The three key principles behind outstanding job descriptions
Learn how to craft effective job descriptions that will help you build a values-aligned team.
Kevin Fanning spends his days immersed in the hiring market as director of talent acquisition at Notarize, a fast-growing startup offering electronic notary services. But navigating the competitive — and sometimes tough — recruiting landscape doesn’t keep the note of wonder from the industry veteran’s voice as he describes today’s unique situation for both recruiters and job seekers.
“I've been doing this for a very long time, and I have never seen the market like it is right now,” he said. “Companies are hiring at an incredible pace; people are changing jobs at an astounding rate. This is just the wildest time I've ever seen.”
The numbers back Kevin’s experience. The Bureau of Labor Statistics recently reported the highest rate of Americans voluntarily leaving their jobs ever recorded (2.9%) in their Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey. Against this backdrop, increasingly referred to as the “great resignation,” founders and talent teams are being challenged to find ways to differentiate their hiring practices and processes.
So how can you compete? An early, impactful step to differentiate your company and the role you have to fill: Write an outstanding job description.
“A job description is often a candidate’s first opportunity to learn who you are and what you care about,” said Leah Knobler, director of talent acquisition at Help Scout. “There should be a really intentional effort behind creating that first impression.”
If you’re wondering what that intentional effort should involve, we’ve got you covered. Whether you’re a new founder beginning to hire key leaders or a member of a talent team scaling to fuel growth, we’re here to share guiding insights and info that will help you create job descriptions that represent your values and attract a qualified pool of candidates.
It turns out, the key principles behind creating an effective, enticing description mirror those guiding the growth of many values-driven businesses more generally: clarity, inclusivity, and transparency. Read on to learn how to put these principles into practice when crafting your job descriptions.
Clarity: Know who you are and what you need
The “why” of a job description is pretty obvious: You need to fill a gap in skills and experience to move your business forward. But the “how” — creating a description that clearly articulates not only what you need but who you are as a company — can be challenging.
Hone your voice and values
Understanding who you are and the voice you want to use is a foundational step in writing descriptions that will resonate with job seekers. “You have to inject a description with your company's personality,” Leah said. “That means that if you haven’t already established the company’s values and personality, you should be asking, ‘Who are we? What do we care about?’”
From that upfront work, you’ll be able to incorporate essential aspects of your company story into the job description.
Authentically sharing company values in the description is also key. “We put our values in every single job listing we post at Notarize,” Kevin said. “We worked hard to create and articulate these values, and we live them every day. We want anyone who works with us to live them as well.”
Incorporating values can be as straightforward as a bulleted list or a more nuanced inclusion in the narrative that helps a candidate understand how values are integrated into a specific role.
At Help Scout, the company’s core values are helpfulness, excellence, and ownership, so when the team crafts a description, they use those values to describe the role and the desired characteristics of a candidate. In the “About You” section of an engineering role, for instance, it might say, “You became an engineer because you like helping people.”
“We talk about helpfulness a lot, and there it is, right there in the job description,” Leah said. “Presenting values clearly in the description helps us attract people who share those values. It also helps filter out people who might not thrive at our company. With a job description, the response you get will reflect what you put out into the universe.”
Define responsibilities and scope
Clarity is also essential when it comes to arriving at a shared internal vision for the responsibilities and scope of the role before you put it out there to potential candidates.
As a first step, prioritize needs and think carefully about creating a description with a realistic scope of responsibilities. Although it can be tempting to create a job description that fills all the gaps on your team, resist the urge. It’s unlikely you’re going to find someone who can do all the things.
Instead of trying to create a custom, catch-all role, aim for specificity and build on existing descriptions to find candidates who are already seeking positions. As you outline the responsibilities you want a role to cover, be clear and focused and try to limit those responsibilities to five to six things. Try to map it to a role that already actually exists in the market, which will help ensure there will be actual candidates excited about the role.
While the internal work to align on specific responsibilities and goals for the position is important, it’s also a good idea to keep a flexible mindset around the skills and experience that will get you the result you’re looking for from the new team member.
“Ideally there’s a top-down willingness, from the executive team to the hiring managers, to be open to a broad pool of experience and qualifications and to not get stuck in a rigid mindset about who they picture filling this role,” Kevin said. “The really interesting hires are the ones who surprise me now. I will always fight for somebody who doesn't quite fit exactly what we’ve outlined but makes it clear that they really want the job, someone you can just tell is plugged in and engaged in the process.”
Finally, offering candidates a clear picture of the impact they will have — how the role they are applying for and specific responsibilities of the position will drive the company’s goals forward — will help attract folks who care about making a difference and measuring their contributions.
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Inclusivity: Be intentional about building a diverse team
Job seekers are increasingly looking for a diverse and inclusive workplace, and job descriptions are an important entry point for candidates to understand how you prioritize diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). Candidates should be able to see your efforts in action through the word choices and content of the description itself.
