Part of my full-time job as an interview coach and expert in the hiring process is to deconstruct job descriptions for job seekers, so they can understand the essential functions and be in a better position to have interview answers align with it. Recently I reached 1,000 job descriptions reviewed for job seekers, the perfect time to summarise what I’ve learned.
The truth about job descriptions
The painful truth is that most of those 1000 job descriptions were poorly written. I don’t just mean poor quality of writing and grammar; they’re also poor at describing the job, the sole purpose of a job description. Few job descriptions were well written, which is bad news for job seekers.
It’s always surprised me that even those organizations that put considerable investment into training their interviewers put zero investment into training their job description writers. As it happens, I’ve worked in FTSE 100 companies for over 25 years, and although I’ve had access to job description examples, I never received training.
This article from Forbes.com about how to write a job description suggests companies should hire professionals to write job descriptions or even just job description examples. However, even a job description written by HR professionals in a big FANNG company can be just as disappointing to job seekers.
For job seekers to understand what a job is all about, they need much more than job titles and a brain dump. How to write a compelling job description requires four fundamental elements. These are the general purposes of the role, what the required outputs are, what their inputs are (in other words, how they’re expected to achieve those outputs), and finally, what special skills or qualifications are needed to be able to do the role.
Here are the top mistakes I’ve observed others make when writing job descriptions, along with recommendations for fixing them.
Provide a high-level summary of what the job is
So many of these job descriptions go from job title to dive straight into the microscopic detail of the responsibilities and activities of the role. But unfortunately, they don’t provide the context in which those activities happen. Posting a job description like this is like handing someone a recipe without first explaining what dish the ingredients are meant to produce.
In other cases, there is no job summary, only a title (say, Finance Manager). Posting a job description like this is the same as telling someone they’re making a “dessert” without specifying if it’s a Tiramisu or a Creme Brulee.
A high-level summary of the purpose of the role, in the way you might explain it to a friend, would provide the blueprint for the candidate, around which the rest of the detail can be added.
Avoid internal terminology
It’s shocking how many job descriptions are written with internal jargon and acronyms. I’ve read many that reference working with internal teams and calling them by the company’s internal code name for them. There’s often a failure to appreciate that the job seeker doesn’t have the same thorough knowledge of the company as the writer.
One job description I reviewed had so many acronyms for teams that I had the prospective candidate email a list to the Recruiter to explain their functions. Knowing these teams’ functions significantly impacted the candidate’s understanding of the role.
Similarly, many substandard job descriptions refer to internal process terminology that a candidate won’t understand. For example, I reviewed an Amazon job description that mentioned the position’s responsibility for the “Andon Process.” If you’re an Amazonian, you know exactly what this is. But to outsiders, it means nothing. Internal speak has no place in an externally facing document.
Have a clear purpose for each section
Those job descriptions that did contain the four fundamental elements still didn’t separate them into separate sections. So when you were to read them, you’d have to dedicate a large amount of cognitive load to picking those elements apart in your mind.
That isn’t to say there weren’t section headings in those job descriptions intended to create that delineation. After all, most JDs are created from job description templates. But it was clear from the jumble of the elements that writers don’t understand how the sections in the job description are meant to be used.
Companies must clarify what should and shouldn’t go into each section. Get that right, and the job description becomes much easier to read and understand.
This was a common theme across my 1000 job descriptions. As writers populate the standardized required sections of the job description, they feel they must have more detail to fill them with. So in the absence of something unique to say, they dropped information from other sections. Sometimes even word for word.
In other cases, the same sentences appear in both the job description’s Basic and Preferred skills sections (must-have skills don’t need to be captured twice). For example, descriptions of how candidates are expected to deliver their outputs (such as “collaborate with cross-unit teams”) appeared in both Basic and Preferred skills requirements.
There’s no excuse for a poorly-proofed job description, yet I always see them. Grammatical errors and poor spelling were not the only offenders. Occasionally, writers forget to remove entire paragraphs from the previous version of the job description. I’ve also seen job descriptions without complete sentences. I even reviewed a job description with two paragraphs of Lorum Ipsum copy!
These mistakes sound extreme, but they are more common than you’d imagine.
The bottom line is that employers expect a high standard of editorial proofing from candidate resumes (after all, resumes are candidates’ most critical Marketing tools). However, a job description is an employer’s Marketing tool, so the same quality standards must apply. It’s a poor reflection of company culture if this can’t be achieved.
Have consistent job titles
Having a good job description is essential, but I’ve also noticed that large companies sometimes post job adverts with different job titles but use the same job description. This can be very confusing for a prospective candidate who sees both but can’t understand the difference between each job posting. In addition, this defies the purpose of a well-written job description – to help the candidate identify the best-fit role. So employers and hiring managers must ensure that well-written job descriptions for similar jobs have similar titles.
Include a salary range
This is a hot topic. Few companies set expectations for what compensation is on offer. But prospective candidates want to understand if it’s worth applying for a role. It’s a terrible waste of resources for the job seeker, hiring manager, Recruiter, and interviewers to go through the entire hiring process and make an offer only to discover they can’t afford to take the job. Most candidates understand a desire not to publish an exact value, but posting a range would make the recruiting process more efficient.
