Yesterday, I was asked to post a job announcement on the Tucows Blog and this blog. I did it near the end of the day by cutting, pasting and then applying a little formatting for the web. I didn’t pay much attention to the copy and got called on it by an eagle-eyed reader:
I love you, but please don’t be part of using the word “incumbent” that way.
Incumbent got started in job ads as a way to describe what the old guy did when you didn’t really have a good handle on what the job should be called: “The incumbent drinks a lot of coffee and fills out TPS reports. He’s retiring next month and we need to hire someone to sit in his office.” Now every HR person in the world seems to think it is a synonym for “job-seeker”, which is precisely, exactly, wrong.
Stop it. Please.
After calming the Ginger Ninja down (she read the comment and asked “Who is this person who loves you? And a grammarian too! Who is this person?!”), I looked at the copy of the job posting and there it was — the word “incumbent” used in the wrong way:
The successful incumbent will have the challenging opportunity to work on Tucows’ vast and complex high availability system spread across multiple data centers, servers and operating systems.
This is embarrassing. I should’ve caught that one. I must be slipping in my old age.
I find it hard to believe that someone can fail to understand what “incumbent” means at a time when the news, both local and international, is saturated with stories about upcoming elections. The United States has midterm elections next Tuesday, and Accordion City will have a mayoral election on the 13th. I’m almost certain that the word “incumbent” is being used — complete with context — in those stories.
Let me make it clear: “incumbent” refers to the person who currently holds the position.
Here are some examples: George Bush is the incumbent president of the United States. David Miller is the mayor of Toronto; in the mayoral election, he is the incumbent.
Perhaps it’s the use of the word “incumbent” in elections that has led to confusion. Maybe people think that it’s synonymous with the word that should’ve been used in the job posting: candidate.
I decided to see if what the commenter said was true: “Now every HR person in the world seems to think it is a synonym for ‘job-seeker'”. I entered the terms job, posting and incumbent into Google and found job posting after job posting that used the word “incumbent” when the word “candidate” should have been used instead:
- Reporting to the Director of Communications, the incumbent will be responsible for the creation of a wide range of publications and other materials to support the University of Lethbridge’s fund-raising initiatives…
- The incumbent must possess the following qualifications…
- The incumbent will be trained in methods for characterizing pharmaceutical aerosols from various drug delivery systems…
- The incumbent must posses a valid class 5 driver license…
Those were just a few example from the first page of Google results. It seems that HR people all over the ‘net are making the same mistake. I’m going to set our own HR team straight later today. (I’ll do it nicely, partly because I’m a nice guy, partly because I have to hit them up for my job referral bonus for bringing in two employees.)
To the alert anonymous reader who spotted the mistake: thanks, Vocabulary Ranger!