What Does “Incumbent” Mean in a Job Description?

What Does “Incumbent” Mean in a Job Description?

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Searching for a job is an inherently stressful experience, and it’s made even more so when the job description uses terminology you’re not familiar with. One of the terms that you may have encountered during your job search is “incumbent.”

In a job description, the word “incumbent” usually refers to the person who is currently in the position or who currently holds the responsibilities the job is meant to cover. Sometimes, employers get confused and write “incumbent” instead of “candidate.”

In the rest of this article, I’ll explain this term in more detail, so you won’t be confused the next time you see the word “incumbent” in a job description. 

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What does “Incumbent” Mean? 

“Incumbent” is a term that usually refers to the employee who currently holds the job or a set of responsibilities within a company or government. In a job description, it can also refer to the person who will eventually secure the role. 

The term “incumbent” normally refers to the person currently holding the position. This can be used in a job description in a variety of ways. The description may be informing potential applicants why or when the person who currently has the job is leaving the role or why the person who has the job is insufficient (though this last occasion is much less common).  

For example, a job description may read, “We are seeking an editorial assistant to start in December, after the incumbent’s retirement.” 

Additionally, Job descriptions for new positions may use the term “incumbent” to highlight that this is a new role. For example, “This position lacks an incumbent.”

Abuse of the Term “Incumbent” in Job Descriptions

In other situations, a job description may use the term incumbent to describe the person who will eventually take the job. For example, a job description may read: 

“A successful candidate will possess good written and oral communication skills. The incumbent will have the responsibility of organizing communication amongst departments.” 

These are the correct ways to use the word “incumbent” in a job description. However, there is some confusion surrounding the term, so the term is sometimes used in place of the word “candidate,” as some seem to think the words are synonymous. 

An example of this is, “The incumbent needs knowledge of Chicago-style and MLA-style citations.” In this situation, the person who wrote the job description uses the word “incumbent” instead of “candidate,” which is incorrect. 

This confusion may have arisen because people frequently use the words “incumbent” and “candidate” in politics. Someone who holds a political position is called the incumbent, and someone who is running for a political position is called a candidate.

Because both these words are used in the same conversations so frequently, they get confused with each other. This has bled into job descriptions, which can be confusing to job seekers. 

Summary

If you see the word “incumbent” in a job description, it is usually a reference to the person who already holds the position or to the person who will eventually fill the role. Happy job hunting!

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