Give yourself a head start: Remove structural barriers that limit diversity
Since systemic racism has historically limited candidates’ participation in education and job seeking, removing common barriers from a job description can go a long way toward broadening your applicant pool from the start.
One structural element that can create barriers for candidates is a rigid educational requirement, including specific degrees or training qualifications.
Notarize has actually implemented a rule that job descriptions don’t include degree requirements, which is a huge benefit to recruitment efforts. “I don't have to require a bachelor's degree, so immediately I'm casting a wider net,” Kevin said. “I'm talking to a much more diverse group of applicants from the start, and it’s not an uphill battle. It's one way we tell the story about diversity at our company.”
While there are of course roles that require specific degrees — legal and medical positions, for example — in many cases, other steps in the hiring process can provide folks the opportunity to demonstrate their experience and qualifications.
For instance, you might consider incorporating a role-specific project assignment or ask for work samples to give candidates in later interview stages the chance to showcase their skills.
In addition to intentionally removing proven barriers from a description, some companies opt to go one step further by making it clear to candidates that they're open to applicants who might not meet all the requirements listed.
“I really appreciate it when I see that a company has added a statement at the bottom of a list of qualifications or experiences along the lines of, ‘If you don't meet every single qualification that we've posted, we encourage you to still apply,’” Leah said. “It shows thoughtfulness and awareness.”
Make a statement by choosing your words carefully
More broadly, the words you use throughout the job description offer candidates insight — positive and negative — into if and how your company prioritizes inclusivity and diversity.
On a basic level, start by reviewing a description to ensure it reflects inclusive, gender-neutral language (including gender-neutral pronouns like “they” and “you” instead of “his” and “hers;” using “folks” rather than “guys;” or saying “staffed” rather than “manned,” for example) and doesn’t include corporate jargon that might be intimidating. Descriptions of ideal candidates that include aggressive, gender-coded terminology, like “guru,” “ninja,” or “nurturer” for instance, should also be avoided.
“Any time somebody says they're looking for rock stars, my soul dies a little bit,” Kevin said. To help ensure descriptions are inclusive, the Notarize team routinely uses online tools to decode gender bias.
Similarly, filling a description with “vanity metrics” — like how much money a company has raised or what “best of” lists they appear on — or promoting a company as a “rocket ship” can also present a red flag for many job seekers, especially those looking for a company that cares more about values than valuation.
Transparency: Tell the real story
While a job description offers your company an opportunity to share all the things you’re proud of, providing candidates an honest, transparent view into the role they’re applying for and the company itself reflects something bigger: authenticity. In a competitive market, that can be a significant differentiator.
“There's a very literal sense in which a job description is an advertisement for the company, but you have to be very careful not to sound like you're just selling something,” Kevin said. “A description shouldn’t be all about shiny objects and good times.”
In other words, be realistic: Describe what a candidate will love about the job, the impact they can have, and the values that guide the business, but also be sure to include the things you hope they will help you fix and the contributions they can make to move the company forward.
“We very much identify as a transparent company and a transparent culture,” Leah said, “and we infuse that into job descriptions by trying to be really authentic and honest about what we’re doing and what the opportunity in a specific role is. We never want to say a job is going to be this one thing and then have a candidate experience something totally different.”
Help a candidate picture themself in the role
Crafting a job description that not only provides a transparent picture of responsibilities and impact but also offers candidates a clear view into what daily life will look like is also a good strategy.
“If a description is mostly focused on the skills an employer is looking for, a candidate likely doesn’t feel the company is invested in them as a person. A good description allows a candidate to actually picture themselves there, doing the work,” Kevin said.
One way to insert this transparency into a description is to go a step further than outlining the responsibilities of the position and to map out the expectations and potential impact they’ll have in the first 30, 60, and 90 days. This specificity offers candidates clarity around what they can expect on the job — and alignment around goals — from day one.
Be upfront about compensation and benefits
Transparency also plays an important role when it comes to describing compensation — pay and benefits — in a job description. The practice of sharing salary ranges at the outset of hiring for a role streamlines the process, helps ensure fair pay, and allows recruiters and hiring managers to spend more time on skills and experience in the interview process.
Sharing information about pay and benefits in a description can go a long way toward building trust with candidates and reflecting a company’s overall approach to transparency, and it can provide employers a competitive advantage in attracting job seekers.
“In a market like this right now, where so many companies are competing for talent, I think the more information you can provide in a description the better,” Kevin said. “The companies that aren't doing that are going to fall behind quickly. All of us make decisions based on data, and as data becomes more and more available over time, job seekers are increasingly relying on it. It's just not efficient to not provide the full picture.”
Authentic job descriptions yield authentic applicants
There’s no question that a job description can be an early, significant differentiator for companies who focus on creating descriptions that are clear, intentional, and inclusive. For values-driven companies looking to build teams, it’s an opportunity to attract candidates who want to make an impact, not just a paycheck.