You Can’t Fix Job Descriptions, but You Don’t Have to Rely on Them

duct-tape2Job descriptions, those horribly written, barely comprehensible strings of roughly 500 words of stuff that only barely resembles reality if you squint hard, are the coin of the realm in the recruiting world. And no matter how much we complain about them to each other, they remain as unchanging as a rerun.

Not only do they persist, but recruiters and talent acquisition professionals continue to rely on them at every stage of the recruiting process. They assume candidates will search for the terms in the job description. They hope that the candidate will read all that jargon and bland verbiage and become compelled to apply. They cross their fingers that the candidate will refer back to the description when writing a resume and cover letter.

We know that job descriptions are flawed to the point of being broken, and yet we keep using them. Whether we blame “rules and regulations” or complain that writing all our job descriptions from scratch so that they have meaning would take months or years, we can’t ignore them and hope they get better magically. There is no job description-writing fairy godmother. The burden lies with you.

So here are some ideas on how to stop relying on job descriptions as the primary container of content, as the broken platform our entire recruitment marketing strategies are based on.

One: Don’t Erase Your Job Descriptions, Annotate Them

I am fully aware of how long it took to get everyone and their Aunt Sue to sign off on that job description last year. So I won’t suggest you scrap that content. If your rules and regulations stipulate that this flawed model is necessary (and I would ask to see those rules), add to it. You can add a preamble or “about this job” that doesn’t have to be considered part of the official job description. Like a cover letter frames the content within a resume, your “about the job” content can set the stage for the mush that lives in the official document.

In this section, talk about the day-to-day of the job, who the role will interact with, and what life is like on the job. Tell a story as to why filling this role is crucial to the success of your company, tying it to the corporate mission. (People, especially millennials, love to know that they are working for more than a paycheck.) You can talk about what kind of person would be successful in this role, or the story of the last person who held this role and where their promotion led.

Aside from the obvious narrative benefits to this annotation, the content you use, because it didn’t have to be watered down by HR and Legal, can use the terms actual people use when searching for jobs. Wouldn’t you like your jobs to show up when people search “customer-service jobs for someone with passion” or “sales jobs for someone who loves bicycles”? (That last one assumes you build or sell bikes.) Wouldn’t the quality of your candidates improve?

One (Part two): Crowdsource It

Building that kind of content for all your jobs is no easy task. And besides, are you really the person best positioned to actually describe these jobs at that level of specificity and meaning? So reach out to the people who are.

For your most pressing hiring needs, build a simple survey about the job and send it to the hiring manager, the people the role connects to most closely, and even people doing that job right now. (SurveyMonkey and Google Forms are free and easy.) Ask them some or all of the questions in the previous section and you will get amazing content. Then it will be your team’s job to cull the material into useful chunks and add it to the top of the job description page.

If you don’t get the response you’d hoped for, ask the hiring manager to nudge their team to complete the survey. The content it provides not only helps you, but it helps ensure the right candidate is brought in for interviews. Remind them that getting this content will make the hiring faster and easier, something they will certainly get behind.

Two: Focus on the Company, Not the Job

Would you take a step down in pay and title to work at Google or SAS or Twitter or any one of those “dream to work for” companies? I bet many of you would.

The job descriptions for a project manager role at Google and a company no one wants to work for (and I have a few in mind) are going to be 90 percent identical. And yet, Google has no problems filling its project manager needs.

Article Continues Below

This suggests that if we sell the company at the employer value proposition level, we almost don’t have to rely on the job descriptions to drive applications. So build content that highlights what a great place your company is to work for and connect it to every job description.

Now, don’t assume that because you have a picture from last year’s company picnic that someone posted to his or her Facebook, it counts as content. You need to build compelling stories about the people who work there, who they are, why they choose your company every day, etc.

How will you know when you have enough content? If I go to your site and read your content, will it outweigh all the negative things people are saying about you on Glassdoor? One story written by people who want you to apply does not counteract the dozens of people who say that you’re very difficult to work for.

So if ranting about how bad job descriptions are hasn’t persuaded you to change them, look to adding more content to balance things out. It will drive more organic traffic, increase your conversion rates, and help you find the employees you really want.

  • Duncan Taylor

    Hi James,
    Thank you for a great article, and I could not agree more. For the last 5 years I have either worked with or for an RPO (Decision Toolbox) that has taken this to the next level. They have professional writers on staff who start with the job description and then interview the hiring manager for 30 to 45 minutes, and then come up with a true marketing piece about the role that can be used to gain interest from passive and active candidates alike. There are sections on the requirements, what the role is, why you should work for the company, and what would be your keys to success in the role. It you want to see how it should be done, and done well, I would recommend having a look at a few of their postings.

    • Ken Levinson

      Knowing Kim, this does not at all surprise me.

  • Ken Levinson

    Great article James. I’m going to make sure a link is added to it in the article section of the Post Perfect Training Program:

  • Nell Thayer Heisner

    Amen! Thanks for putting it so eloquently!

  • Robert Carroll

    Terrific article…thanks. What if job descriptions were “smart”? What if you knew in advance what kind of response you would get to a job description? What if you could project a conversion rate on a job description before you even posted it? Interesting to think about.

  • Gordon Alderson

    Who says “You Can’t Fix Job Descriptions”?

    And if “… job descriptions are flawed to the point of being broken” there is a way to get rid of the flaws.

    Necessity is the motherhood of invention and relax – there is a smart “job description-writing fairy godmother”.

    Robert – The conversion rate is worth the effort.

  • Tony Stanol

    Here’s a recent article I published in an advertising industry blog on the subject of job descriptions entitled, “Take Your Job Description and Shove It.”