Originally published April 9th, 2009 at HireHacks.
Job descriptions are marketing documents, and writing great ones is an art and not a science. Most job descriptions read like something out of a boring internal process manual… describing what someone is supposed to do and listing ideal qualifications for new hires. Great job descriptions are nothing like that – they help job seekers imagine what it’s like to work at your company and inspire them to apply.
Most great job descriptions, like most great advertisements, are short. People have a limited attention span. The purpose of your job description is to “hook” people so that they spend more time investigating your company and take action. No matter how much information you put in a job description, interested applicants are likely to do research elsewhere: your website, the press, blogs, your employee’s social networking profiles and sites like Glassdoor.com. So, don’t try to pack details into your job descriptions… focus on inspiring people to learn more.
Don’t try to write job descriptions from scratch! A good first step is to search a few of the larger job boards for positions similar to the one you are trying to fill. Go ahead and incorporate things you like from other job descriptions into your own. But don’t do this too much, and never cut-and-paste directly: the uniqueness of your job description is often what makes people want to take action.
A framework to write great job descriptions
If possible, use a standard and easy-to-understand job title. On many job boards your job title is displayed as a search result (the headline)… so spruce it up a bit if you want more people to click on it. Come up with a standard/simple title first, then once you’ve finalized the rest of the job description, come back and try to create a compelling headline. For instance “Software Engineer, C# expert for a hot start up” or “Entry level Sales Associate, be mentored by the best.” If you aren’t inspired to write a snazzy headline, no problem: a simple, descriptive job title will work just fine.
You never get a second chance to make a first impression. Unless you work for a large, successful or popular company most people reading your job description won’t know who you are or what your company does. At the start of a job description, ideally in as little as two sentences, highlight why someone might want to work for your company. Here are a few ideas of things to include:
- What industry you are in and what your company / product does
- What your work environment is like (closed office, cubicles, open floor plan, nerf balls flying around, library-like silence, etc.)
- Your mission / what your company is trying to accomplish
- Some relevant statistics about your success and/or market position
- How big you are (number of employees, revenue, years in business, etc)
- Key aspects of your culture and values
- Bios of veteran leadership
The goal here is just the facts. Keep it very short. These few sentences establish the context for people to get into the “meat” of your job description. This is not your company history and a complete list of benefits… you are never going to get all of the information about what makes your company great into a concise job description, so we strongly recommend that you create a separate careers website where people can learn more about your company.
About us information is not “boilerplate” that goes at the top of all of your job descriptions. What makes your company attractive will likely vary for positions in different departments. Engineers, salespeople and controllers don’t usually join a company for the same reasons. Customizing the “About Us” contents for different audiences will help make your job descriptions more successful. Depending on your hiring goals this means that you may need multiple micro-careers websites where different types of employees can learn what it’s like to work for your company.
About the Job
Start with an introductory sentence or two about why the position you are trying to fill is a great job. This should help people visualize your environment and where this job opportunity can take them professionally. A few ideas for your intro:
- Why is the job open? If it’s for a good reason (i.e. growth, someone was promoted, big new customer win) definitely say so.
- Opportunity: Are you going to train this person? Do they get to work with a great boss? Will they develop leading edge skills? Is there something unique or special about this team? Is this a growth area of the company? Is this working on a project of special significance? Does the job pay exceptionally well?
- Lifestyle: How many hours will they need to work? Will they have to travel? Will they get to hire or manage other people? What are their days going to be like doing this job?
- Team style: What are the common attributes of the top performers on your team? Do you share common interests? Are you morning people or night owls? Procrastinators or planners? Softball or Scrabble?
Follow the introduction with some short bullet points about day-to-day job responsibilities. Think in terms of specific, discreet tasks that the person will do in this job. Go ahead and focus on some of the more exciting and interesting things you need someone to do, but don’t fib or exaggerate. Whenever possible, avoid using internal company jargon when describing job responsibilities.
You know you’re done with this section when after re-reading it you’re ready to email it to your most talented and discerning industry contacts with the subject line “Check out this great opportunity at my company.”
This is not a laundry list of things you’d like someone to know, it’s the absolute bare minimum requirements for the position. Try to keep this list to 4 one sentence bullet points or less. Here’s a good way to think about requirements: for every requirement you add, you’re tacking on two weeks to the length of time it will take to fill this job. Requirements are your “knock-out” criteria. This is the “if you don’t have these, please don’t apply” list. For instance, for an administrative assistant you’d probably want someone who is personable, organized and who has a can-do attitude. Having 10+ years of administrative assistant experience or a background working in the insurance industry are just nice to have. Rank the importance of your job requirements, listing the most important criteria first.
Nice to Have
This is the laundry list of things you’d like someone to know. Try to list no more than 10 bullet points describing things that “it would be great” if applicants knew. Rank these nice to have criteria, listing the most important ones first. This list should take up less than 1/3rd of the entire job description and you should spend less than 1/8th of your time writing this section. Most people spend 90% of their time on this laundry list and label them “requirements.” This is a big part of why most job descriptions aren’t very good. Resist your temptation to spend lots of time writing up the “and the kitchen sink list” – it won’t help you generate great candidates. We promise.
Don’t forget your keywords. Most job seekers search for jobs on job boards with keyword searches. Don’t omit obvious buzzwords and standard industry lingo from your descriptions as this is how many job seekers will find your job. If the person you’d like to hire could be searching for jobs with different titles, it’s usually a good idea to include them in the job description to make it easier to find. It’s usually best to work your keywords into the “nice to have” section. If you can’t make that work, try adding a keywords section at the bottom of your job description with the words you couldn’t work into the prose. This ain’t pretty, but it works.
