How to Write a Job Description

When you ask companies where their bad hires come from, they inevitably point to one or more of HR, hiring managers, the hires themselves, the leadership, or the recruiters. Yet, if you probe deeply enough, you discover that the primary culprit for a bad hire isn’t any of those things.

It’s the job description.

Think back to the ad for the job you have — how accurate was it? Alternately, take a look at some of the job descriptions on your company’s website — do those accurately describe what the job is going to be?

Consider this: If there’s any discrepancy between the realities of a job and the job ad, then the very applicant pool from which you are choosing is already misaligned with your needs, and your hiring process is being done on a wink and a prayer. A flawed job description leads to wasted time paging through resumes, lost hours interviewing, and potentially a bad hire that sends you back to square one (or worse!). The solution I outline here is a method that front-loads the hiring process to spend time on designing a more exact conception of what is needed, which in turn streamlines the processes of reviewing resumes, interviewing candidates, and onboarding the new hires.

The Problems

Description of the Company

When you look at the careers page and job ads at your company, the first thing you are likely to notice is that there’s a pitch about why your company is great, which is usually just boilerplate stuff that doesn’t distinguish your company from many others (“our people are our biggest asset” and all that fertilizer). In fact, if you’ve been working there long enough, you might even get a good chuckle at how overly-idealized your company sounds relative to your and others’ experiences. You might even learn random fun-facts about your company that don’t actually matter and are a waste of time for all but the most staunch history buffs.

Overview of the Position

Continuing to read a job ad past the company homage, you find an overview of the role that contains so much in it that you might as well light the Bat-Signal. It basically says that the new hire needs to interface with a bunch of different teams and create deliverables for each of them, all while doing both menial and high-level tasks that cover a range of skillsets too broad for even two people. To get all of this done each year, someone would probably need to put in 80–100 hours in the light weeks. Usually, this sort of position description happens because there has been no communication among the various stakeholders that need tasks completed. They all sent wish lists to HR and hoped for the best, and HR, not knowing exactly how to prioritize these wish lists, concatenated them into an impossible amalgam of roles-goals-tasks. This massive conglomeration is so extensive that applicants will be left guessing if they have the right stuff to apply and/or writing cringe-worthy amounts in their resumes and cover letters.

Alternately, the job description is so vague that anyone from Little Bo Peep to MacGyver could potentially fit. This usually happens because someone is worried about defending against a possible lawsuit, and thus the job description is kept open so that the hiring manager can bring on whoever (s)he wants. If sued, the company can defend the decision by imbuing the job description with context and specificity that makes the suing candidate ineligible for the position. Clever though this may seem (or downright demographist, in some cases!), such vagueness leads to the wrong people applying for the job and many person-hours wasted on writing and reading application materials that don’t hit the right points.

List of Tasks/Deliverables

Further down in a company’s ad, the list of tasks/deliverables is probably reminding you of the opening theme of Superman. Even if it doesn’t, you probably have a list that’s at least 8–10 items long (imagine putting that many items in your resume about your current job!), which probably contains such broad strokes that no candidate can propose a way to reasonably fulfill all of it. In other cases, the set of requirements is so generic that every employee of every company needs to do it! Just pulling up some random job descriptions (you’ve heard of some of the companies that provided them, too), I found things like:

  • “Strengthen [company’s] position as an elite [field] organization for all key stakeholders”
  • “Conduct cross-functional client workshops”
  • “Analyze and explain changes in the company’s key performance indicators”
  • “Communicate insights on a regular basis to the appropriate level of management.”

As you look at job descriptions from your company, ask yourself how someone would convince you that they are capable of delivering on those items successfully. If your answer is that you’ll know it when you see it, you’re in trouble, because you’re asking applicants to read your mind. The result is going to be your spending a large chunk of your valuable time poring over tons of resumes and cover letters until Lady Luck delivers someone who just-so-happens to be on your wavelength.

