How to Write a Job Description That Helps Land the Best Hire

By April 25, 2017 at 4:49pm

Trying to compete for top talent in a tough hiring market? Here's another question: When was the last time you evaluated and refreshed your group’s job descriptions?

The job description is your hiring blueprint, and it needs to be thoroughly thought (or rethought) through. Do it well, and the rest of the hiring process — from evaluating resumes and job applications to candidate selection, interviews and salary negotiation — will flow much more easily. But writing it poorly risks a prolonged, expensive hiring process and increases the possibility of making a bad hire.

As you gather details to update or write a job description, you may want to seek input, if appropriate, from key personnel who will work directly with the new hire. These individuals may be able to provide valuable insight because they understand the day-to-day workings of the department and the company. 

Tight, well-thought-out job descriptions not only help you find the right candidates during the search process but also help set the stage for a new employee's success. With that information in hand, a new team member will have a set of clear guidelines and an accurate picture of the manager's performance expectations from Day One.

Essential elements of a great job description

If you’re copying and pasting the same job description over and over again into new job postings, you probably won’t attract the candidates you’re looking for. This document should change with each posting to suit the specifics of the available position. Here’s what you need to cover:

  • Job title (and job code number, if applicable) — Be specific here. Creative titles like Jedi, wizard and rock star might sound creative and appealing to candidates, but actually they’re vague. You want to choose a title that job seekers are searching for and will understand. Titles should be short: Simply refer to a position as bookkeeper, even if the official internal title is Bookkeeper and Occasional Copier Technician/Intern Manager, Level 15.
  • The opening hook — Writing a powerful opening connects with your audience and generates excitement about the position's possibilities. A compelling introduction will also work to encourage potential candidates to read the rest of your job ad.
  • Organization and culture — Tell job seekers about your company. To attract the best candidates, you’ll want to pique their interest in the organization, if not excite them over the prospect of working with you. Promote the company’s strengths, lay out its mission, and paint a picture of the workplace culture and what it’s truly like to work there.
  • Department — Smart job seekers will want to know which department within the company is hiring — that’s one way they tailor their cover letter and resume, research the position and decide whether they’d be a good fit for the job. Don’t leave it to candidates to search for clues in your job description. Identifying the department will make both the application process and the vetting smoother.
  • Reporting structure — Let the candidate know exactly how the position fits into your organization. Give the supervisor’s job title and the titles of anyone the new hire would work with. If you’re staffing a managerial role, include the number of direct reports the person would supervise.
  • Summary of the position — This is the heart of the job description. In a few sentences, give the job’s broadest responsibility, function or priority within the organization. Include an overview of expectations for the person who fills the role, the immediate and long-term objectives, and define what constitutes exceptional performance. Be as clear as possible, so the candidate understands the job’s responsibilities and the criteria for success. If you need more space, consider presenting this section in bullet points to make it easier to digest.
  • Key duties and responsibilities — This narrows down the primary responsibility mentioned in the summary section. Help candidates to envision themselves already in the role. Give the estimated percentage of time to be spent on each duty (which should add up to 100 percent), and how often each is performed (daily, weekly, or periodically). If you include this detail, make sure the breakdown accurately reflects the work the employee will be doing by running the description past the team. 
  • Compensation — There are pros and cons to including a salary range in a job posting, but candidates should know upfront whether the position is exempt or nonexempt. Even if you don't include a salary range in the job listing, establish one ahead of time based on the education and experience required for the job, along with the general level of compensation within your branch, organization, department and region. If you decide not to give a figure, include language about offering a competitive salary. (And always, always research salaries in your market for the position you’re staffing. You want to meet, if not beat, market rates.) Also, be sure to highlight the benefits — for most job seekers, that information is as important as the salary figure.
  • Job location and attendance expectations — Be sure the posting includes the location of the office where the employee would work. Flextime, telecommuting, job-sharing and other alternative work arrangements are increasingly common today, and if your company has this kind of flexibility, it’s a great selling point to mention. But if the manager requires their employees to be at their desks from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., no ifs, ands or buts, your job description should say so.
  • A qualifying statement — No job ad will include a totally exhaustive list of duties — nor should it. Make clear that the employee’s responsibilities may be revised from time to time, based on business needs.
  • Qualifications — What knowledge, skills, training, language fluency, aptitude or relevant experience should the successful applicant have? The more specific you are here, the more qualified the applicants are likely to be. Just make sure the qualifications you set are absolute necessities, rather than nice-to-haves, or you might deter individuals with great potential.
  • Educational requirements — List degrees, certificates and licenses the job requires. If experience is an acceptable substitute for one of these requirements, be specific about what you’d consider as an alternative. 
  • Qualities or attributes — In addition to required hard skills, education and experience, consider what qualities and interpersonal skills would contribute to superior performance. Do you expect the new hire to show initiative? Do you want top-notch customer service and communication skills? Don’t overdo it here — a litany of virtues will put off candidates. Instead, list the four or five qualities you value in top performers who already hold this role in your company and explain why these qualities are needed for the job. If you're looking for someone who is great with clients or diligent about compliance and enjoys being in the weeds, for example, say so.

Robert Half can help you create a job description that attracts the right candidates. Let us know what your hiring needs are.

Final word(s) on job descriptions

Whatever elements you include, write the job description in plain language — avoid using jargon that might be common within your company but is inscrutable to outsiders. Clear and concise language will be appreciated by job seekers and minimize the risk of misunderstandings in the hiring process.

Equally important: Be honest. Job descriptions that overstate or understate what a position entails, including the hours and pace of the work, can lead to hiring mistakes and hard feelings later on. An inaccurate or overblown ad can create false expectations, setting your company up for a mismatch. Hiring mistakes are often the result of descriptions that don't accurately reflect what a position entails. Make sure you present an up-to-date, candid picture of the job. Don't be tempted to candy-coat realities about long hours, the pace of work or other such aspects of the position. Well-written job descriptions leave no question as to a position's roles and responsibilities.

Savvy job-seekers will apply for the opening only if they meet those qualifications and feel comfortable performing the duties explained in the description. As a result, you'll be less likely to hire someone who doesn't enjoy — or worse, can't perform — the required tasks if you’ve created a targeted, accurate job description on which to base the job posting. What's more, good job descriptions can help top talent better describe their abilities in their resumes so you can see exactly how they match the requirements of the position.

When you begin evaluating candidates, compare the job description to each resume and look for commonalities. The people whose applications match the majority of your requirements will be the ones you want to interview. By serving as a standard tool by which to judge all applicants, the description helps ensure every person you’re considering has a strong chance of performing well in the role.

And here’s another important tip: Teaming up with a specialized staffing firm gives you access to hiring experts who are not only available to help you write a stellar job description but can also do the job of recruiting for you. Most importantly, you'll gain access to a large base of talented candidates you might not otherwise find searching on your own.

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