Job descriptions remain a weak link in hiring process

Experts warn that many organizations’ job descriptions are so poorly written or out-of-date that they fail to attract top talent, exacerbate skills gaps, curb employee development and reduce retention of high-potential workers.

In crafting job descriptions, staffing professionals historically have focused on legal compliance and on laundry lists of skills and duties. In industries where hundreds of people might apply for every vacant position, some recruiters have found little reason to make job descriptions tight and bright.

But even with a sluggish job recovery, the war for top talent continues. Poorly crafted, overly wordy job descriptions are particularly problematic given the upswing in the use of hand-held devices by job seekers.

Some experts say the purpose of the job description has evolved from an encyclopedic resource to a strategic marketing tool. But not all employers have recognized the shift or reacted to it.

“Think of it as a conversation starter,” said Amanda Augustine, job search expert for The Ladders, an online job matching service, in the New York City area. “It must have the core requirements of the position,” she said, but in addition “the job description should give you a little sense of the culture, what it would be like working there.”

“Think of your job description as a job ad,” said Susan Martindill, marketing director for online employment service Simply Hired in Sunnyvale, Calif. “You want your brand to show through. If this is an applicant’s first contact with your organization, you want it to be favorable.”

“It’s not exclusively about the job posting,” said Diane Domeyer, executive director of The Creative Group, a specialized staffing service based in Menlo Park, Calif. “The job description is a communication vehicle you can use to clearly define what you need” at point of hire and beyond.

Gordon Medlock, senior talent management consultant with human capital technology firm HRIZONS in the Chicago area, said in a March 26, 2014, webcast that job descriptions not only are essential for recruiting but also play an important role in onboarding, compensation, skills development, career planning, succession planning and performance management.

“Performance management is one of the key areas that gets missed in the new job description paradigm,” he stated.

He asked webcast participants to answer a brief survey about their job descriptions. Only 3% said theirs were fully up-to-date. Medlock said updating job descriptions “should become routine for your managers. It should become a checkpoint in your cycle of talent management.”

Numerous resources are available to help in the creation and maintenance of effective job descriptions. The Society for Human Resource Management maintains a database of sample job descriptions, sorted by title and by function, on its website. The U.S. Small Business Administration offers tips for writing job descriptions, as do some vendors, job boards and consultants.

Among the most common mistakes when writing or updating job descriptions is not making obvious what the position entails. Many have too much text, list too many tasks and fail to focus on core competencies, experts say.

With each job description, ask yourself: “Is it clear? Is it specific? And is it appealing?” advised Martindill. These qualities are particularly important as careers websites are being redesigned to be more mobile-friendly. Before long, experts say, most job searches will be conducted -- and many job applications will be submitted -- using hand-held devices. Long, wordy and confusing job descriptions will be ignored.

A poorly crafted job title can sink a job description from the start, said Augustine. “You don’t want it to read like an obituary,” she cautioned.

Medlock said that the summary of job responsibilities should include the three most important ones and that no more than seven job responsibilities should be listed in the entire document.

Some staffing professionals struggle with factoring in “soft” skills such as effective teamwork. “Soft skills will vary by company and role,” noted Martindill. “Not every job requires that you work well in groups,” she added.

Domeyer urged those writing job descriptions to “look ahead and recruit for where the industry or the position may be going. What skills might be required in the future?”

Steve Bates is a freelance writer in the Washington, D.C., area and a former writer and editor for SHRM.

©2014, Society for Human Resource Management.

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