by Sharon Florentine

10 tips for crafting highly effective job descriptions

Feb 23, 2018
CareersIT JobsIT Leadership

Hiring great talent starts with attracting great talent. Here's how to create effective, engaging and inclusive job descriptions targeted to the best candidates for the job.

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Hiring great talent starts with attracting the right talent. Here, an effective, engaging and inclusive job description is key. With a little upfront effort, you can craft just the right job description to bring a wide range of highly talented candidates into your pipeline — and ensure you’re not turning off talent before they even apply.

“The best job descriptions combine a little bit of marketing, the reality of the role, the necessary skills and competencies and the organization’s culture. All those things put together are key to how to present an open role to the market,” says Justin Cerilli, managing director of financial services and technology at Russell Reynolds and Associates, an executive search and leadership transition firm.

In addition to the standard role description and skills and experience required, recruiters and hiring managers must place an emphasis on culture, mission and values to avoid making a bad hire. And to ensure you are attracting a diverse pool of highly qualified applicants, you must also make sure your descriptions don’t alienate women, people of color, the differently abled and the LGBTQ+ community.

Here’s how to do it.

1. Get the job title right

If you’re having trouble filling vacancies for that critical “rockstar” developer, DevOps “ninja” or digital marketing “guru,” you’re probably turning off candidates with that very language, according to research from Indeed.  

“We know that weird job titles can be fun and indicative of a more laid-back culture. However, without a cultural frame of reference, using them in your job listings can affect how well your job posting does. Most people search for roles that match their skills and experience, and so, using terms like ‘ninja’ and ‘rockstar’ in job titles and descriptions can confuse job seekers and put them off from applying,” according to this blog post from Indeed.

Creativity can help your job title stand out, but don’t be so esoteric that you miss out on candidates who are searching for the same job under a different name, says Russell Reynolds’ Cerilli. As best you can, integrate industry-standard language into your titles, says Colin Day, founder and CEO of SaaS-based recruiting software solution platform iCIMS.

“Keep in mind that your company and the open job have to be found. In order to do that, step out of your own company’s mind and internal terminology. If you call it ‘client relationship manager,’ and they’re searching for the more commonly used ‘account manager,’ you’re going to miss out on those candidates,” he says.

2. Start with a short, engaging overview of the job

This one- to four-sentence overview should include a description of the job’s major function, how it contributes to larger company objectives and why it’s important not just to the company, but to society as a whole. For example, try to answer the question, “How does this role contribute to making people’s lives better, or solve existing business or social problems?” according to a whitepaper from the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT). Using invitational language, like, “Come join a creative team of … dedicated to …” is particularly effective, NCWIT says.

3. Avoid superlatives or extreme modifiers

Over-the-top language like “best of the best,” “off the charts,” “world class,” “rockstars,” “ninjas” tends to prevent candidates from applying — especially women and underrepresented minorities, but also some men, according to NCWIT. Anyone who’s been socialized not to “toot their own horn” will be less likely to categorize themselves in these ways and thus be less likely to apply, NCWIT says.

You should also avoid using language that describes a singular focus on a narrow set of abilities, for instance, “perfectionists” or those who are “forever tinkering.” Again, you risk turning off highly qualified talent that could excel in the role without these traits, or that doesn’t self-identify with these terms.

4. Focus responsibilities on growth and development

Don’t just list a bunch of boring daily tasks, and avoid a long, bulleted list of responsibilities or qualifications, says NCWIT.

Lists like these are difficult to absorb, and the minutia often means little until one’s actually doing the job, according to NCWIT. Instead, describe the key job functions in five to seven bullets. You also can group two to three bullets under larger categories, such as “Technical Skills,” “Management Skills,” “Communication,” and the like.

You also should explain how the job will contribute to business objectives, the potential for advancement, and how candidates’ achievements can contribute to that, says Cerilli.

“You want candidates to be excited about your company and the transformation happening in the industry. Start by including a bit about what the company’s doing within the larger industry, how technology enables that, and how the company, the role and their skills and knowledge can further their growth and development,” he says.

“Make sure the job description is also exciting and engaging,” says iCIMS’ Day. “You could include something like, ‘We’re anticipating growth beyond 20 percent this year,’ or ‘Be part of a team that will add X number of new accounts.’ You want to attract candidates who are goal- and action-oriented, so make your job description reflect that.”