Credentials

How relevant are these in your job and those of your coworkers? Barring legal requirements, they often don’t matter. When I see things like “bachelor’s degree from a top-tier university” I actually start laughing, if only because the notion is pretty random when you stop and think about it. Degrees rarely matter beyond the entry-level (if that!), and the number of years of experience also doesn’t matter. Both may correlate with high-performance, but what matters most is the actual experiences someone has. It’s possible to be a VP in a dead-end job for years and to stagnate, and also to be in an entry-level job for two years and get amazing stuff done.

The Solution

Description of the Company

Begin with a blurb about what the company does, why it exists, its unique value proposition, and a quick overview of some unique facets of the company culture. It should be a statement that people in the company, from top to bottom, understand and agree with.

Overview of the Position, Tasks, and Deliverables

Get the key stakeholders together in one room, and find out what everyone needs — this won’t be a short meeting, but it will be very effective if you pre-game correctly using the following procedure:

First, have each person with whom the new hire will interact to any significant/meaningful degree (e.g., subordinates, peers, managers) independently prepare a wish list of deliverables, ranked and prioritized, along with a rough estimate of the number of hours (either per week or per deliverable) required to produce each one. For each deliverable, there should be a list of the specialized skills and savvy/experience needed to produce a high-quality product, and why they are needed — this should also include a clear conception of “high-quality.” The advantage of having each person contribute is getting a 360-degree view of what everyone wants from the candidate. From here, select key stakeholders to serve as representatives in the upcoming meeting.

Second, have the key stakeholders integrate the lists of their constituents and pass the newly-consolidated lists around so that everyone can see the range of perspectives on what is needed. Prior to the meeting, everyone should have reviewed the all of the lists and assessed how each stakeholder’s needs and priorities do and do not mesh with those of other key personnel.

In the actual meeting, which should be facilitated by HR, each stakeholder has the opportunity to share his/her take on the set of deliverables requested, and the group can come to a consensus on what the new hire will be doing. Very often, this process demonstrates that the company needs more than one hire and/or that the stakeholders are going to have to give up certain wants. This is where the estimated time and conceptions of quality work come in handy, because these are where the group discovers what is realistic, and how much quality work can be produced by a single hire to fulfill the needs of the company. Unfortunately, this is also where politics is going to be a real annoyance, so be prepared! If possible, have each key player give HR a private briefing on the politics so that the facilitator can be ready to smooth things over.

From the consensus drawn in this meeting, write up a list of deliverables, along with the estimated amounts of time to spend on them (percentages are fine, too) and definitions of quality. Put this list in the job description and ask applicants to show in their cover letters and resumes a rough overview of how they are going to deliver on this list and how they have gotten similar tasks done in the past (respectively). This allows both them and you to make a solid preamble to an in-depth interview process in which you are meeting candidates that can already show competence and aptitude for the job. As such, the interview really is checking how well the candidate gets along with everyone, determining whether (s)he fits the culture, getting into the refined details of the position and tasks, and doing an intricate check of whether the candidate’s and company’s visions for the position dovetail. For a bonus, the candidate may bring in knowledge, skills, and attitudes that can augment the vision/position and move the company forward.

Credentials

Don’t bother with silly requirements like a particular degree, and focus instead on what you want candidates to show you that they can do. Often, the people who can perform at the required level end up having the degrees and years of experience you would have put down anyway, but you may get some really cool surprises.

Ultimately, writing a job description is an intricate process that requires everyone to weigh in, compare priorities, detail deliverables, and deal with all of the politics ahead of time. It is one of those processes that takes more effort than people are used to, and requires a large up-front investment of time and effort. Rest assured that this will save plenty of time during the review, interview, and even onboarding stages, because both you and the applicants will have a clear idea of what the position entails. Plus, you are far more likely to hire a solid candidate who is a good fit and is capable of contributing significantly to the firm, which means better retention, fewer hiring processes, more growth, and less aggravation.

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