Wanted: Job Descriptions That Work

Experts say many job descriptions are out of date, don't really reflect the role, and in some cases even dissuade top talent from applying. Is it time to give your employment ads an overhaul?

Tuesday, May 6, 2014
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How long has it been since you considered the timeliness, accuracy and effectiveness of your job descriptions? Some recent research suggests that now may be a good time.

For instance, Chicago-based business transformation consulting firm HRIZONS conducted a March 2014 survey of 370 organizations, asking participants how they would describe the state of their current job description content. Just 3 percent said yes to having "standardized job description templates and up-to-date, high-quality content, with effective harmonization of job-description content."

Dated job descriptions are one thing, but another study from Germany finds some employment ads are actually alienating large segments of the talent pool.

Research conducted by professors from Technische Universitat Munchen found fewer females apply for management positions, due in part to women feeling less inclined to respond to employment ad terms such as "determined," "assertive" and other descriptors commonly linked to male stereotypes.

With such findings in mind, "most companies could benefit from looking at their job descriptions with a critical eye," says Sayed Sadjady, a partner at New York-based PwC's people and change practice.

"Job listings should accurately reflect the skills, knowledge and primary responsibilities connected to the role," but are also "one of the first representations of the company's brand" in candidates' minds, he says.

"A company should take the time to ensure that each and every job description provides applicants a good understanding of the job, consistently presents the company's brand [and] builds excitement for the job itself."

Job descriptions can also be used extensively within the company for talent selection and mobility purposes -- a use that "most people forget," says Sadjady.

"There is great benefit in building a degree of consistency in terms of structure, taxonomy, language and goals into the design of job descriptions. This can improve the talent-management process within the company, by providing transparency and clarity."

It's "no secret that a lot of hiring managers and recruiters struggle to articulate the key elements of success in a job," says Robin Erickson, a Chicago-based vice president of talent acquisition research at Bersin by Deloitte, Deloitte Consulting.

The challenge "is that recruiters aren't always aligned with managers or [a given] business unit. A recruiter doesn't necessarily understand what an IT engineer actually does, for example," she says.

"In an ideal world, your recruiters are going to partner with your hiring managers to learn the culture in a business unit, and learn what makes someone successful in a given role."

Gordon Medlock conducted the aforementioned survey during a March 2014 HRIZONS webinar focusing on job description content. The large number of attendees indicating their job descriptions leave something to be desired seems to be in line with what he typically encounters as a senior talent management consultant with the firm.

"For the most part, I don't see companies prioritizing job descriptions as strategic tools to attract, develop and optimize talent," says Medlock. "Job descriptions tend to develop in a very ad hoc way, based on who is in a job at the present time and what openings occur that require new job descriptions."

Line managers don't typically oversee the management of job descriptions, he says, which often results in "a disconnect between the job that gets advertised and the expectations the new employee is expected to meet once he or she starts the job."

The most common mistake Medlock sees companies make, he says, "is treating job descriptions as administrative necessities, rather than tools to optimize individual and organizational performance and competitiveness."

For example, he says, job descriptions frequently list too many detailed tasks rather than the essential outcomes for which a person is accountable; don't identify the competencies and skills that lead to superior performance; while HR fails to use key content - responsibilities, experience, skills and competencies - to assess, attract, evaluate and develop talent across all functions.

While including the nuts and bolts of the individual position is critical, the organization should also give applicants a sense of what makes the company unique, adds Sadjady.

"The applicant wants to know more than just the day-to-day activities," he says. "[Candidates] want to know what differentiates the organization, and if they can see themselves as part of the company."

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At PwC, "we often come across job descriptions that describe the position only in terms of tasks, but not responsibilities," says Sadjady. "We work with clients to develop job descriptions that clearly link back to the accountability framework for the team and company at multiple levels, including the competencies against which they will ultimately be evaluated during the performance-management process."

Striking the right balance can be a difficult task, but not an impossible one, says Erickson.

"Some job descriptions are very narrative and tell a story, but it's hard to pick out the key points from the narrative. Others are bulleted lists of the ideal traits the applicant should possess. And that can seem overwhelming to a candidate, who may self-select out because they don't have, say, three things on that list."

A sort of hybrid may be the best route to take, she says.

"You need a description of the responsibilities, but also the bulleted list of actual requirements, and then the ideal requirements an applicant should have."

A best practice Erickson recommends in crafting an employment ad "is to find someone excelling in [the same position], look at his or her competencies and retrofit a job description based on someone who's doing the job well."

Employers must also avoid equating quantity of content with quality, adds Sadjady.

"Some companies want to provide a really accurate description of the role, and they assume that writing a lot of detail is the best way to do that. Unfortunately, we know that writing more is not the same as saying more," he says. "Accurately describe the role without writing a novel."

Achieving an economy of words while conveying all the necessary information is a challenge, of course, But, the need for brevity can't be overlooked in today's labor market, where job hunters seek concise, on-point job descriptions they can quickly read and apply for via their mobile devices, says Sadjady.

"There is a lot of competition for talent, and at the same time, our attention spans are shorter. A job seeker should be able to identify the key skills needed and responsibilities they would hold in that job, while also understanding the values and differentiators of the company, all in a short description," he says.

"You want to attract the top talent to the right jobs and make it simple for them to find a match. We always talk about the need to write an impactful resume to stand out from the crowd and to be distinctive. The same applies to job descriptions."

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