5. Involve current employees in writing job descriptions

Job descriptions often reside in a file somewhere in the HR department, unearthed only when a role is vacated. These descriptions often remain static for years and don’t reflect the current skills, culture and experience needs. Not only that, but research shows that even when highly qualified, women are less likely than men to apply for a role if they don’t have all the required qualifications. Removing any criteria that is no longer necessary for the job, or highlighting criteria that could be learned on the job, as well as avoiding restrictive requirements for “years of experience,” can help attract more diverse candidates, according to NCWIT.

Here, it’s worth asking current employees for input.

“Involving the current team will help fine-tune the description and help determine the skills necessary to do well in the role. Knowing what your team needs and the type of candidate that will be a cultural fit will be crucial for long-term success,” says John Reed, senior executive director of Robert Half Technology.

This will also help rule out non-negotiable items, like years of experience with a particular technology, that may deter an applicant, thereby leaving the door open for those who excel in that area but may have fewer years under their belt, he says.

6. Create urgency for the position

Even if you’re not desperate to fill an open position, you want candidates to feel a sense of urgency and be compelled to apply, even if they’re currently happily employed, says Robert Half’s Reed. Posting specific start dates can help, as will including contact information for an individual person rather than a generic e-mail address, he says.

7. Culture, culture, culture

“Culture is everything in recruitment. Everything eventually comes back to a candidate asking themselves, ‘Will I be a good fit and really enjoy working there?’ So it’s critical that culture is all over a job description,” says Russell Reynolds’ Cerilli.

Here, highlighting benefits, perks and workplace bonuses can help, says Day. Do you have an on-site gym? Free food? Flexible schedules? Remote work opportunities? Happy hour Fridays? Shout it out in the job description, he says.

“Cultural fit is just as much of importance to both employees and employers as technical and experience fit, if not more so. A bad hire costs money and drains productivity; a lack of culture fit and employee engagement increases turnover, so you’ve got to get it right,” he says.

But you can’t let culture fit undermine diversity and inclusion; make sure you’re avoiding gender-specific pronouns by rephrasing to avoid them. Also make sure photos, graphics, videos or other multimedia supplements include a diverse range of people, preferably who already work for your organization, says NCWIT.

8. Bust biases in your ads

Gender-biased language can be subtle, but it is still detrimental, says NCWIT. Biased language has been shown to deter highly qualified talent from applying because it unconsciously lowers their expected sense of fitting in, according to NCWIT.

The detriment of male- or female-skewing terms within job descriptions has come under greater scrutiny since American Psychological Association research showed how seemingly innocuous words signal gender bias in job ads, according to Ian Siegel, CEO of recruiting and hiring platform ZipRecruiter.

It stands to reason, says Kieran Snyder, CEO and co-founder of Textio, a machine learning platform that analyzes language patterns, that if you reach a wider pool of applicants, you’re much more likely to improve the diversity of applicants and speed up the recruiting and hiring process.

“When you’re not excluding half of your potential applicant pool, not limiting it to one demographic, then the roles fill much more quickly. What we see when analyzing around 50 million of our clients’ job postings is that removing gendered language means these vacancies are filled, on average, two weeks faster,” Snyder says.

And recent data from ZipRecruiter backs up the assertion that gender-neutral language can help companies attract a more diverse talent pool and fill vacancies faster.

“When employers write job descriptions the goal is that the person with the right skills and experience will read the job ad and apply. What we found was that many employers were lowering their chances at finding the right candidate and didn’t even realize it. When gendered language is removed from the equation, companies are left with a higher chance of scoring the best candidate for the job. We found that neutral wording in job listings resulted in 42 percent more applicants than listings that contained gendered words,” says Siegel. 

Doing so doesn’t have to be difficult or time-consuming, either, says Siegel. The Journal of Social Psychology has a list of “masculine” and “feminine” words, and making simple changes can improve recruiting results quickly, he says. NCWIT also offers examples of how to adjust your job listings to remove biases.

9. The devil’s in the details

Just as hiring managers will judge a resume, candidates are judging your firm on the tiniest details, says Reed. Make sure you spell-check, do a grammar check and proofread your job description. Then, go back and do it again.

“In addition to spelling and grammar, avoid using too much jargon or too many clichés,” Reed says. “Be sure to pay attention to the esthetics of the posting. Try and put all of the key information at the beginning of the description and use bullets and lists so candidates can quickly and easily scan the information.”

10. Get interactive and innovative

Candidates on the job hunt spend a lot of time poring over job descriptions; if you add creative or innovative touches, you can catch their eye and their interest, says Day.

“Reading hundreds, even thousands of job descriptions is so tedious. Do you have the capability to accept video cover letters? Can you add a video spot with the hiring manager or with potential colleagues where they explain the job and why they love to work for the company? This is a major differentiator, and candidates definitely take notice,” he says.

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