How to Write Job Descriptions that Attract Top Performers
It's easy to copy a job description from another organization. But posting a job advertisement that looks like every other employer won't help you hire someone terrific.
It's easy to make a list of job duties and responsibilities. But your ideal candidates probably won't find that laundry list very interesting, and won't apply.
The purpose of a job description is to be clear about what is expected of someone in the job, and that's important. But most employers ALSO use the description as their job advertising. And that's a mistake.
Every time you post a dull job description as your job advertisement, your hiring process is already headed down the wrong path. Your job ad should be appealing – it should tell a story that places your reader at the center of the action. In reading your job ad, your ideal candidate should vividly imagine themselves doing the job.
Tell a Story
A great job ad tells a story. We humans respond to stories, almost instinctively. The most persuasive narratives move people into action (you want the great people to actually apply). If you want to attract a top performer with your job advertising, you first need to understand your audience. Who do you want to attract, and what is the context in which your story will appear? Understand how your reader will first see your job. If you are posting a job ad, go read ten advertisements for a job like yours.
Not much fun, is it? Most job ads use the same bland phrases, comprised of stilted, off-putting language. The job description's laundry list of responsibilities can look nearly identical from job to job. (Yes, job descriptions serve a valid legal purpose. But let’s agree that it’s a bad idea to have your legal department write your ad copy.) The language used by most job descriptions actually prevents candidates from understanding your job. This slows down your hiring process, wastes your time on interview the wrong people, and creates unmet expectations, which can lead to high employee turnover.
Ultimately, most job advertising budgets are wasted on ineffective ads that don’t reach the right people. Effective job postings attract the right people for the right reasons, so you spend your time interviewing people who will fit into your culture and stay long enough to deliver results.
Be Specific About Your Expectations
People want to know what results you expect them to achieve. Top performers are drawn to challenge. They have a powerful need for their work to be important. Will their work affect ten people…or ten thousand? Will their work save a life, support others, create a breakthrough product, increase sales? Be specific. People are motivated by very different kinds of achievement, but all top performers – the A+ students of the professional world – want to know precisely how they will be graded. They want to understand how your work environment will enable them to do the best work of their lives.
Prioritize What's Important
Once you define the level of performance expected from your new hire, it is time to prioritize. Which
capabilities and experience are most important in driving performance? With most jobs, only a handful of factors are critically important, and most other factors are only “nice to have.” (Experience handling international mergers might be imperative, but an MBA is usually not.)
Below you will find a link to our Guide to Effective Job Advertising, but in the meantime, here are a few considerations (okay...20 considerations) for developing your own job advertising:
When trying to define a job’s requirements, employers often reduce the requirements into a set of attributes – mental abstractions like "strategic vision," "global perspective," or "adaptability." In the conference room, these abstract concepts seem clear enough. But they won’t survive contact with reality. Outside the conference room, attributes are not firm, fixed, universal, or measurable – they vary by context. Every interviewer will evaluate every attribute differently, because everyone defines the world from their own context.
Research shows that years of experience is only the 14th best predictor of success in a new hire. Is it also the 14th most important factor in your hiring decision?
Your first impression on a candidate happens not when they come to meet with you, but the very first time they come in contact with your organization (Hint: it's usually that dull job description you posted.)
When you are recruiting a top performer to your organization, there is one big question that you must answer above all others. You might think it's pay, or reporting structure, or title. Yes, those things matter, but they are not the big question.
Yes, high caliber candidates answer job ads all the time, but usually not in large numbers. We've looked very closely at the engagement rate of good people to job advertising, and in our experience, it hovers around 1-3% of the total candidate pool. Don’t get me wrong; there are some fine people in that little number. But if you want to hire a top performer (often defined as one of the top 10% of people with that skill in the job market) and your job advertising only engages 1-3% of the best people in the market, how do you know if the candidate sitting in front of you is one of the best?
When a hiring manager does not deeply understand the open position, they have almost no chance of filling the job with someone competent. They will turn away (or turn off) competent people who the manager does not recognize as competent, or they will hire people with nice credentials who are utterly incompetent. And without understanding how to manage the new hire's performance, they may not realize their error for a very long time. (So how can you tell when a manager does not understand the job? When their language is full of cliches, buzzwords,, and overused generalities.)
Far too many employers get tangled up in writing their job description based on the person who last held that position, believing that if one person had a particular set of skills, more people like them must exist. Your star employee Karen had a particular set of skills, so there must be "another Karen" out there that will perfectly fit the Karen-shaped hole she left behind, right? But you will be more successful, especially when replacing a long-time employee, by looking for skill combinations that are "commonly found in nature," rather than trying to replicate the skills of any one individual.
