How to Write a Job Description
Too often, employers view job descriptions as pragmatic, informative tools for job placement ads. Consequently, most turn out to be lengthy, dense, and uninspiring laundry lists of qualifications you’re looking for that leaves candidates confused about how working for you actually benefits them. Ineffective job descriptions result in high turnover rates and hours of wasted employee training, which today totals $1,252 per employee.
So, before investing in employee morale boosters, positive attitude training, or team-building events to combat high turnover rates, consider making slight changes to your job description. You’ll be surprised at how changing your attitude about how to write a job description attracts better-qualified talent to fit your unique culture. Here are some helpful tips from HR pros who know what should go in your job description template.
While it may seem a small thing, what job title you use actually makes a big difference in finding a qualified applicant. Good job descriptions have titles that are accurate, short, and search-optimized. Remember, people will likely be searching for your title, so make sure you’re using popular keywords. You may need a “Nutritional Intervention Advisor,” but the majority of applicants are probably searching for “Weight Loss Expert”. Smart companies aren’t plugging in trendy career monikers that appeal to millennials, they’re crafting practical job titles based on popular search terms.
Create a job title that finds a middle ground between specificity and inclusiveness. You may want a “marketing specialist,” but that’s a fairly broad term. It’s interesting how general the word “specialist” is in this context, so you’ll probably get a lot of people who don’t fit the title exactly. What does the term mean anyway? A specialist in marketing? Every marketer specializes in marketing.
Be specific. Is there a sub-category of marketing that the applicant will specialize in? Social media, internal communications, construction? Merely adding a qualifier like “digital marketing specialist” narrows the term while still keeping it inclusive. Find the right balance, and you’ll raise your qualified applicant rate.
Search Engine Optimization
To get started researching job title keywords, visit popular job sites like Indeed, Monster, ZipRecruiter, and use their search engine’s auto-populate feature. For example, if you want to find popular alternatives for the job title “marketing specialist”, you can type “marketing” into the search field and see what titles the site suggests. The graphic below shows the suggested job titles from such a search on two popular job sites.
Notice how “marketing specialist” appears near the bottom for both—suggesting it’s not the most popular keyword. While “manager” and “director” probably go against what you’re looking for, “coordinator” or “assistant” might be a better fit and get you more hits.
You can end your keyword search there, or you can use these popular keyword tools to drill down into more specific terms:
Keywords aren’t just for composing job titles; they’re effective for the entire description, and there are plenty of other do’s and don’t for optimizing job descriptions for search engines you should consider. The closer you are to matching the terms job seekers are searching for, the more success you’ll have throughout the entire process.
Generally, your company’s overview should be near the beginning or the end of the job description. Your choice will depend on what mood you’re trying to set. Is your goal primarily to sell your company or “buy” a highly qualified applicant? By putting your overview first, you’re making your company the selling point of your description. You’re saying “We’re the company you want to work for!”
However, describing your company further down the description and beginning with something more candidate-focused like a job description says “Hey, we’re looking for someone just like you to help make our company better!” The difference may seem small, but the tone you lead with makes a big impact on how the candidate interprets the rest of the job description. Ideally, you can communicate both of these ideas, but typically only one will dominate. Figure out what your message is and place your company overview where it will support that strategy.
Whichever place you decide to talk about your company, keep it succinct. That’s the suggestion of Dana Case, Director of Operations at MyCorporation.com. “When writing a job description, it’s important to try to keep it as short and to the point as possible. I would recommend including a quick blurb (no more than a sentence) about what your business does and then moving on to the characteristics of the candidate.” Simple is best if you decide to lead with your company. Lengthy company overviews up front can turn off qualified candidates who just want to get to the duties and responsibilities section. For a lot of positions, the most qualified candidate may not be the most patient or thorough reader, so don’t risk alienating them with lengthy introductions.
When deciding on what to include in your overview, think about what you want the candidate to remember about your company. Aside from the basic who, what, when, and where, include why descriptors about your culture. Don’t just copy and paste your company’s boilerplate mission statement. Tailor your overview to the job description and use bullet points to keep the copy short. Use inspiring titles like “7 things you’ll love about working with us”. You can always link out to your “About” page for those who want to expand their research.
Duties & Responsibilities
The need for directness is most acute in the section that outlines what your prospects will be doing. Balance accuracy with brevity. Outlining duties and responsibilities isn’t the time for intimidating and technical language—a strategy often employed to filter out applicants who aren’t “in-the-know” with industry terminology and are presumably undesirable. However, that’s a dangerous approach, given that qualified prospects may be turned off by stuffy, verbose language even if they understand every word. The tone and voice of your job description say something about your company—it reflects your culture.
While avoiding vague or overly technical language, include only the major duties and responsibilities the applicant needs to know. Choose those responsibilities that are broader in scope; don’t get into the weeds listing minor duties or over-explaining the major ones. It will only clutter up your description with needless bullet points. If you’ve created an effective job title, the qualified candidate will be able to anticipate many of the duties anyway, so there’s no need to define them in great detail. You can discuss them during the interview.
Dana Case believes you should compose the job duties with the interview in mind. Be accurate and thorough, but leave a little room for discussion later in the hiring process:
“Share some of what their daily responsibilities will be, but don’t go overboard—keep these to quick bullet points that can be discussed in-depth during the interview.”
