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7 things companies get wrong when writing job descriptions

Too many companies are making these common (and costly) mistakes when looking for qualified candidates.

7 things companies get wrong when writing job descriptions
[Source illustration: ichico/Getty Images]

Everyone’s looking for a job these days—even people who are gainfully employed. And hiring companies can’t seem to find enough talent to replace those workers who leave.

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Given this new reality, it’s surprising that hiring companies don’t create more enticing job descriptions. Job ads should be redone so they engage, rather than turn off, prospective employees.

Here are seven common mistakes that companies are making when they write job descriptions:

1. They provide too much information

The first turnoff is the sheer amount of information stuffed into a typical job description. Paragraph after paragraph give the history of the company, the markets it serves, the job profile, the competencies and experience required, and an endless stream of responsibilities that the winning candidate will have to fulfill.

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In one Director level job I recently came across the job itself was described in over 800 words—almost as long as this article.

Scale back the prose. Think of how much better you’ll look if you communicate clearly and concisely. Include information about the company and the job, but don’t include anything superfluous.

2. They don’t make the company sound appealing

It seems like it should go without saying, but job descriptions should make companies sound likable. Too often ads have no “sell” in them. They read like a shareholder’s report. “Rewrite your job description to make your company appeal to the hearts and minds of candidates,” says Zanzibar Vermiglio, founder and managing partner of Zanzibar Enterprises, who helps clients develop effective ways to describe their companies.

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It’s a very solvable problem. Take 110-year-old IBM, which sounds almost hip in this passage from a job description: “At IBM we do more than work. We create. We create as technologists, developers, and engineers. We create with our partners. We create with our competitors. If you’re searching for ways to make the world work better through technology and infrastructure, software and consulting, then we want to work with you.” How powerful is that? This sense of purposefulness will appeal to so many job seekers.

3. They fail to convey company culture 

Companies can also up their game in describing their culture. Take this boilerplate line from a job description: “We have a culture in which each employee is respected and valued. Every employee brings unique skills, background, and experiences.”

Instead, Vermiglio recommends that hiring companies talk about culture in terms that elicit enthusiasm. One of his clients tells job applicants: “We have a culture where everybody’s got each other’s back. We love to go the extra mile in our work, but we laugh a lot. And we are always looking out for people’s careers, even if it means moving them on to another company.” What job seeker wouldn’t want that kind of culture?

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4. They inflate the job requirements

Poorly written job ads often read like wish lists, rather than actual requirements.  “Job ads are inflated,” says Vermiglio. “[One] might say you need five years’ experience, but actually you don’t. You probably only need 6-8 months.” By putting a laundry list of skills that a candidate supposedly needs, companies end up missing out on amazing candidates. Instead, companies should list only the requirements of that role, and add “nice to have” qualifications to that list.

5. They use too many adjectives

Ever seen a job ad like this? “We need a seasoned, strategic storyteller who can help effectively message, plan and execute media strategies that capitalize on our industry-leading momentum.”

What a mouthful. It contains these triplets: “seasoned, strategic storyteller” and “message, plan, and execute.” Instead, why doesn’t the writer just say, “we need a candidate who can deliver effective stories about our company to the media.” The more words that are used, the less clear a passage is. Is this company looking for a candidate who comes into the interview and says, “Hello, I am a seasoned, strategic storyteller.” Not likely.

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6. They rely on jargon

A related problem in job ads is their failure to use real language. This can be a huge turnoff to job seekers. Recruiter Amanda Luthra says that expressions like “strong, deliverable focus” and “execute projects” in job ads read as overly formal and lack clarity. For example, what does it mean to have a “strong, deliverable focus?”

Or what does the following passage mean? “You will define key multi-channel communications strategies to support our company’s priorities.” It’s nonsense.

The additional problem with this sort of word-salad is that it can insult the reader. For example, I saw in a job description this wording: “Needs acuity to understand complex issues.” What that really means is that a successful candidate should not be dumb.

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A good exercise for the folks writing these ads is to read the lines out loud. If they don’t sound real, get rid of them. As Luthra says, “Write for people and dump the buzzwords and jargon.”

7. They don’t provide a compensation range

Hiring companies should include a salary or salary range in their descriptions. In some places—like New York City—this will soon be a legal requirement. But even if it’s not mandatory, it’s still something companies should share.

Holding back this information puts the prospective employee at a huge disadvantage, as it means that they have no idea whether the job is a good fit. This also wastes a company’s time and resources, as you may have candidates who go through the application process, only to drop out near the end, after finally learning the salary range. By posting a salary range, you can set yourself apart from competitors, and qualified candidates will likely appreciate your commitment to transparency and to correcting pay inequity.

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