How to Write Job Descriptions: Best Practices & Tips
*This blog is adapted from the HR Party of One episode, How to Write Job Descriptions, which you can view below.
This week, we’re talking job descriptions. With the labor market so competitive right now, making sure your job descriptions are attracting enough applicants - and the right applicants - is really important. Most employers get this wrong, so it can be easy to stand out. I’ll show you how.
Before we dive into what makes a great - and terrible - job description, we did just a little research into the history of job postings.
The History of Job Postings
The background of job postings is a little hard to pin down exactly, but one name that pops up is a guy we’ve talked about on HR Party of One before, a member of our HR Hall of Fame –Frederick Taylor.
If you didn’t catch the first episode where we talked about him and the history of HR, you can check that out here - but to recap quickly, he’s considered the ‘father of scientific management,’ and he identified ways that organizations - particularly production-oriented, manufacturing organizations, could operate more efficiently by using the scientific method.
So one way he did this was outlined in his 1900 book, “Shop Management,” which made the case for better managing employees. Job descriptions happen to be the book’s first recommendation around matching workers to tasks they’re best suited for.
This isn’t a mind-blowing insight for today’s HR pro or hiring manager - but this is where that practice became a standard part of the way businesses and their staff were organized.
In the early 20th century, job descriptions became a thing. But generally, they weren’t any good. People didn’t put a ton of thought into job descriptions. Primarily, these were advertised in the newspaper, and so there were space constraints. They often briefly described the nature of the work and when it came to compensation, they usually described it as “competitive pay and benefits.”
Help wanted ads became more sophisticated as advertising and graphic design became a thing. Then, the big game-changer was the advent of the online jobs board in the mid-90s, which included Monster, Career Builder, and the earliest version of Craigslist.
By the 2000s, this was really the standard practice for advertising a job - Monster bought jobs.com in 2002, LinkedIn was launched in 2003, and Indeed was launched in 2004.
By the way, the guy who founded Monster.com is Jeff Taylor. Our HR Party of One, Ryan McCostlin saw Jeff speak at a Harvard Business School conference once, and he said that when he told his wife he was creating an online job board and calling it Monster.com she called him an idiot. Despite the name, it worked out.
When job descriptions went online, they were no longer limited by space. Hiring managers and HR teams could post as much about the job, and as many requirements, as they liked.
But unlimited space doesn’t necessarily lead to a better job post. The French mathematician Blaise Pascal once quipped, “I would have written a shorter letter, but I didn’t have time.”
Who Should Write Job Posts?
Who on your team should be responsible for writing job posts, or hiring more broadly?
Opinions vary on who should do the hiring at organizations, and that includes writing job descriptions, managing these postings, and even conducting interviews. Our position is that the hiring manager should do the hiring, and the writing of job posts. Not HR. There are trade-offs here, and the hiring manager will always say they don’t have enough time to do these things. Always.
But if HR or someone else does the hiring or writes the job posts, the manager will always be able to complain about the quality of candidates and, ultimately, the quality of her team. The hiring manager needs to build out the work description and required skills to attract the specific candidates he or she wants, and HR can’t guess at what they’re looking for.
That said, HR will still play an important role in coaching hiring managers on best practices, as well as ensuring quality assurance and setting standards around job descriptions and types of hires.
As an HR Party of One, you can really stand out and elevate your organization’s hiring processes by taking responsibility for standardizing the job descriptions posted by your team.
The hiring manager will still be responsible for writing them and building her team, but the HR Party of One can make a huge impact in making them better.
How to Write a Good Job Post
The first thing to identify is the specific goal associated with filling the position. Obviously, the goal is to find the right person for the job. But ask yourself - are you trying to fill a position for which you struggle to find applicants? Or are you getting plenty of applicants, but struggling to find someone with the required skills? These will shape how you approach the job description.
In the current competitive job market, many organizations are struggling with getting enough candidates in the pipeline, so that may be your starting point, and you may want to build your job descriptions to accomplish a bigger hiring funnel than you’re used to.
That said, one way to think about this is to sit down to write these as if you’re trying to sell the position to the best person for the job - the ideal candidate. You can think of the marketing concept of the buyer’s persona - this is a fictionalized representation of your ideal customer. Marketing teams build these to better market their products by researching customer demographics, behaviors, motivations and goals. You can create a similar “hire” persona that illustrates the person you’re looking for - and what they’re looking for in turn.
How to write a good job title:
You want to be really clear and simple here. Please avoid disingenuous or quirky titles like “rockstar engineer” or “marketing ninja” - at one time, these may have made your job post stand out, but they’re overplayed at this point. In 2020, does anyone really call themselves a “ninja” or a “guru” with a straight face?
Similarly, applicants aren’t searching for those terms. Which is why you also want to avoid company-specific terminology in your job title. For example, we call our HR team “Organization Success,” but HR pros aren’t searching for that phrase, and they wouldn’t find us if that’s how we titled the position. You can use these terms in the actual job description, but don’t include them in your title.
