Help Wanted for Job Descriptions!


Sorry, I’m not hiring. But I am looking to improve the process used by nearly all businesses and organizations that do hire. Let’s face it: looking for a job today amounts to an inhumane, impersonal, tedious slog. If you can join your parents’ or Uncle Joe’s firm, stop reading and go consult a family therapist. The rest of us are condemned to networking and responding to poorly written job descriptions. Be aware, however, that poorly crafted job postings harm employers and prospective employees.

We’ve all seen them: job postings so long, detailed, technical, and jargon-laden that a single human being could not possibly fulfill all of the required expectations. Why are we subjected to such abuse?

  • Many HR professionals simply do not understand accurately what a newly hired person will actually do, perhaps because hiring officers do not communicate clearly or the HR official lacks specific expertise.
  • Hiring or search committees often produce detailed, sometimes contradictory, position descriptions and expectations. Not long ago, I interviewed for a position featuring a long list of responsibilities amounting to about three full-time positions. When I asked which two or three areas required the most urgent attention, no one could answer.
  • Executives sometimes list every qualification they can conceive, looking to refine their expectations as the search produces applicants. Chalk this up to laziness or mull-headedness. Such postings unduly discourage wonderfully qualified applicants.
  • Some organizations simply don’t know what they want. As a finalist for a position, I once endured an entire day of interviews with executives and a search committee. After all interviews were completed, they discovered that there were unresolved conflicts lurking in their position description. Result? They hired no one.
  • Sometimes an internal candidate is already groomed for the position; an impossible description fits only that individual while complying with legal requirements.

Examples of ill-considered, overly long, and impersonal postings are so readily available on the Web that there is no need to reproduce them here. But one instance of buzzword bingo recently popped up (buzzwords in bold).

Who you are (Ideal Competencies/Skills)

  • Empathetic communicator – you have skills to clearly share ideas in a way that adapts to your audience, regardless of function, level or expertise
  • Critical, big-picture thinker — you are analytical, looking into logic-based details while always considering and problem-solving for the overall big picture
  • Self-starter – you are proactive, self-motivated and able to push work, start initiatives and provide ideas independently in a team environment.
  • Creative entrepreneur – you have a constant drive to make things better, you question   the status quo and approach common challenges with constructive criticism
  • Credible knowledge sharer — you have a constant thirst for knowledge and the ability to credibly share it with and educate others on it, whether internal and external (colleagues, clients, industry groups)
  • Team player – you have the ability to foster professional and personal respect from others and do your best work in a team setting. While highly collaborative, you have natural management skills and know how to grow and develop your people
  • Poised professional – you have credibility and presence with everyone from leadership to clients, can effectively navigate various organizational environments and know how to manage expectations
  • Adaptable multi-tasker – you are highly organized and flexible, able to thrive in fast- paced, constantly changing environments and successfully adapt to a variety of tasks

Who among us is not absolutely outstanding in all these categories? Obviously, these traits unerringly separate the wheat from the chaff! But the list leads me to suspect that the company is all chaff. This list immediately follows a technical, jargon-heavy account of the position’s responsibilities. After all of this, a prospective job seeker is treated to concluding cultural fluff (I have not edited this copy in any way).

How we work (team & culture)

  • Collaborative — we work together and help each other do our best work by building on our work across teams and offices. We don’t own individual ideas or look for credit
  • User driven — we place our clients and users’ needs above all else. If it matters to a user, it matters to us. We work for them – who we report to keeps us accountable to that
  • Hands-on — we get in the thick of it, get things done always hold ourselves accountable. We do it ourselves, we don’t delegate and we don’t wait for problems to arise
  • Impact over ego — our culture is about results, not ownership. Great ideas have seniority over titles and levels, and great thinkers outshine fancy pedigrees.
  • In case something goes wrong — we don’t let co-workers or clients figure it out, we get in the thick of it and do it with them. We are experts on every detail, and pride ourselves in making sure things are done right
  • Forward looking — we look beyond our own world to constantly improve our business. We welcome outside speakers, tap into the latest tech, and to make sure we’re always tapped into what’s coming and future-proof
  • Caring & close knit — we know and care about our people’s whole-person. We know each other’s project superpowers – but also our upcoming family trips and favorite after-work drinks

Who is “we” in this rendition of the organization’s culture? Is drinking after work a condition of employment? At least they live up to avoiding “fancy pedigrees”: there appears to be no professional writer on the staff.

So how can a professional writer improve typical job postings? My partial answer includes the following points.

  • Minimize jargon and technical language. For positions in the sciences, healthcare, engineering, and information technology, technical language can be necessary. For most other careers, it should be avoided as much as possible.
  • Make postings more personal without being cheesy. Focus on informing applicants about the organization’s culture and realistic opportunities for contributing to success. Be honest about possible negative or problematic factors that applicants should consider.
  • Restrict use of “requirement” to absolutely essential traits and skills. Ask hiring officers to identify the three or four determinative factors when evaluating applicants. As Hannah Fleishman of HubSpot notes, “wish list” requirements often discourage good applicants: men apply for a job when they meet 60% of requirements, while most women apply only when they meet 100%.
  • Keep the length of postings to the “sweet spot” of 700 – 1,000 words to generate a higher rate of views and applications. Research shows that shorter or longer postings markedly reduce the number of views and applications from qualified persons.
  • Make sure that postings are written in correct, standard English. Too many organizations appear unable to manage this on their own.

See Liz Ryan’s excellent post that explains The Real Reason Employers Treat Job Seekers Like Dirt. The system, not just job descriptions, is broken.

If you’re an employer looking to hire, this bottom line will help your bottom line: get help!

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