Recent experience reviewing job listings shows most have room for improvement. Having been laid off from my automotive industry assignment of the past ten years in mid-July, I have been spending a lot of time perusing the job listings at places like monster.com, indeed.com, careerbuilder.com, the state of Michigan’s Michigan Talent Bank website, and many other similar places. The first thing I noticed about a lot of what companies posted was the frequent mistakes in grammar, word usage, and just plain poor writing. That’s not bad, just careless and (sadly) commensurate with the increasing prevalence of poor English skills in the United States. Then I also noticed that there was often evidence of a certain clueless-ness about how to attract the best candidates and “sell” a position. Needless to say, looking clueless is not a good thing, so how can you avoid it?
Humor can be good, even in job listings, but not when it is unintended. As usual, it was an item that made me laugh out loud because it was so ludicrous that got me thinking. Note: making people laugh out loud frequently DOES have them thinking more about what you said afterward, if for no other reason than they remember it because they enjoyed it, and it gained a good association for them, both with the speaker/writer and the matter being described or explained. Still, in a serious matter like advertising for a skilled employee for your firm, unplanned humor may not make the best first impression.
Listings with unrealistic expectations are unlikely to find the desired candidate. The item in question was from what appeared to be a small company in a nearby town, possibly only a few years from startup (but that’s not truly meaningful as I’ve seen listings from multinational corporations that were, sadly, no better). This particular listing advertised that they were looking for a quality systems manager who would interact with their production department and help them certify for ISO9001 and an alphabet soup of other, similar quality standards, about half of which I recognized (I spent years in that arena), over the next year. Then they described the requirements for the position: a high school diploma and 5 years of experience. <thud> I couldn’t help myself – I burst out laughing. My first thought was that I would be surprised if they could find a high school graduate who could understand what they were reading in most of the standards they listed. Then I realized what they were really after: a world class expert who would work for ten bucks an hour.
Poorly thought out job listings can have unplanned costs. My next thought was that (A) they would have a tough time certifying for just one of those standards in a year even with truly expert assistance, and (B) if they did find someone who would work for the kind of money their requirements suggested, they would be advertising for the same position again within two or three months, essentially having lost those months except for learning more about what they really needed. Sometimes lost months equal lost market windows and other hard-to-quantify but very significant costs.
There are some basic pitfalls in the job listing part of the hiring process. My next revelation was that many of the ads I was looking at were doing the same thing, but not as blatantly. Many had apparently approached the hiring process from the standpoint of identifying their needs and wants first – a logical thing to do – and then figuring out what their ideal candidate would need as far as knowledge, skill, and experience to do the job effectively. There are pitfalls in this process unless it is managed correctly.
Pitfall number 1: Unclear or unrealistic expectations. Many of the job listing writers got carried away in the process and “blue-skied” the job description almost to the point of suggesting “able to walk on water, move mountains before lunch, and turn water into wine”. This has the effect of diluting the job description and skewing it away from what could realistically be expected. It also will make what they are looking for a lot less clear to the prospective candidate and cause them to receive applications from many who aren’t what they are looking for and wouldn’t have applied if the description was more accurate. More savvy job seekers will read the listing and recognize that either the company doesn’t know what they need, which doesn’t say much for their management team, or they don’t understand how to hire very well. That may further suggest that, if one got a position with that company, one might be surrounded by others who were less than the best at their jobs because of the company’s poor hiring processes. I don’t think, when you are looking for skilled help, that you want to make everyone think you are a poor quality organization, unclear about your needs, or at least not good at hiring, as it could dissuade the very best and most savvy candidates from applying.
Pitfall number 2: Focusing on cost rather than value. While it is natural for any manager to want to get the best people possible for the least cost, suggesting extremely low requirements for a position to try to avoid having to pay too much (whatever “too much” means) is not good. Like pitfall number one, it suggests the hiring company is unclear about the current pay structure for the job in question, what they need as far as candidate capabilities, or the nature of the job itself. Looking deeper, it suggests the hiring company are skinflints who will not pay market rates for a good employee and that, should one find employment with them, one might be surrounded by poorly chosen workers who are unhappy about their pay and possibly other conditions at that firm.
The best candidates may infer a lot from a job listing. While I would agree that a lot of candidates won’t think that deeply into what they read, the more experienced and savvy ones – the best people that company might find – are most likely to do so. Just as a job applicant’s appearance and demeanor are the first impression they make on a prospective employer, the job listing may be the first impression a company makes on a prospective employee. As a hiring manager, you owe it to yourself and your company to think about these things and check how your jobs are described and advertised.
Pitfall number 3: Getting carried away with the company description. The description of the hiring firm should not be too long or overstated. I’ve seen many listings where the description of the hiring company went on for a half a page or more, made up more than half of the listing, or read like glowing marketing hype. I’m sure the writers in some cases were trying to impress the prospective candidates with what a great company they represented, but if I got bored with it and started skipping down, I might just skip the whole listing altogether, especially since it was probably the three hundredth one I had read that day and my eyestrain was getting pretty bad.
First, the job description should be realistic and focused, like the applicants you want to attract. If you aren’t sure exactly what the job will involve you need to do more homework, lest your listing bring a flood of applications that are far off the mark and bury within the pile the applications of the candidates you really want to attract. With the on-line job search now an established standard, you can expect to receive large numbers of applications, especially in economic downturns, and anything you can do to reduce the deluge and narrow the field is a good thing, both for you and your human resource department.
Second, be realistic about the requirements of the job and what you can expect to pay for varying levels of experience and skill. Don’t lowball the requirements in an effort to keep your costs down, or you will get what you ask for: unqualified applicants who are desperate for a job rather than workers with appropriate skills and expectations. Describe the range of qualifications and experience you would consider and, if you need a real hotshot for the position, don’t let anyone think it’s an entry level position. If paying for the services of an experienced professional who can make that job really perform seems like too much, then you need to rethink the job itself and consider redefining it. In some situations there are no substitutes for high levels of skill and experience, and you should be realistic about the cost of such help. Also keep in mind that the real hotshots not only spread their expertise to those around them, but probably have knowledge and experience that will help other parts of the company as well.
Third, describe your company in succinct and realistic terms, and avoid cutting and pasting the marketing hype. Make sure the prospect knows what the company does, what the employing division or department does, and where the job would be located, for example. Many listings leave me unclear about these simple details, and don’t attract me to the possibility of a job with that company. Making the critical details clear to the prospective applicant will make you look good, and save time and money for both you and the applicant. If the marketing hype is pretty solid and straightforward, you might include some of it, but in most cases it will need to be toned down at least a little.
Good job listings save you time and money, and bring you the best candidates. To summarize, if you recognize the importance of writing good job listings and take the time to do them well you will receive higher percentages of good applicants, reduce the overwhelming flood of applications that are so common today, and get those top notch applicants in for an interview more quickly (hopefully before the competition does). The last thing you want is for prospective candidates to burst out laughing when they read your job listing.
As always, I welcome your comments, and thanks for them in advance. – Tim