Current Issue
This Month's Print Issue

Follow Fast Company

We’ll come to you.

4 minute read

Work Smart

How Job Descriptions Undermine The Hiring Process

Job descriptions promote essentialist thinking about peoples' abilities at the expense of context.

[Photo: Flickr user Per Olesen]

Many of us think of ability, talent, and potential as essential qualities—things people either possess or don’t. We tend to imagine that circumstances might have some minor influence over someone’s abilities but surely don’t determine or create them.

That essentialist thinking is pretty misguided, but it’s still the guiding principle for many companies’ hiring practices—most of which are still set up to ignore the contexts in which people actually work. For evidence, look no further than the average job description.

What Qualifications Don’t Capture

A typical job description for a director of marketing position might include a "key qualifications" or "required skills" section that looks something like this:

  • Must have 10 or more years of progressive marketing and sales management experience.
  • Bachelor’s degree is required; master’s degree is preferred.
  • Must possess exceptional communication, strategy, and leadership skills.
  • Must be a pro at multichannel marketing and managing affiliate programs.

Hundreds of thousands of businesses every week post similar descriptions to attract candidates for open positions. Recruiters list the experience, skills, and credentials they’re looking for, then filter out applicants who don’t meet these criteria and choose the best candidate from whoever’s left. At first glance, this seems like a common-sense approach: You’re either a "good communicator" or you aren’t; you’re "a pro" at something like multichannel marketing, or you’re not.

But because we’ve grown so used to focusing on the "essence" of the employee, it’s easy to overlook the context they’ll be performing in day after day once they’re hired. One person who has pioneered an alternative approach is Lou Adler, founder of the Lou Adler Group, and one of the most influential recruiting and hiring consultants around.

Before switching to a career in recruiting, Adler designed missiles and guidance systems for an aerospace manufacturer. As a result, he approached the practice of finding and selecting employees with the mind-set of an engineer. "One day it just hit me: Once you see how performance depends on context, and how recruiting should be focused on matching individuals to optimal contexts, it just seems like common sense," Adler explained to me. "But it turned out to be really hard to get companies to implement common sense."

Inspired by his context-focused vision for the workplace, Adler developed a new way to recruit and hire employees that he calls "performance-based hiring." Instead of describing the person they want, Alder tells employers to first describe the job they want done. "Companies always say they want a good communicator. That’s one of the most common skills you see on a job description," Adler said.

"But there’s no such thing as an all-around ‘good communicator.’ There are many different kinds of communication skills you might need in a particular job, and there’s no such thing as someone who’s good at all of them." For a customer service rep, good communication is asking questions to understand a customer’s problem. For an accountant, it might be explaining to a senior executive how a shortfall in sales affects earnings. For an account executive, it might be leading a full-day presentation to a buying committee. Adler’s revelation was that all these contextual details for the performance of "good communication" really mattered.

What Happens When You Stop Using Job Descriptions

The Adler Group has helped more than 10,000 hiring managers at businesses ranging from startups to Fortune 500 companies switch to performance-based hiring. One client who raves about the impact the approach has had on his firm is Callum Negus-Fancey, founder of London-based Let’s Go Holdings. The company quickly made a name for itself as "brand advocacy specialists" for media and tech companies and, as a result, Let’s Go experienced very rapid growth in its first three years.

"At first, we just used the traditional job description approach," Callum told me. "We needed someone to run a marketing team, and we hired someone who matched our generic job description. He had a lot of impressive experience, but his experience was in big corporations, and when he started working for us, a fast-moving startup, he simply didn’t fit in at all. It was a disaster."

That’s when Callum heard about performance-based hiring and asked Adler to help him find a new human resources manager. "Adler showed us that what really mattered was selecting someone with success performing in similar contexts to the ones at Let’s Go," Callum explained.

In this case, Adler’s model ended up identifying a very unlikely prospect: a pharmacist from Belgium. "Thierry Thielens wasn’t British, and he had never done anything in human resources before," Callum recalled.

At first Callum was skeptical, but Adler explained that the pharmacist’s previous performance and the conditions he had worked under (such as quickly learning to manage fast-changing staff) were almost identical to what they needed him to do at Let’s Go. So Callum hired him. "Today, he’s one of the most important people in the company," Callum told me, "and we would have never considered him if we simply looked at job descriptions."

"Companies always lament there’s a shortage of talent, that there’s a skills gap," Adler told me. "But really, there’s just a thinking gap. If you spend the effort thinking through the contextual details of the job, you’re going to be rewarded."

This article is adapted from The End of Average: How We Succeed in a World That Values Sameness by Todd Rose. Copyright ©2016 by L. Todd Rose, published by HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. It is reprinted with permission.