Employee recruiting and retention are two sides of the same coin, with the same basic ingredients. The right recruiting practices can also "bake in" long term employee engagement and retention. The recruiting and the retention process both try to answer the same question, "What do employees actually want?" To recruit the best people around, you must understand what makes your job the best job around. To successfully retain people, you must understand what continues to make your job attractive throughout an employee’s tenure. From decades of research, we found that there are four questions that best predict your ability to retain your employees.
The only reason to hire is to achieve a business impact. Your hiring efforts should shorten the distance between having a job opening and hiring someone who makes a big impact. The first step on the path toward business impact is attracting the right candidates. Yet most job descriptions actually get in the way of your hiring and recruiting efforts.
Much like judging a book by its cover (or title), people click on a job posting because of its potential appeal. Pick a title that doesn't make sense in the mind of those candidates, and they'll ignore it (except for the most desperate, and you probably don't want to attract them anyway).
There are dozens of national online job boards, flanked by niche job boards dedicated to industries, regions, or functional areas. You can post ads on social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. Posting your job ad on the wrong site will keep it from being noticed by the right people. But how do you know where you should post it?
Some employers ask job seekers to jump through a hoop before committing any time to them. The hoop might involve a pre-employment test, performing a work-related task like writing something, or even asking something really time consuming. Except here is the problem - it's rude. And it drives away many of the most talented people you really want to talk to.
When we reach out to recruit candidates who are not currently looking, all we ask is for them to schedule a phone call with us - easy peasy. The right place to add rigor to your hiring process is at the end, not at the beginning.
Candidates often feel like their time is wasted reading job boards. But we know for a fact that employers can judiciously use job boards to your advantage for very cost effective recruiting. You just can't be dull.
To hire a superstar for your new project, don’t go looking for someone who has a long track record of doing exactly what you need to have done. Instead, look for someone with a great track record just slightly below your challenge. Hire someone who can grow into the job. Far too many hiring managers forget that hiring requires mutual attraction. Just because you want to hire someone great, doesn’t mean that someone great wants to work for you.
In conducting executive searches for nonprofits, we often see board members (outside experts) applying their expertise unwisely when they get involved in hiring. Instead of providing guidance about business outcomes they would like to see the new hire achieve (the legitimate role of a board) they instead meddle in the hiring specifications, or interfere with the hiring process.
Almost every job now requires the ability to adapt to changing circumstances. We always ask clients "Is this a new position or a replacement?" And this used to be a meaningful distinction. We would learn how much of the position was being invented on the fly, and how much was set in stone. But that distinction is less relevant now - they are ALL "new" jobs now.
Engagement happens "...when workers have an interest in and passion for their work, when they have the skills and talents necessary to perform that work at high levels and when the environment serves as a facilitator rather than a barrier to high performance. It’s going to happen when workers feel like they are contributing substantively to the organization (which is difficult when the organization is performing poorly), when they feel like they are valued for those contributions and when their work and work environment is consistent with their personal and professional values and goals."
One or two bad reviews might be embarrassing, but they are nothing to lose sleep over. Ignore them and move on. Once you have 4 or more credible reviewers that seem to agree on what’s wrong, you will probably start to see a modest impact on your recruiting results. Whether you are running job ads or directly recruiting people, great online reviews will slightly improve candidate responsiveness to your recruiting efforts, and bad reviews will slightly depress candidate responsiveness. But in our experience the overall impact is generally small. So if recruiting response rates are largely unaffected, what exactly is the real life impact of a mediocre-to-bad online reputation?
If you found this information helpful, but you prefer your research and information to be more attractively formatted and easier to share, just download our 6 Step Guide to Writing Job Descriptions.
Of course, job descriptions and job advertising are only one component of a great hiring process. Our Resource Center has additional topics you might find helpful:
- How to Interview so Top Performers Want to Take Your Job
- How to Handle Glassdoor Reviews
- How to Make your Hiring Process More Certain, Predictable and Consistent
- How to Evaluate Your Own Hiring Process
- How to Replace Underperforming Employees
One final disclaimer: This advice is primarily for professional hiring in a large metropolitan area. Our perspective is shaped by our work in a retained executive search firm, conducting searches for CEO and senior staff positions. We've completed over 600 searches for associations and other nonprofits in major metropolitan areas like Washington DC, New York, and Chicago, but not all of our advice will be relevant if you are recruiting for other types of positions in other job markets.