4 job description ingredients candidates would love

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True story: I asked an exceptionally capable candidate what jobs she applies for based on the job descriptions she sees on career sites, including company career sites. Answer: any that are remotely close to the job skills our exceptionally good candidate has.

You might think that’s a terrible thing to do, but when you ask the exceptional candidate why, you get this: “Companies put out the worst job descriptions. The work you end up doing doesn’t even match the job description. So you apply and see if they are interested, qualified or not.”

And it’s true. You get the cookie-cutter job description created from standards that attempt to match the marketplace and then wonder why you get cookie-cutter resumes in return. You list 100 job skills needed to do one job and wonder why no one has 100 matching job skills when your current employees don’t have the 100 job skills either. You want people to know standard office software and then wonder why they can’t create a spreadsheet that has formulas referenced to a worksheet three levels over.

We get thousands of resumes for our cookie-cutter job description instead of fabulous candidates.  To get fabulous candidates, what we need are four job description ingredients that candidates — and hiring managers — would love.

1. The job description specifies the goals the candidate will work on

What’s going to happen once an employee is hired? The manager is going to sit down with our new hire and give them goals to achieve. Goals that are part of the new hire’s performance review.

So why not put the goals to achieve right in the job description? You can mask the proprietary information, of course, but what’s wrong with saying a goal in a job description is to reduce the budget by 5%? Or increase sales by 3%? Or create a dynamic territorial sales force that will increase market share 1%?

Goals are what fire people up about their work. They see the goal and can specifically address how their job skills have done the work in the past and share their ideas about how to reach the goal.

2. The job description describes critical skills needed — and how they are used on the job

It’s one thing to say you need to know WordPress (the software on this site) in a job description. It’s completely different to say you need to administer WordPress so as to do upgrades to the software, manage plugins, update plugins, work with themes to best present information, and know how to use the administration panel.

Electrons are cheap. There is no reason to not tie the critical skill to how the skill will be used on the job.

3. The job description describes the “typical” day for the candidate

You might think there isn’t a “typical” day, but, if that’s the case, you really haven’t defined the job very well. There should be a core level of work output done during the day or a day during the week so that the candidate can determine the fit to the work.

When you describe the typical day, you not only get the job skills in play, but also the social aspects of a job that are critical to knowing how a candidate will fit in with the team and the manager’s style.

This needs to be specific — not “work in a challenging environment that requires attention to detail.” Bleh.

How about “the candidate will compile four daily operational reports that are produced for the department. The operational reports drive how the department is managed so they need to be produced despite setbacks in getting data from systems that sometimes have technical difficulties.” Now that’s something you can talk about in a cover letter or an interview.

4. The job description describes the culture of the team

This is not “working in a fast-paced environment.” Seriously, what environment isn’t fast-paced?

Instead, you want candidates that will compliment your team to make it better. You want candidates that will understand and thrive within the style of management the department uses. You want a person that “works well on their own accomplishing their goals without significant collaboration with the team.”

Or, you want a person that “works well in an environment where 50% of the time is spent in meetings making decisions that will then get carried out by the team members. Collaborative confrontation is needed to clarify the work duties and tasks to get done.”

You can have excellent cover letters and interviews about fitting in with the team if this was in the job description.

There are only 3 answers to interview questions – use the job description to find them

I’ve often noted that there are only three questions asked in an interview. The first question is “can the person do the work?” If the job description really described the goals the candidate will need to achieve and the critical job skills with how they are used on the job, you’d get better descriptions from candidates answering how they can do the work.

The second question “is the person motivated to do the work?” If the job description described the “typical” day for the job and the circumstances that impact the typical day, you’d get better answers on the motivation for doing the job.

The third question is “will this person fit into the team, including the management style?” If the job description described the culture of the team and the manager’s style, you’d get better answers.

If companies are serious about getting the best people for the job, we could start with job descriptions that are significantly different than the standardized, cookie-cutter, “work in a fast-paced environment” we have right now.

What else would you as a candidate love to see in a job description?

  • @ Patrick — “when you apply for a garbage description, you feel like you’re applying for a garbage position.”

    I think that is an under-reported result of poor job descriptions. The candidate, working to find a great job, wants to apply for something that excites the candidate about the work. But the candidate gives up trying to discern good from bad because most of the job descriptions are just bad.

    So you apply, hoping for the best. But inspired? No. Have to see if the job would be inspiring once you get to an interview. The hiring company doesn’t narrow the funnel of applications by defining the job description well and then doesn’t get excited candidates wanting to do the work and wonder why.

    Good perspective; thanks.

  • Excellent report. Job managers need to be more courteous and time invested in their application process. I have seen many job listings with two or three sentence descriptions of the job. Never have I seen anything that described a typical day. To put it plainly, when you apply for a garbage description you feel like you’re applying for a garbage position. Seeing such a minimal amount of effort the hiring manager put into the description also makes the applicant wary of how much effort their bosses will put into them should they be hired.

  • Scot,

    Excellent points one and all. We help our clients do exactly this. It’s astonishing what power a good message has in the age of social media. People share things that are interesting, and many of our best candidates were alerted to our job postings by their friends. A friend saying “Hey this job sounds like your job, only fun!” goes a long way.

  • Scot,

    Spot on, as usual! Having a poorly constructed job description is like having a poorly thought out business plan. You can’t launch a successful business without some sort of a road map. And you can’t source the best candidates for an open position if you can’t describe specifically what you want them to achieve.

    • @ Barbara — thanks. When I did job descriptions for open positions in my department, I tried to write what the job was about. I’d use the “HR” job description as a reference, but I wanted to help the candidates figure out the job and the people doing the screening to have good questions to ask. I got great feedback from all of them because it was finally something they could work with to ask good questions.

  • I’m am currently in the process of interviewing with 3 different companies. These are perfect questions for me to ask during to determine which opportunities are the best match for my skills and experience. Thanks!

    • @ Kelly — a very good way of looking at it. One of the difficult things for job candidates is that they have to discern the prospective company culture and management style. Asking these points as questions in a job interview when all you have is a crappy job description is a great approach.

  • This advice is excellent because it truly is mutually beneficial. When we advise job seekers to tailor their resumes and cover letters, we mean it. But we have to recognize that some employers complicate the task by giving very general, blanket descriptions. If a generic resume is bad, so is a generic posting. We’re constantly telling job seekers to put quantifiable data in their resumes so employers can see what they’ve done, and knowing what the typical day and goals are will make that easier to do.

    • @ Anthony — very good comment. I have often thought about taking the common phrases on job descriptions (“work in a fast-paced environment”) and string them together into a job description to capture all of the corporate speak phrases. I don’t think it would be too hard (and, after all, it would be humor…), but I have too hard of a time reading the job descriptions…

      I know tons of candidates just apply for whatever is out there, but businesses could help a lot by truly defining the job.

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