To the best of my recollection, I was called a hero only once when I worked at Starbucks. It was a holiday, and the young woman I waited on was genuinely relieved that we were open. She thought my working on a day that so many other people had off was some sort of genuine sacrifice.
I pointed out that her comment was misplaced—it was November 11, Remembrance Day in Canada, when people remember the sacrifices of war. In other words, deeds much more heroic than making lattes.
In the years since, I have noticed a term often associated with heroism creeping into company culture and training: courage. It never sat quite right with me. Certain jobs definitely require courage—fighting fires, being a police officer. Or, in a very different sense, even a tightrope walker requires some type of courage.
I’ve always associated courage with bravery, with doing things that others might be afraid to do. But courage is mentioned in a variety of job postings for minimum wage retail and service work. Companies like JCPenney (where an ideal employee will “show the confidence and courage to do what’s right“), Ann Taylor (in which one “has the courage to know who she is“), and Lululemon (wherein a worker “leads with courage, knowing the possibility of greatness is bigger than the fear of failure“) ask for it specifically in job ads.
Companies like Starbucks and Claire’s mention it as part of employee values. Walmart, which employs 2.2 million associates around the world, mentions being “courageous” as one of the behaviors that “can help us deliver business results and create a culture of inclusion.”
I’ve found the prevalence of the word especially curious in so many entry-level minimum-wage jobs.
To get to the bottom of it all, I had representatives from Burning Glass Technologies, a labor market analytics firm, check its database of over a billion current and historical job ads for this article.
According to their data, some iteration of the word courage appeared in job ads over 2.1 million times in 2018. This is more than double their number from 2014.
Matt Sigelman, the company’s CEO, observed the word appears primarily for jobs in retail, food, and hospitality services at the lower end of the pay scale; in his words, “Jobs that are what you would think would be doing more commoditized, and therefore perhaps less courageous work.”
A simple reason for the popularity of the term could be that the demand for a “core human skill” is high—one in three jobs require one, according to Sigelman. He said he sees the trend even in more technical careers like engineering.
What’s less clear is why this particular word is the one so many have settled on. Sigelman said it may be in part to get people excited about their work; a sort of incentive in a time where it’s harder to attract workers to minimum-wage jobs. But it could also be part of what he calls the unrealistic expectations companies often set for frontline workers.
“It’s not enough to make a latte, but you better wear a superhero cape,” he said, adding that the term’s presence is also meant to make a statement on the company’s broader culture or ideals.
Peter Cappelli, a management professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania said that the proliferation of the term is what happens when companies try to “tune up” their statements of company principles and values.
“Things like ‘courage’ appear in the company values statement, so then they attach them to all the job descriptions,” he said over email.
“I don’t think it represents any fundamental change in job descriptions or that they’ve necessarily thought about what it would look like in low-end jobs.”
When I asked Lisa Cohen, an associate professor of organizational behavior at McGill University’s Desautels School of Management, to weigh in, she said the pattern brings to mind research she’s currently doing on hiring at startup companies. She also shared that passion is a common attribute that companies she’s spoken with want, but they struggle to explain why.
“They haven’t defined the term,” she said. “They don’t know why it matters and probably what they’re looking for—and they’ll put this in not particularly nice terms—is somebody who’s going to work like crazy for long hours, right?”
Cohen said the same thought process can be applied to courage because of the varied meanings and ways to judge it.
“If the job candidate really had courage, would they want to hire that candidate?”
An estimate from the National Retail Federation puts staff turnover at 60%, so there is certainly an imperative to hire strategically to cut down on attrition. In my own experience, I’ve noticed that hires who were less successful in minimum-wage positions, who often cycled out within months, if not weeks, were often hired off personality traits as opposed to skill-sets and experience.
“It’s hard enough to find people to fill these jobs, and then you’re adding this whole new set of qualifications to them that may or may not be necessary,” said Cohen.
In her view, traits that will lead to better performance, like technical skills or soft skills like positive customer service, are better indicators of how an employee will perform successfully in their role.
She added that introducing a high bar like “courage” to job criteria can leave some otherwise reasonable applicants out. There’s also a very real risk of decreasing diversity when adding unnecessary qualifications.
Based on the postings his firm analyzed, Sigelman thinks there is a consistent definition that companies are working from.
“And I also agree that it’s a little bit different from the one that I teach my kids,” he said.
He added that employers are “looking for people who are decision-makers and are willing to make decisions even if there’s a risk that they may be making the wrong decision.”
Interestingly, both Cohen and Sigelman mentioned a word they believe these companies are misconstruing as courage: judgment. And this feels a lot truer to real life.
Having spent time working behind a cash register and an espresso machine over a number of years, I know the skills people need to perform decently, and successfully in their role.
On tough days, I’d draw from skills like a solid understanding of the process, good communication skills with customers, the ability to triage tasks, and a lot of patience—but never anything resembling courage.