Everyone has either written or answered a job description at some point in their lives. But how do we reconcile the fact that the vast majority of job descriptions out there are often less than ideal. They prioritize lots of bullet points — easier to read, to be fair — as a list of seemingly intractable skills, and then eliminate people because they lack 1 or 2 those skills. This seems myopic in a time when business models change constantly, and it seems to also underscore an idea that a person couldn’t learn the 1-2 skills they need per the job description. They also don’t often speak to where the role could evolve to in 3-5 years, rather stating what the company needs right this second. So at the end of the day, the question is can we fix job descriptions? Well, we can definitely try!
Let’s start by considering the problems (briefly)
1. Job descriptions are often simply revised from the previous search: One of our colleagues worked for a large health care company once and was actually asked to take some job descriptions and “edit them a little bit,” even though someone had been in the role for 5-6 years in the interim. To simply revise a job description after someone held the job for a half-decade implies that person brought no new context to the job in the way of pros and cons. That’s absolutely impossible to believe. So while it’s easy, recycling old job descriptions can lead to more problems than it solves.
2. Job descriptions are basically old-school SEO: They’re loaded up with keywords, but a good percentage of those keywords have no real connection to the day-to-day tasks of the job. Often the game simply becomes: which candidates can use the most keywords in their resume to match the job description? The winners usually get interviews. But is the ability to apply some buzzwords really what you’re looking for in a candidate?
3. Hiring managers don’t really know what they want: People often think about new openings in terms of headcount (“This seat is open now / I have the headcount”), not in terms of what they actually need and what would make their organization/department a bit more strategic in their ultimate goals. After all, wanting a candidate that can do everything is unrealistic.
4. Day-to-day context is missing: Most jobs right now are a crush of day-to-day deliverables; strategy and operations are different. Rather than loading up job descriptions with buzzwords and keywords around all the strategic things the candidate is going to do, it might be better to actually define a typical day. That’s more relevant than these so-called strategic opportunities you might not get.
5. Idea of the evolution of the job isn’t clear: A job, even if you hate it, is still part of your career fabric, which will in turn be analyzed by others down the road — so job descriptions should give some idea of where the job might evolve to in 1 year, 2 years, 5 years, etc. Of course that’s hard for companies to say — the company itself might not be sure where it will be in one year — but they should still make some effort into contextualizing this for a potential employee so candidates can make informed decisions about which direction they want their futures to take.
Now let’s discuss possible solutions
1. Restructure the exit interview: Thinking about the end before you even write your job description might sound counter-intuitive but bear with us. There’s a lot of value that can come from a well done exit interview. Portions of it should be around topics such as “What did you do each day?” and “What did you think was good / not-so-good about this role?” There’s no one who has more context on a position than the last person who held it; for new positions, this is obviously less doable. In that case, it’s the function of the department head granted headcount to sit down with the hiring manager and legitimately ask, “So why do you need this position? Is there no other in-house solution with re-adjusting other workloads that could lead to the same place?” Knowing the details of a role inside and out helps make better job descriptions and sometimes that means picking the brains of employees who are already out the door.
2. Find the skill gaps first: Before you head out to hire, stop and consider:
Why do we need this job?
What would the ideal person be adding?
What other team members will this person be interacting with the most?
Then get those team members together and talk about where the gaps on your team are — and how this new hire can help fix some of those gaps. Ask yourself: “What could this new person do that would help this team be more productive in terms of its stated goals?”
3. Actually write a job description that has some soul: What’s the person going to really do? What skills are must-haves? (Only the must-haves, not the overloaded keyword BS.) What teams will they interact with? Where could they move upwards to if they’re good? Assign one team member to write this, one to edit, and one to approve in order to obtain a variety of opinions and reach a team consensus on what’s really needed. On the writing day, give the employee a work-from-home. Same with the editing day. Same with the approval day. Let the employees stop and have time to think about what they’re doing in describing this job, as opposed to doing it in between a bunch of e-mails and meetings. Prioritize creating a unique and specific job description and you might find yourself interviewing much stronger candidates.
4. Reduce HR’s role in the hiring process: HR is necessary and important but when it comes to hiring, really think about what input is absolutely needed and at what point in the hiring process. When you add HR, you add another level — and when you add another level, that means the department head has to get the headcount (Level 1), the hiring manager has to determine what to do with the headcount (Level 2), and then the hiring manager has to effectively communicate the role to HR for the initial screenings (Level 3). This can become a giant game of telephone. In some situations, it would be easier if the hiring manager did the whole thing — and as to the typical counter-argument of “I’m too busy,” well, if you’re too busy to get the right person for your team, then let’s be real, you’re probably a bad manager. As to the typical counter-argument of “HR knows that stuff better than I do,” that’s wrong. They might know some of the legal-side requirements, but you can learn that. They don’t know the best person for your team, no; in fact, there’s a huge chance they’ll screen out 2-3 people who might have been perfect. So take the time to think about what support and resources you need before your search and then stick to your plan.
What do you think?
The job description is essential to the entire hiring/recruiting process; in many instances, it’s literally the first time a prospective candidate has any type of context for an organization, what they do, and what he/she could potentially do there. For something so essential — something you’re pushing out to represent your company and stock it with the best people — we, as an industry, put a surprisingly little amount of thought into it. What would you do to make it better?