Trying to compete for top talent in a tough hiring market? Think of the job description as your hiring blueprint. Do it well, and the rest of the hiring process — from evaluating resumes and job applications to candidate selection and salary negotiation — will fall into place more easily.
But do it poorly, and you risk a prolonged, expensive hiring process and making a bad hire.
The job description is the foundation of your job posting, the first contact you make with potential new employees. With a top-notch job description, you can create job ads that help candidates understand the expectations of the position and how their abilities line up with your needs. If it’s successful, the job description will both attract the most qualified candidates and deter those who don’t have the right experience from applying.
And it’s the hiring document that keeps on giving. That same job description can be used for the new hire’s first performance review, or to resolve any “that’s-not-my-job” discussions that might later arise.
Essential elements of a successful job description
Job descriptions aren’t one-size-fits-all — if you’re copying and pasting the same text over and over again, you probably aren’t attracting top candidates as well as you could. Your job description should vary to suit the specifics of the available position. But almost every well-written one will include most of the following elements:
- Job title (and job code number, if applicable) Be specific here. Creative titles like “Jedi,” “wizard” and “rock star” might sound fun, but they’re too vague. You want to choose a title that job seekers are searching for and will understand.
- 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, give its mission, and paint a picture of the workplace culture and what it’s truly like to work there.
- Hiring department Smart job seekers will want to know what department is announcing the position — that’s one way candidates 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 hiring department will make both the application process and the vetting smoother.
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- 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 position 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 role within the organization. Include an overview of expectations for the person who fills the role, the immediate and long-term objectives for the position, 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 Help candidates to envision themselves already in the role. Give the estimated 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.
- Compensation There are pros and cons to including a salary range in a job description, but candidates should know upfront whether the position is exempt or nonexempt (from legal overtime and other requirements). If you decide not to give a figure, include language about offering a competitive salary. (Remember: 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 that come with the position. For most job seekers, that information is as important as any salary figure.
- Job location and attendance Flextime, telecommuting, job-sharing and other alternative work arrangements are increasingly common today. If you have this kind of flexibility, it’s a great “work-life balance” selling point to mention. But if you require your employee at his or her desk from 8:00 to 5:00, your job description should say so (and where the office is located).
- A qualifying statement No job description will include an 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 detailed and unambiguous you are here, the more qualified the applicants will 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 position requires. If experience is an acceptable substitute for one of these requirements, say what you’d consider.
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- Qualities or attributes Your job description will include required hard skills, education and experience. But also consider what qualities and interpersonal skills would contribute to superior performance in the position. Do you expect the new hire to show initiative and teamwork? Do you want top-notch customer service and communication skills? Don’t overdo it here — a litany of virtues will put off candidates. Instead, give the four or five qualities you value in the top-performers who already hold this role in your company. Even better, say why these qualities are needed for the job.
A final word on the job description
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, better guarantee a favorable response and minimize the risk of misunderstandings further in the hiring process.
Equally important: Be honest. Job descriptions that overstate or understate what a position entails, including the hours and pace of work, or reflect expectations that are out of line with a particular role, can lead to hiring mistakes and hard feelings later on. A poorly drafted job description also can be used against your business in litigation — instigated either by a job applicant or an employee you’ve hired.
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 speak with. By serving as a standard tool by which to judge all applicants, the job description helps ensure every person you’re considering has a strong chance of performing well in the role.
Need help finding qualified candidates? Contact Robert Half for assistance. We're the world's largest specialized employment agency.