Nix the Laundry List: Job Ads That Kill

Requirements intensive (i.e., laundry list format) job ads serve no purpose other than to undermine your recruiting effort. They are pointless; that’s because a properly written job responsibilities section always delineates the skills needed to perform the work required and it does so much more effectively.

How is that?

First of all, every requirement is associated with a job responsibility thereby giving it context; it describes what needs to be accomplished using the requirement. As a result, every requirement is put into perspective which is far more sensible than having an isolated list of arbitrary requirements.

Furthermore, effectively written job responsibilities clearly communicate the challenges that are inherent in the job; this attracts quality candidates to the position while simultaneously scaring off inept candidates.

When required skills are itemized out of context they invite anybody who has the skill to apply. As we know, having a skill is valueless if it hasn’t been used in a similar to context to how you need it used. By embedding your requirements directly into the responsibilities themselves, you discourage candidates from applying who have the skill but are overwhelmed by the responsibility.

Now, let’s take a look at some of the classic hallmarks of job ads that kill.

Excessive requirements

When writing a job ad, the tendency is to include too many requirements. This is an egregious mistake for a number of reasons.

The major problem with excessive requirements is that they inadvertently turn away good candidates. The common misconception is that stringent requirements weed out unqualified candidates. That’s wishful thinking. Desperate candidates blast their resumes everywhere; they usually don’t even read the requirements. Conversely, quality candidates do read the requirements – very carefully. And that’s not always a good thing!

Excessive requirements leave one of two impressions on a quality candidate: 1) you’re expectations are unrealistic; or 2) your requirements are so random you have no idea what you want. Both of which dissuade them from applying. Top performers evaluate managers just as much as managers evaluate them. Nothing turns them off faster than a job description that gives the impression of a manager who has unrealistic expectations or lacks decisiveness. Yet, that’s exactly the effect excessive requirements have on quality candidates.

Moreover, excessive requirements don’t stay that way for very long anyway. They’re almost always curtailed after the job sits vacant long enough and desperation sets in (a scenario caused by excessive requirements in the first place). Unfortunately, by the time the requirements are eased up on (like they should have been in the first place), every good candidate who read the original version of job ad and didn’t apply is lost forever.

The cardinal rule is this: use requirements to rank finalist candidates, not to discourage candidates from applying in the first place.

Erroneous requirements

An even more serious problem than excessive requirements are erroneous requirements; most job descriptions have a few. Specifically, erroneous requirements are those that: 1) exist but shouldn’t; and 2) don’t exist but should. Erroneous requirements throw the entire hiring process out of whack and send it into a nosedive.

Erroneous requirements are the grave consequences of not carefully defining job needs in the first place. Most often, a seat-of-the-pants approach is taken to writing requirements which results in what is essentially nothing more than a subjective “wish list”. Rarely are requirements distilled from a thoughtful and deliberate analysis of the business problem hiring is intended to solve.

Erroneous requirements represent a flawed yardstick that forces you into considering candidates with skills that aren’t critical to job success and rule out candidates with the skills that are actually needed to excel on the job. Furthermore, since requirements are the de facto standard for assessing candidates, the wrong person ultimately ends up getting hired. This instigates “bait and switch” animosity that new hires so often feel because their work is inconsistent with their expectations.

Fortunately, there’s a simple solution to the problem of erroneous requirements: don’t list any requirements at all! Blend them into the job responsibilities instead; it’s impossible to include an erroneous requirement within a responsibility because responsibilities are “the job” whereas skills themselves are not. By doing so, you are giving yourself a buffer between requirements that are “subject to change” and the integrity of the candidate pool you're aggregating. The next time a requirement changes midstream (as they often do), you will be certain that no potential superstars were inadvertently screened out of the process due to an erroneous requirement.

The following rule is worth repeating: use requirements to rank finalist candidates, not to discourage candidates from applying in the first place.

Years Required

Another trademark of a truly bad job ad is one that specifies the number of years of experience an individual must have to qualify. The notion that there’s any correlation between performance level and experience level is absurd; there is none whatsoever.

Where does individual “intelligence” factor into years of experience? Where does “quality” of experience factor into years of experience? Where does “motivation” to do the work factor into years of experience? Everybody learns at a different rate; has a different quality of experience; and is motivated by different things. Clearly, these factors are far more important in predicting job success than an arbitrary number of years. It’s hard to argue with that logic. Yet I see it time and time again: managers excluding excellent candidates for no reason other than that they don’t have the number of years required.

How does one even arrive at these numbers in the first place?

Is that how many years of experience the previous employee had? Is there some official correlation between individual competency and number of years of experience an individual has? Is there a verifiable “value distance” between 3 and 5 years of experience; or between 6 and 10 years of experience?

A candidate’s success potential can be “guesstimated” using a myriad of tools and techniques, but years of experience are not one of them. Given a choice between a candidate with 3 years of progressive experience and a candidate with 5 years of flat experience (i.e., one year five times over), who do you take? The choice is obvious.

Furthermore, these numbers are purely subjective anyway. One hiring manager will determine that 5 years of experience is needed to do the job. Meanwhile, the manager of another group will determine that 3 years of experience is needed to do the very same job. Maybe the best candidate on the market has 4 years experience and the first manager misses out on a top performer. Why incur that kind of risk when a management career is on the line?

Let's face it, it doesn’t matter how many years of experience a candidate has. All that matters is that the candidate has produced comparable results in the past to those you need today, right?

Views: 601

Comment by JR Fent on May 13, 2010 at 12:55pm
Bravo! Excellent points Kevin. I wonder how many recruiters get the opportunity to sit with their hiring managers and work together to reform the job descriptions and duties to be realistic and appealing.
Comment by Candace Nault on May 13, 2010 at 5:10pm
Great article Kevin, an awesome follow up would be to show and "before and after" example...laundry list and then redone as a better posting. Thanks!
Comment by Alasdair Murray on June 3, 2010 at 10:39am
Stumbled across this entry after reading your most recent offering. In the UK you can't specify years of experience, it is illegal.


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