Here is a job duty description taken from an actual job placement that is confusing and needlessly wordy. Notice the sleep-inducing effects of this job responsibility for a “marketing specialist”:
- “Partner with our internal experts to organize, prepare and produce, and manage responses to qualifications, proposals, presentations, and other materials in pursuit of specific projects.”
This is too complex, and it’s redundant. How are “organize” and “manage” different? Qualifications, proposals, and presentations are too vague. Isn’t “pursuit of specific projects” implied? When would you do these things randomly? Recommended revision:
- “Work with our in-house experts to create a variety of marketing materials, like sales proposals and social media posts.”
The revised job responsibility is more clear. It also offers specific examples (e.g., “sales proposals” vs. “proposals”) while still keeping things open (e.g., “variety of marketing materials”) for discussion during the interview.
Skills and Competencies
The mandatory skills and preferred competencies for your job listing should logically follow the duties and responsibilities section. That is, all of the skills needed should service everything you’re asking them to do. Check them for consistency before publishing.
Often, a simple list of skills doesn’t communicate the nuances of the ideal candidate. A short description—either in the skills section or the description intro—can help. But Jennifer Crittenden, author of The Discreet Guide for Executive Women, cautions against using vague language that will have the wrong people knocking at your door.
“Don’t ask for a ‘rock star’ or even someone ‘special’ or ‘exceptional,’” she says. “Good candidates don’t know what you mean by that, and it can put them off from applying. Bad candidates think they fit the description and will apply in disproportionate numbers.”
To combat overly vague language, Crittenden suggests phrasing candidate qualities in the second person using “you.” She provides an example from a job description for a ghostwriter she recently read:
- “You are not yearning for bylines or to see your name in print; steady work is more important. You are not set on time, but you are a stickler for deadlines.”
“I think it’s more personal, resonates with the right candidate, and might be easier for a hiring manager to write because of the more conversational tone,” she says. While this strategy might be overkill for listing hard requirements like education levels or software proficiencies [“You’re someone who’s proficient with Microsoft Office”], it can be extremely effective for communicating soft competencies and personal values. Consider the following rewrite of the previous description.
- “We are looking for a candidate who doesn’t need constant recognition but who just enjoys writing. We prefer someone who doesn’t stress over time restraints, but consistently delivers.”
This version comes off as more of a demanding laundry list of personal qualities rather than something aspirational. Remember, your job description should set expectations and represent your culture, too. While you want to communicate hard expectations, don’t turn away awesome candidates with a tone that’s too company-centric. Plus, using “you” statements will turn the reader’s focus back on themselves. They’re more likely to apply a critical eye to their own knowledge and skills, and you’ll have fewer unqualified applicants apply.
In addition to using “you” statements, Jennifer Way, CEO/Founder of Way Solutions, makes it a point to drop the idea of job description altogether and adopt a more intimate approach. “Stop using job descriptions,” she cautions. “Instead use recognizable stories about candidates.” She provides an example for illustration:
- “You’re probably a highly motivated, savvy, creative person with a proven track record for exceeding expectations. You’re looking for opportunities to show your skills and add some new ones.”
Description Do’s and Don’ts
Here are some additional tips and tricks to help boost the effectiveness of your next job description.
Do: Include Media
Consider including images of your workspace or a link to your company’s culture video in your job description. Company culture videos don’t have to be costly productions; they can be inexpensive in-house projects for a creative team or HR department that only take a little imagination. The overall effect is a great way to showcase your culture and some people who actually work there, and you can reuse them for any future job postings.
Don’t: Use Discriminating Language
Standard equal opportunity disclaimers are great ways to encourage resume honesty and avoid “resume whitening” from non-white applicants who fear discrimination. However, unconscious gender and ethnic bias exist in job descriptions. Gender research about job descriptions shows that including adjectives like “superior,” “competitive,” and “determined,” can suggest to women applicants that they’re not a good fit for that work environment. To avoid leaning one way or the other, refer to this list of terms present a masculine or feminine bias. Include a mixture of both in your next job description.
Do: Hide an Easter Egg
An Easter egg can weed out candidates who don’t read the entire description. For example, ending with this sentence: “Please include the word ‘avocado’ in the subject line of your cover letter.” The trick is an easy way to test an applicant’s attention to detail, their thoroughness, or if they’re simply submitting applications in bulk.
Don’t: Use Negative Language
Are you using overly exclusionary language like, “Applicants with less than 3 years of experience in the following fields won’t be considered for this position”? If so, consider what this tone is saying about your company. You’ve drawn strong lines of acceptance that no one shall transgress! With these types of phrases, you may be turning away good employees who see this as an indicator, not of expectations, but inflexibility. Instead, express it in a more accepting tone—one that communicates the point less sternly. “Note that this is a mid-level position, which requires 3 to 5 years of experience in this or a related field. Please consider your experience level before applying. We don’t want to waste your time.”
The right job description will save you time and money on hiring and training costs. Employees are an expensive investment, but finding them doesn’t have to be. Follow these practical guidelines for creating an effective job description, and you’ll raise retention rates and employee satisfaction scores.
Job Description Template
To help you write a terrific job description, click “download our template” below! And if you want to develop a template that fits your organization’s needs, click “make your own” to get started.