Putting the Candidate First
In too many cases, job descriptions are a missed opportunity for getting candidates interested in a company.
By Andrew R. McIlvaine
At UHY Advisors, a mid-sized professional-services firm based in Chicago that hires approximately 200 people a year, the talent shortage is very real.
"Ever since 2012, the accounting field has grown extremely competitive for talent -- it seems like the number of jobs is expanding while the amount of candidates is shrinking," says Senior Recruiter Amanda Mich. "The struggle we have is that, not only are we competing with other accounting firms, but we're also competing for the same candidates with companies like Ford and Coca-Cola."
Faced with such competition, UHY has begun transforming its text-based job descriptions into a more visually appealing format. After all, says Mich, the candidates UHY is competing for don't have the patience to deal with lengthy, boring job descriptions, she says.
"Most of the candidates we're targeting are passive candidates, so if I send them a message on LinkedIn and they check in on their mobile device, who wants to see a job description that's three pages long? I imagine they're not going to read that."
In an era of rising mobile-device use and ever-shortening attention spans -- last year, a study of media-consumption habits by Microsoft found that the average human attention span has fallen from 12 seconds in 2000 to eight seconds in 2013 (even shorter than that of goldfish, at nine seconds) -- the ability to stand out and capture those fickle attention spans is more important than ever.
For companies trying to fill jobs in talent-scarce industries, it's especially important. Yet, the way in which most organizations describe their job openings seems frozen in time, a jarring throwback in an era when recruiting is supposed to be about marketing.
Linda Brenner describes the typical job description as one of her pet peeves.
"They are excruciating to read -- they are long, boring, inauthentic, not differentiated, certainly not compelling and lacking a call to action," says Brenner, director and founder of Atlanta-based Talent Growth Advisers. "Rather than attract people, they repel them. It's like bad wallpaper that we've lived with for a very long time."
A job description is an opportunity to get candidates excited about the prospect of working for your company, but in many cases, it's a missed one, say Brenner and other experts. Too many job descriptions are dry, filled with jargon, legalese and laundry lists of qualifications, they say, while offering little to actually get candidates interested in the position or the company.
Creating good job descriptions isn't easy, of course: A 2015 survey by Red Branch Media and Beyond, a job board, found the biggest struggle mid-size businesses face when recruiting talent is writing effective job descriptions (27 percent), followed by keeping messaging consistent across all recruitment levels (24 percent) and accurately representing the employer brand (22 percent). However, possibilities exist for simple fixes -- ranging from writing the descriptions from a more candidate-centric view to using technology to supplement, and even replace, text.
In Their Shoes
Job descriptions should read like marketing copy, but too often they resemble the original job requisition, say experts.
"Lots of the approaches to job descriptions taken by recruiters are dated and not contemporary," says Susan Hosage, a consultant and executive recruiter based in Wilkes Barre, Pa. "Most people will not sift through a long list of qualifications -- they want to see what the company is about, what it feels like to work there, that they're going to be part of something that's engaging and satisfying."
Poorly written job descriptions often result from a lack of time and planning at the organizations behind them, says Matt Cholerton, founder of Seattle-based recruitment-consulting firm HitoLabs.
"With my clients, once the job requisition is approved, they're already in great need of someone for the role, so they go through the motions, listing every single requirement -- even copying and pasting from an old description -- without having given enough thought to what they really need in that role," he says.
For job descriptions to resonate, they must be written with the candidate in mind, he adds.
"I think employers often come to me with the wrong perspective," he says. "With the job posting, I think they need to put on a different hat and say, 'What is the candidate looking for? Why would they want this role?' It leads you to a different process when you do that."
A kickoff call between the recruiter and hiring manager is a necessary first step for creating a good job description, says Cholerton. "Carefully go through the job requisition: What projects would the new hire be working on? What's in it for them? Why would they want this job? Hiring managers need to think about this."
The first thing to remember, says Cholerton, is that there needs to be a hook: What is it that great employees will need in order to see themselves in that role?
"Ultimately, every company is different, every role is different, so every job posting needs to focus on something different," he says.
Animoto, a New York-based company that makes video-creation tools and is a client of Cholerton's, is seeking to stand out amid the fierce competition for software engineers and visual designers by encouraging qualified candidates to picture themselves working there. Its job description for a software engineer reads thus: "Animoto is looking for a data-driven Software Engineer with a focus on analytics and data warehousing. You are highly analytical, ask the right questions, and are a true self-starter. You will be the 'reality expert' for Animoto, helping leadership across functions translate their products and questions into actionable metrics, analysis, reports, and recommendations. . . . We want someone smart, quick and creative; an engineer who will dig deep into the system and find various ways to improve it . . . ."