Personal Style and Focus
Don’t hesitate to make your job descriptions reflect your personal style. Share a little bit of yourself in job descriptions, this makes it easier for like-minded people that will mesh well with you and your team to apply, and prompt those who are very different & who won’t fit in to move on.
Spend most of your time on the first few sections of the job description – about who you are and why your job is great. These are the things that help people visualize themselves or their friends in a job and make it viral. Remember, the purpose of job descriptions is to get people excited and to get them to apply (so that you have great candidates to choose from), not to discourage people and make them feel under-qualified. If you really, really want to build out your laundry list of requirements, go ahead, but don’t put them in the job description… create a separate, internal document that you use to evaluate candidates on phone screens and interviews. Great job descriptions are short and inspirational, not long checklists.
Why writing great job descriptions makes hiring easier
If this seems like a lot of work, it’s because it is. But it’s worth it. If you follow the framework above you’ll be ahead of the game because before you speak with anyone about your job you’ll be able to articulate:
- What your company is all about
- Why someone should be interested in your job
- What someone will do on a day-to-day basis
- What the knockout criteria are
- A prioritized list of “nice to have” criteria that will make someone stand out.
Often when you’re getting started you can’t answer some of these questions. That’s fine: just do your best. No matter what you write down, it’s likely things will change when you start interviewing candidates. If you end up making lots of small adjustments along the way, you’re doing the right thing. Job descriptions are living documents: as you learn more about what gets people excited and what makes the right fit, update your job description so that everyone stays organized and focused.
Job descriptions are often the first step for candidates. They set the tone and manage expectations for the entire interview process. Often, all that happens in a world class hiring process is re-confirmation of what candidates intially read in a job description. Great job descriptions will frame the dialog you have with candidates, and if everyone knows what to expect, the entire hiring process with be smoother. Job descriptions keep everyone honest and on track. Plan your work, then work your plan. If the plan’s not working, adjust.
Ask for referrals and you’ll get advice.
Ask for advice and you’ll get referrals.
Try not to work on job descriptions by yourself. Hiring is not done in a vacuum. Ask everyone who is going to work with the person you are trying to hire to contribute to the job description. If you do this, you’ll generate many, many more high quality referrals. There are two primary reasons for this:
- When people influence the “whats and whys” of a job they are more likely to promote it. It helps them develop a sense of ownership, which makes them more likely to tell the people they know about the job and encourage others to apply.
- People can’t help themselves. When they read job descriptions and give feedback they are mentally running through the Rolodex of people they’ve worked with before. Their feedback is often based on experiences with specific people they know well… and hopefully their participation will prompt them to help recruit these people they already know, like and respect. If no one on your team has ever worked with someone like the person you are trying to hire, your expectations may be unrealistic and/or you may be looking for a person that simply doesn’t exist. Listen carefully to people’s feedback.
More reasons to ask your team to help write job descriptions:
- People will think you are a better manager. If people feel like they have a say in who gets hired and why, in their mind you instantly become a better boss.
- Occasionally, team members will “step up” and volunteer to climb the learning curve for a hard to fill role, immediately solving your “hard to fill” job and replacing it with an easier to fill one.
- The more you tell a story, the better it gets. The best way to craft a great story is to tell it, see how other people react and ask for suggestions on how to make it more compelling. You don’t have to incorporate every idea, but some of the best copy in job descriptions has come from people “parroting back” part of your story, often simplifying it. If you go through this feedback and iteration before you publish your job description, you are likely to get better results.
- Your team will interview better. Some groupthink and consensus around what you are looking for and why people should work for you and your company can be a good thing, If everyone participates, the team will provide a consistent and unified message about what’s going on, what the job will really be like, and who will likely be a good fit.
- You can’t see it all. The people you work for and the people who work for you have a different perspective of what people are doing on a day-to-day basis and/or what makes a job good or bad. Capturing this information prior to meeting candidates can help you avoid pitfalls in the interviewing and hiring process.
Ask people outside your company to help write job descriptions
- Asking for feedback and input on a job description is a great way to stay in touch with colleagues and generate referrals. A dialog about what’s happening in your company, what you are looking for and why is usually a pretty interesting conversation to have with someone who works in a similar business. An email that asks “Do you know any good c++ engineers looking for a new job?” is nowhere near as much fun as these sorts of chats… and let’s face it, you need a budget to “do lunch.”
- If you do this the right way, people will feel like they are an “insider” who has the “first crack” at a unique opportunity. They’ll call their friends and say “do you want a first look at this job with my friend so-and-so? It sounds awesome.” Asking for advice makes people feel special and is a great way to unearth coveted passive candidates.
- Finally, people outside your organization are often a great reality check. You may think that you’ve written something great, but don’t lose sight of the fact that you are the boss and your team might just be blowing smoke. People outside your company have less of a stake in your hire (and don’t work for you) – they can tell you if your hiring profile is realistic and whether the story you’ve put together is actually exciting.
Walk your job description over to the marketing department
Posting great job descriptions can be some of the best PR and marketing work your company will ever do. Job descriptions are usually how people within your industry first hear about your company – and often how they will keep track of it over time. Writing job descriptions that engage people in your industry isn’t the same as writing marketing collateral targeted at customers, but the marketing department’s instincts can serve you well. Great marketers will often have interesting angles on how to differentiate your job in the marketplace and how to attract attention for key company needs.