Can we solve the problem with job descriptions?

On the treadmill this morning, while listening to Paramore, I suddenly said to myself: “I want to write about job descriptions today.” I haven’t written about them in a while — I think this post is one of the last times — and maybe that’s partially because it’s not directly on my radar anymore. I basically spent August 2013 to June 2014 looking at probably 20+ job descriptions per day, so I got to the point where I could pretty directly analyze their flaws and my concerns about them.

Job descriptions are, by and large, terrible. But can we fix them? Maybe. 

Let’s Start By Considering The Problems (Briefly)

1. Job descriptions are often simply revised from the previous search: I’ve seen this happen first-time a handful of times; at McKesson, I 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.

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.

3. Hiring managers don’t really know what they want: People tend to think about new openings in terms of headcount, not in terms of what they actually need and what would make their organization/department a bit more strategic in their ultimate goals.

4. Day-to-day context: Most jobs right now are a crush of day-to-day deliverables; strategy and operations are different, even though no one realizes that, but most jobs aren’t strategic in nature — so 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: This is a personal pet peeve, and I’ve seen some thought leaders write about this on LinkedIn, so at least a few other people have considered it. 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 isn’t sure where it will be in one year — but they should still make some effort into contextualizing this for a potential employee.

Now Let’s Try To Discuss Solutions

1. Restructure the exit interview: Portions of the exit interview 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, I do believe 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?”

2. Stop and think: I’m a big advocate of people stopping and thinking in the workplace in general; it would push aside more rushed decision-making, which tends to really negatively impact engagement (and productivity). Fuck, just take walks more. But when you have an open position, you should stop and think about a few factors:

  • 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. I don’t mean “fixing gaps” in terms of “taking work off the plate of other people” (which is how most people think about this); I mean “fixing gaps” in terms of “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 go upwards to if they’re good? Assign one team member to write this, one to edit, and one to approve. 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 think about what they’re doing in describing this job, as opposed to doing it in between a bunch of e-mails and meetings.

4. Remove HR from the hiring process: Written about this before, but it really makes no sense for HR to be involved in the recruiting process. At most organizations, the actual hiring manager is using HR to cover their ass. It’s that simple, unfortunately. 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). Have you ever seen a three-level process in a standard organization actually go that well? What I just described is a giant game of telephone. 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 you’re 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; if you give them initial screen, there’s a huge chance they’ll screen out 2-3 people who might have been perfect.

What do you think?

The job description is actually 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 put a surprisingly little amount of thought into it. What would you do to make it better?

Ted Bauer


  1. Great read…the job description can be a great window into how a company thinks, its culture, and even how it treats employees. Generally, I would advise to avoid short job descriptions – they’re probably hiding things. At the other end, job descriptions that could be a novel are also usually tell-tale signs that there’s too much bureaucracy – there were probably many approval levels to get it posted and everyone wanted to add their two cents.

    The more information companies are willing to divulge about what they offer candidates (benefits/perks, etc.), not just posting a litany of their expectations — the better. Employment is a two-way street, a give and take.

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