How To Write Better Job Descriptions

A person writing in a notebook, in a relaxed pose. Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

A poorly-written job description will not only lose you good candidates, but can end up with you hiring someone with mistaken expectations about the role. And yet, it seems we often forget even the basics of decent writing when we are working on a new job description.

Conversely, I’m aware of certain companies and their job postings only because they were so thoughtfully put together that others shared the descriptions with me as shining examples of the craft. Examples that come to mind include this job post from the Recurse Center, where they explain in detail and plain English what the job entails, the pros and cons of it, what the interviewing process will look like, and even details like their usual work hours. Similarly, this job post from Splice, while much briefer, also does a great job of giving you a sense for the company, the job, and the interview process.

Below are some suggestions for writing more effective job posts. This advice applies mainly to hiring managers who have control over the job descriptions for their open roles. If you’re at a larger company, where a larger machine posts these things outside of your control, you can still add your own summary when you re-share the job posting with your own networks, or when you have your sourcing team reach out to candidates.

Be the actual human you are

We say in management that employees leave managers, not companies. Conversely, candidates will choose a certain job to a large degree because of the prospective manager. Let this manager — yourself, if you’re the hiring manager — shine through in the job post.

A common pitfall is that, in trying to be “professional”, we use jargon and start sounding like a drone. Are you trying to hire someone who wants to be around corporate drones? If so, go ahead. Otherwise, try to use language that is precise, but also language that feels natural to you.

Think of how you would talk to someone in person. Would you say “do you have executive-level experience” to someone in an interview? Or would you say something more precise, such as “do you have experience managing directors” or “do you have experience setting a long-term strategy for a large team?”.

Speak to your intended audience

This implies that you have to think about your audience first. Hopefully you’ve done this already, as part of deciding which qualities are you looking for in this role.

So think about who do you want to appeal to. Picture your ideal candidate. What are their interests, passions, curiosities? What might be their concerns?

Try to address those, proactively, in your job posting. If you don’t know how to start, keep it simple: “As a <role name>, you will get to do X, Y and Z exciting things. But don’t worry, we don’t expect you to do A nor B. Occasionally, you might be called to help with P or Q.”

Be detailed and transparent

The more concrete you can make the job, the more compelling the posting will be to the right candidate. Paint a picture, and make it as textured as you can. Be open about the parts that are hazier, and about the parts that might change.

For example, don’t just say “you’ll have to help with recruiting”, say “our business is undergoing strong growth and we want your help expanding our team by X % in the next Y months”.

Some might object to making such strong, concrete statements in a job posting. There are some very sensitive goals (e.g. concrete revenue numbers) that you might not be able to share publicly, but those tend to be rare. Again, it helps here to think about what questions would most candidates have, and address those in your posting.

Be upfront about what the application and interviewing process will be like: how many interviews will they be, and of what kind; what response times may the candidate expect, etcetera.

Place the job role in the broader context of your company and industry

Realize that a prospective candidate might come across your job description knowing nothing about your company or your industry.

Be sure to talk about what your company does, what stage is it at. Mention any salient details about culture and work style. Again, you are trying to give the candidate a clear sense of what working will be like at your company.

Use inclusive language and encourage applicants of underrepresented groups

It’s 2018 and you care about building a diverse team. Use welcoming and inclusive language — you can use tools like textio and joblint to help you catch any glaring jargon, male-coded language and more.

Avoid listing requirements that aren’t actually required. If it is a nice-to-have, say so, or maybe omit it altogether. Remember that candidates from under-indexed groups will tend to only apply if they feel that they fulfill 100% of the requirements, so the more unnecessary requirements you add, the more you’re skewing your applicant pool towards those that veer towards the overconfident.

If you are interested in under-represented candidates applying, go ahead and say so directly in your job post. You can use the stock phrase “Women, minorities, people with disabilities, and veterans are encouraged to apply”, or maybe rephrase that in a way that sounds more “you”.

Remember that you’re selling this job to the candidate

Make the job description lively, compelling, welcoming, intriguing, warm, fun.

As you know, dishonest or sleazy salespeople don’t do well, so avoid falling into over-selling or obscuring the truth. You’ll be building a long-term relationship with whomever gets the job, and you won’t want to start with a foundation of bent truths.