"We try not to use so many clichés; we just want to convey, 'Here's what you're going to work on, learn and walk away with' if you have a career here; one, because that's important, and two, that's what people want to get out of a job description," says Michelle Leirer, director of people services at Animoto.
The company wants candidates who are creative, have "problem-solving mind-set[s and] who not only spot issues but come to the table with solutions for solving them," says Leirer.
"The most important thing we want people to know is that we're working on some really interesting, challenging, very cool products, but we also want to give a sense of who we are internally, and the people they'll be working with," she says.
Leirer partners with Animoto's marketing department on the creation of the job-description copy, creating a template with an opening and closing format that every description follows. Then the hiring manager, Leirer and an Animoto recruiter work together to ensure the resulting copy "draws people in and ensures they know what the job entails."
In addition to job openings, Animoto's careers page also features a recruitment video describing the company and a new video each week by an employee describing what he or she does. The videos are shared via Twitter and LinkedIn.
"This gives them an opportunity to learn more about the company, aside from the job description," says Leirer.
Hiring for Culture
Erin Peterson freely acknowledges that the insurance industry has a reputation for being "rather dry." However, the same does not apply to her company, NFP, one of the nation's largest insurance brokerage and consulting firms, she says.
"Our new brand is 'Nimble, Fantastic Results and Personal,' " says Peterson. The company's website has been redesigned to reflect the new brand, with a theme that is "a little more casual, a tiny bit quirky," she says.
The next step after the website redesign was to move the theme over to NFP's careers site and make its job descriptions more appealing, says Peterson.
NFP places a priority on finding candidates who are good fits with its brand and culture, says Peterson. She and her team have partnered with McFrank & Williams, a recruitment-marketing agency, to make NFP's job descriptions more effective by targeting them at precisely the kind of people who would thrive at the company.
"[The agency will] typically help you with your employer brand, but we didn't need that; we just needed help translating our brand into the job descriptions," she says.
Peterson and her team are working closely with hiring managers to identify NFP employees who are highly successful in their jobs. Once identified, the employees are asked to complete online assessments, via a proprietary tool from McFrank & Williams called HirePower, that are designed to identify the attributes and qualities that help them succeed. Their responses are then used to generate a profile of a "best fit" candidate for each position. With the help of HirePower, the team then creates job descriptions using words and phrases that the tool anticipates will appeal to candidates who match that profile.
The result has been that job descriptions for positions such as benefits analyst, which had been "a bit dry," now include sentences such as, "Your strategic thinking can definitely tip the balance in your favor."
"The objective is to hook in the right candidate[s] by getting them to picture themselves here, as opposed to comparing themselves [to] a generic profile," says Peterson. "The process treats our job descriptions as if they're marketing outreach, which is what they really are."
The "Nimble, Fantastic Results and Personal" job-description project is ongoing and is expected to be finished by the end of this year, she says.
NFP has also begun creating short job-description videos using the same narrative as the text descriptions. The videos are a way to draw in additional people, some of whom would rather watch a video than scroll through text, says Peterson.
"We're trying to ensure that, if people come to our site via search-engine optimization and see the videos, then it's an attractive option to learn more about the job openings," she says.
NFP also works with a company called Textio (as does Animoto), which uses an algorithm to analyze job descriptions for jargon, repetitive wording and phrases that are male-focused or female-focused. "We want to understand which phrases and information would be more attractive to women, to a diversity of folks," says Peterson.
At UHY, the company has begun using a tool called ViziRecruiter, from ViziRecruiter Inc., that's designed to convert text-based job descriptions into "Vizis," a visual format with graphics, colors and pictures that can be shared via mobile and social media. UHY was one of ViziRecruiter Inc.'s beta clients.
"Most people are looking at jobs on their tablets and smartphones, so we need something that's visually appealing, that gets the point across easily on a small screen," says Mich.
One feature of the tool -- the ability to use icons to highlight different tasks of a given job -- is intended to make it easy for candidates to pick and choose which parts of the job description they wish to learn more about.
"If I'm looking for a senior accountant, then they already know what a senior accountant does -- they don't need to read through three pages of text," Mich says. "You need to capture their attention right away, because they're probably being targeted by three or four other firms."
"The people we're targeting for some of these roles are very tech-savvy, so this visual-based job ad is probably more appealing to them than the standard text-based one," she says.
Regardless of whether a job description is text-based or in some other format, it's important to view it from the candidate's perspective, says Brenner.
"If a friend sent you a link to your job description, and you clicked on it, what would you think?"