Rewriting the Job Ad

New academic research finds that making a few minor changes to the wording of job ads to focus more on the upsides an employer could offer the candidate-as opposed to specific job requirements-may boost the number and quality of real-life job applicants.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015
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Be more like a marketer.

HR has been hearing that advice-that deepening the high-quality talent pool requires a marketing mind set-for a while. Yet, while the concept of being more marketing-oriented in recruiting is logical, results were mainly anecdotal, based more on instinct than metrics.

That changed recently when three academicians conducted a research study that involved lightly reworking some online job advertisements. The results were anything but anecdotal. Specifically, by making a few minor changes that focused more on the upsides an employer could offer the candidate, as opposed to specific job requirements, the researchers boosted the size and quality of real-life job applicants.
David Jones, associate professor of business at the University of Vermont and one of the study's co-authors, says that typical online job postings focus on employer expectations, including skillsets, work ethic, degrees, certifications, etc. However, Jones and the team discovered that ads emphasizing what employers can provide job seekers-things such as work autonomy, career advancement  and engagement-deliver better employee-company matches as well as larger numbers of more qualified applicants.

"It's not that hard to include these types of statements," he says, adding that including some key phrases beyond job description and requirements that appeal to the job candidate costs almost nothing and can't do any harm if they honestly depict what they say.

The study, titled "Does Emphasizing Different Types of Person-Environment Fit in Online Job Ads Influence Application Behavior and Applicant Quality? Evidence from a Field Experiment,"
is set to be published in the Journal of Business and Psychology. It was based on data from 991 applicants who responded to 56 ads for engineering and project management-based positions. ads that emphasized a "needs-supplies" fit, i.e. things the organization can supply to meet an applicant's needs, received almost three times as many highly rated applicants compared to ads with "demands-abilities" fit wording, i.e. what abilities and skills the organization demands of candidates.

Patrick Kulesa, director of employee research at Towers Watson in New York, says the study drives home that using generic language in online ads is a "missed opportunity" to communicate something unique about the organization.

"The study raises the question about what to do with that space," he says. "It really is a great chance to focus on the differentiating factors that attract, engage and retain the best talent."

In addition, Kulesa says online ads should be customized by the industry sector and specific role you are recruiting for. For example, the ad wording for a sales position would be a great way to communicate the quality of the products and/or services a person will be selling.

"The best job candidates will be attracted to something that is unique, something that speaks directly to them," he says.

Kathy Kalstrup, executive vice present of recruiting process outsourcing and point solutions at Aon Hewitt, in Lincolnshire, Ill., says the "spot on" study shows how simplicity can make a dramatic difference.

"The ads can become so complex that sometimes it's easy to lose sight of the forest for the trees," she says, noting that the research's simple message focuses on connecting with and meeting the candidates where they are by hitting on the things that would interest them personally.

"Often they are more interested in the culture of the company and how it could benefit them, not just about the nuts and bolts of the job itself," she says. "Taking that type of approach appeals to those sensibilities."

Barb Marder, a senior partner and talent business global innovation leader at Mercer, says the study is important because it represents true academic research applied to the recruiting space, which until now has been limited. In fact, Jones says it may be the first study ever that used data collected with active job seekers applying for real professional jobs.

"The concept of candidate-centric job descriptions being more appealing and effective than company-centric ones is intuitive," Marder says. "It's newsworthy, but also it is a small sample and needs more research. Certainly, it proved ad wording matters."

So why doesn't every HR or recruiting leader engage in this type of approach? Jones says one reason many employers still run D-A-type ads is because the people writing them often have little training in this area. Or, employers rely on headhunters or RPO vendors who focus on their clients' needs more than the applicants' needs.

"A hiring manager in a specific unit or a supervisor of the second shift in manufacturing with little training in this stuff may be crafting the ad," Jones says. "So it's not surprising that it's filled with D-A statements, because they want someone with a specific skill set that they don't have to spend a lot of time training, and who can start on day one."

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Also, Jones says it is not as simple as including some N-S statements to make the job sound more worker-friendly. Employers need to be very careful here: while the ads should be a hybrid of sorts (both D-A and N-S information), most of all they must be honest.

"It's critical not to add these types of statements if they aren't true," Jones says.

If an employer creates what he calls a psychological contract-in which the applicant has an expectation of what is going to happen as an employee-then if those expectations aren't met, the quality hires are less likely go "above and beyond" the call of the job, and more likely to leave much sooner than they otherwise would.

Kalstrup adds that, with transparency tools, people have many resources in collecting information about a prospective employer, especially via social media and sites such as Glassdoor.

"People today are smart and have learned to find the information they need to make decisions," she says. "So transparency is critical for this strategy to be effective."

Jones says that while he and his co-researchers expected to find support for general hypothesis, what surprised them most was-at least for the more technical positions-just how strong the effects of changing the ads turned out to be.

"We were expecting a difference, but what happened was remarkable," he says. "This kind of effect really improves the chances of hiring a superstar."

Jones adds that 91 of the 991 job seekers in the study agreed to do a survey. The researchers asked them about perceived marketability, and many of those applying for higher skilled project manager and engineering positions already knew there currently is not enough supply for the talent demand in their areas of expertise.

"They are a hot commodity, so they had the luxury of being picky when it came to the ad language," he says. On the other hand, the researchers didn't find that same result for office administrative job seekers, because those applicants realized there is not as much demand and much more supply for those job roles, says Jones.

"For that group, we didn't see evidence that the N-S ads were very compelling," he says. "So it's really about the supply and demand in terms of when those adjusted ads are most powerful. That makes sense to us and suggests the real power in using those modified ads is in areas where you have a true war for talent."

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