limited and traditional short-hand job descriptions which may not reflect their new way of working.

The research also revealed that there was a level of distrust among candidates, with more than a third (37 per cent) of respondents indicating that, when they saw the phrase ‘open to flex’, they felt employers were making a promise they may not in fact follow through on.

In addition, more than a third (35 per cent) of respondents said they feared they could be discriminated against if they requested a particular work pattern.

“Candidates want to know that they will have real opportunities to work flexibly – not flex washing or lip service without conviction,” explained Gemma Dale, lecturer at Liverpool John Moores University.  

She added that distrust among candidates may be related to past issues when organisations had flexible working policies but it either wasn't available in practice or came with flex stigma and career penalties. 

If organisations want to attract talent they need to be very clear about their flexible offering, she advised, such as including information on what flexible options are available or how many days someone can work from home.

Ben Willlmott, head of public policy at the CIPD, added that it was difficult to “prescribe too tightly” the type and level of flexibility that might be available when advertising a vacancy.

He added that there would always be a need to have a discussion between the individual and the employer to agree on the type of flexibility that was desired and possible, because expectations between the organisation and employee may differ. 

“The flexibility that people are able to benefit from in practice will depend on a range of factors once they join an organisation,” Willmott explained, including personal preferences, the nature of the job, the team they work in, their line manager and organisational culture.

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