Companies are in a much stronger position to have a comprehensive knowledge of the reasonable market range for a role. Potential candidates can use resources like levels.fyi and payscale.com to gather data. Still, this data can be tough to find for unusual job families (and those located outside of the USA). Your company mission should be to pay qualified candidates a reasonable wage. So, including a salary range in your job ad won’t put your P&L in jeopardy.
For many companies, it’s ingrained in the company culture not to make it general knowledge what they’re willing to pay new hires. Ultimately as the demand for pay transparency grows, most employers will find themselves legislated or pushed by their workforce to do so.
More detail is better
By far, the worst job description examples are those that provide so little detail that job seekers have to guess their job responsibilities based on their working knowledge. I’ve seen job descriptions that offer only a high-level overview of a job summary with some bullet points on the technical skills required. The exact responsibilities aren’t clear, and there isn’t enough detail for candidates to imagine the essential activities and specific tasks. This screams a lack of effort and respect for the job seeker. Even if the work is simple, Hiring Managers still need to take the time to explain its details.
What this all means
Companies don’t take this as seriously as they should. Although writing a job description may not be everyone’s idea of fun, being able to write an effective job description is one of the necessary skills of a manager. Complete mastery isn’t required, but a greater level of competency than what is currently in the market.
Significantly more investment must be made in defining the JD document’s structure, training writers to use them, and quality assuring them. Improve job descriptions, and you’ll get better-qualified candidates. Not to mention, if the company can write a good job description, it says a lot about your company culture and will set you apart from other employers.
What a better format of job description template looks like
What we propose may surprise you as a better way of writing job descriptions, but as you read on, you’ll see that it not only makes for a better job description but also a more compelling job description for job seekers.
You are probably familiar with the STAR interview answer method that a job seeker is frequently encouraged to use throughout the hiring process. With a slight modification, this method can be used to make sure that every job description written by your Hiring Managers is a good job description.
S for Situation
This is the best way to open, straight after the job title. Its purpose is to provide the context within which the role exist. Here, you include important company details such as category, size, mission and goals. Once the macro picture of the company is laid out, you move on to providing information about the team the future employee would be working in. You include here details such as the team’s core purpose, size, mission and goals, and structure (if it’s unusual).
Once this is established you move on to an overview of the role. Many writers rely on the job title to provide this but that’s nowhere near adequate. Areas to cover would be, the primary job purpose, who the position reports to, and key metrics that success is measured by.
Before a job description goes into details about job duties, job qualifications etc a job seeker needs sufficient comprehension of the role to be able to describe it to someone else. This foundation is essential for effective job descriptions.
T is for Tasks
Having şet up the situation, we recommend the next section focuses on ensuring candidates understand “WHAT” work they will do, what the key responsibilities are. By this, we mean their outputs, the deliverables that they will be responsible for.
Delivery weekly, monthly and annual business performance reviews
Build financial models to use as inputs to commercial decisions and business cases
Write business cases on growth and risk opportunities you’ve identified
Manage budget allocation to optimise return on investments.
Design new processes to improve speed of decision making
Avoid including in this section things like personality traits, don’t allow the purpose of the section to creep. This is a shopping list of outputs. Writing a job description that enables a job seeker to truly imagine the reality of the day-to-day takes discipline.
A is for Actions
The next step is to move on to the HOW the future employee will do their job. These are the inputs that lead to the outputs. This section focuses on the soft and hard skills the employee is expected to utilise in order to achieve the oputputs
Build strong relationships with partners in order to secure buy in to business cases
Strong attention to detail to ensure high standards business cases and financial models
Strong process orientation to enable innovative process design work
Excellent analytical skills in order to syntheses large and diverse data sets
Knowledge of industry best practice
You can refer to outputs in this section but ONLY as context for the inputs. You must put enough detail into this section for the job seeker to be able to imagine day to day life in the work environment.
R is for Requirements
This section is for detailing technical skills, qualifications or experience that are necessary to do the job. Subjective requirements such as “able to work a senior levels” are out. They describe inputs expected of the job owner, and so it’s implicit those are required for the role. We’re looking for provable facts that aren’t open to opinion or subjectivity.
15 years of experience in senior financial roles
Advanced Excel and SQL skills
Managed P&L’s of $20m+
This section can be split into absolute must have skills and nice to have skills if preferred.
I is for Investments
You’ll have noticed we have added a letter to the STAR method. This isn’t a unique adaptation for job descriptions. We also recommend this addition for interview, you can learn more about this on this YouTube video.
Having a positive tone in your job description is important. So, this section aims to ensure that candidates understand what you have to offer them in return. Here you add all of the benefits and perks that you believe will be the cherry on the top of a well described and interesting description of a job.
How to write a job description isn’t a great mystery. If you follow the basic principles and avoid all of the pitfalls I’ve described plus use the STARI structure, I’m confident that you’ll have some of the best job descriptions on the market and attract the best-qualified candidates you’ve ever got.