Outline job responsibilities:
Next, you need to outline what the position does, or what their responsibilities will be. Cut the buzzwords and use bullet points - the shorter and easier to understand that this is, the better. Applicants are scanning for openings on their smartphones, and they’re not going to read through big blocks of text.
Try to describe the position’s responsibilities at a high level. Avoid the minutia of their daily grind, instead, focus on key job functions.
Outline job requirements:
Now, let’s switch gears to what you’re looking for - the requirements section. Again, if you’re looking to get more candidates to apply for the job, you’ll want to approach this differently than if you're trying to weed out unqualified applicants. To get more candidates in the pipeline, avoid unrealistic or arduous requirements here.
Don’t say you want 5 years of experience when one year will do, or stuff your listing with a lot of “nice to haves” that won’t actually make or break an applicant’s chances with your team. Why? A lot of candidates will self-select themselves out if they feel they don’t meet enough of your requirements. You might miss an awesome candidate who would be a great fit for your team because they feel like they aren’t who you’re looking for.
Of course, definitely include important or non-negotiable requirements - especially required certifications. If you need someone really specific - be sure to outline that, which will keep you from drowning in unqualified applications.
However - in this section, you also have to be careful that your requirements aren’t accidentally discriminatory.
For example, while you may have experience or degree requirements, you can’t have age-based requirements - or language that suggests that you do. You would also want to be careful that your language doesn’t explicitly or implicitly suggest you’re hiring based on gender or nationality.
In fact, don’t forget equal opportunity language in your job post. Here’s the U.S Federal Government’s non-discrimination clause, and it’s pretty encompassing:
“The United States Government does not discriminate in employment on the basis of race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy and gender identity), national origin, political affiliation, sexual orientation, marital status, disability, genetic information, age, membership in an employee organization, retaliation, parental status, military service, or other non-merit factor.”
Include working perks:
Also, in this section, don’t focus exclusively on what you want out of a candidate. Be sure to outline what they’ll get from joining your team. Are you focused on professional development? Is your culture awesome? Do you provide better benefits than most shops in town?
Remember, with unemployment at historic lows, applicants have more leverage in the hiring process than ever before. If there’s a benefit to joining your team, don’t hide this until you make an offer. Play it up front.
List target compensation:
Another thing to include is a target compensation range. Many organizations don’t do this, but it’s a great way to ensure neither the company or the applicant are wasting their time for a position that doesn’t meet their salary needs.
Further - when it comes to target comps and experience, make the ranges fairly small. For one, if you have a big salary range, candidates will come in at the top. Second, wide ranges indicate to candidates that you don’t really know exactly what you want out of the role. Do you have 5 years or 15 years of experience?
Hiring for hard to fill positions:
Now, let’s say you’re trying to hire for a particularly hard-to-fill position. Every organization has these - positions that are hard to hire for and may experience higher rates of turnover than other parts of your business.
Getting people in those seats can require a lot of time and energy from hiring managers. One way to approach these roles is through radical transparency.
Be honest with applicants. Tell them they won’t be in the role forever, and tell them why. Do team members generally move into a new position within a year? Do new hires burn out quickly and move on?
Here’s a real example. We're hiring an Office Administrator right now. You can view the job listing here.
Here’s the job description:
In this role, you'll support the entire organization by performing back office operations that keep us going and growing. Responsibilities include managing accounts receivable (making sure we get paid), running payroll, onboarding new employees and setting up their iMacs, event planning, e.g. coordinating monthly lunches and internal training conferences. You'll also play a critical role in supporting our TPA business (www.alpinetpa.com) by creating and uploading financials to banks, processing payments to businesses and individuals, and entering COBRA payments in our COBRA management software tool. This is an excellent opportunity for anyone who loves solving puzzles and is interested in learning. The right person will likely have some experience performing some of the tasks described above.
You can see the qualifications we list:
- Bachelor’s Degree preferred
- Exceptional organizational skills and attention to detail
- Comfortable with numbers and spreadsheets
- 1+ year of office admin experience
- Strong verbal and written communication skills
- Strong record of being a self-starter
- Willingness to help in any way, including owning straightforward but important tasks like ordering office supplies
- Ability to positively contribute to a mutually respectful work environment
- Persistence in taking difficult tasks to completion
And here’s compensation and benefits:
- Target Compensation of $45,000 - $50,000 annually
- Full health and ancillary benefits, including HSA and Dependent Care FSA
- Employer-paid Life, Short-Term, and Long-Term Disability insurance
- 401(k) with 3% employer contribution
Another great example comes from the great explorer Ernest Shackleton’s call for Antarctic explorers. As the story goes, Shackleton took out an ad in a newspaper that read, “Men wanted for hazardous journey. Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful. Honor and recognition in case of success.”
Allegedly, Shackleton got a ton of responses to that listing. Your open position – hopefully – doesn’t include risk of death, but it just goes to show that being honest about what you need and what the candidate will get out of it can go a long way.
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