How to Write Job Descriptions that Don’t Totally Stink

Most job descriptions stink..there, I said it. I'm not blaming anyone for writing stinky job descriptions. I don't like writing job descriptions. It's right up there with writing my own resume. One of those things you just want to get over with as quickly as possible and never think about again. Like when you are about to rip off a band-aid or when you know you have to throw up and you just want to get it over with so you can brush your teeth and get on with your life (too vivid?).

Nobody is really paid to write job descriptions, not recruiters, not gens (at least not here). Unless you are a copy writer for a recruitment advertising firm, you have every excuse to write stinky job descriptions. After you read this post, the excuse is null and void. I don't have all the answers but I can tell you how to avoid the realm of really bad descriptions.

Effective job descriptions really start with the hiring manager; the person that knows the most about the job, the skills that are required and how the new employee will be measured. But who knows what good job descriptions look like; what candidates respond to and what simply causes head scratching and job board radio silence? Recruiters. We owe it to our hiring groups to help them understand the elements of effective job descriptions Let's come together, people, and rid the world of stinky job descriptions. Let's have some mercy on the poor job seekers who have to find and read these job descriptions.

We are all wired differently, intellectually. So I won't give you a linear process for writing the things (I'm a big fan of the brain dump onto note cards, ordering them and refining the description but that's just me). But I can offer some tips and observations for hiring managers...

#1: Do not start a job description with a question. What is up with that anyway? This is a big pet peeve of mine and a number of other recruiters I work with. I believe these questions are intended to inspire enthusiasm ("are you passionate about...") but the tactic is over-used and unless you are very careful, it can look silly. "Where do you want to go today?" is one thing, a 5 question intro paragraph is something else. I think people have just become conditioned to do this. At my last company, I worked with a recruitment advertising firm that was submitting 4 potential ads for publication. At the beginning of the project, I told them "do not start any of these ads with a question". Three out of four of the ads that came back started with a question. Grrr.  

Feel like you can't avoid starting a job description with a question? Write the question, look at the point you are trying to make (it's really the job value prop, isn't it?) and then turn it into a statement. Or else, start the job description with this: "When was the last time you rode a giraffe?". Go ahead, I dare you ; )

#2: Avoid alphabet soup. I see this all the time too. Hiring managers load up their job descriptions with acronyms. We get so used to referring to things as letters (and we like to pronounce the acronyms as words here at Microsoft...sometimes with hilarious results), it's hard to turn that off. Don't use internal acronyms at all if you are posting the job. If you are inclined to include an industry acronym, consider that your desired candidate may know the acronym but might not search on it. For example, if you are looking for someone with Sarbannes-Oxley experience and you refer to it in the job description as SOX, keep in mind that job seekers who use the search term "Sarbannes" or "Sarbannes-Oxley" will not find your job description. It's about understandability but also about searchability (I might have just made up some words there...also something I wouldn't recommend doing in a job description).

#3: It needs to make sense to an external audience. Beyond acronyms, there are some concepts or terms that reside inside the walls of your company. They might be fairly intuitive but there will be a gap in understanding the usage. For example, we use the term "go-to-market" quite a bit here. You could intuit that this has something to do with product marketing strategy, but the term itself really represents a specific framework for taking a product to market. Simply stating the work that needs to be done provides for more clarity. 

#4: You don't need to fit every nuance of the job into the job description. I think there's a tendency to want to fill the page. Think about what the candidate will really care about, what will attract them and what accurately represents the major responsibilities of the position. Once you have included those things, step away from the job description.

#5: Get clear on requirements. How many job descriptions include a requirement referred to as "strong communication skills" or something similar? There's a difference between great presentation skills and great writing skills (though both could be considered communication skills, right?). I encourage hiring managers to think about WHY the communication skills are important and state it plainly: "ability to clearly present technical concepts to a non-technical business audience"...see the difference? Who disqualifies themselves from consideration because of the "strong communication skills" requirement anyway?

#6: YOU spell check it. Our job descriptions get loaded into our system via a tool used by the hiring groups. Our system does not include a spell checker. If you enter your description with typos, it goes into the system that way. Don't expect your recruiter to paste it into another document and spell-check it. Spell check it in Word or Outlook when you write it.

#7: Don't ask your recruiter to write it for you. YOU are the expert on your business. Think about it this way: if you don't have time to write the job description, do you have time to interview people? Will you have time to ramp up the new employee?

#8: Bullet points are good but they don't translate well on job boards. The concept is good, the HTML isn't. People like to read little snippets, but it's distracting if they start with some little squiggly thing a job board translated your bullet points into. Also, with regard to bullet points, they should be grammatically consistent. If the first one starts with "Building a marketing strategy for...", the next might be about "implementing", but not "implement". Build/implement/drive. Building/implementing/driving/ get it?

You might think of other tips. But those are my eight tips for writing job descriptions that don't stink up the place.

Comments (15)

  1. JOB MAN says:

    Agree with all your points.

    Especially the 4 th point where you talk about not fitting every nuance of the job into the job description.

    As you rightly said its not necessary as too many details, leads to confusion in the mind of the applicant.

    The KRA’s tends to get lost among the mundane.

  2. HeatherLeigh says:

    Job man-does that title come with a cape? ; )

  3. I second #2.  Last time I was a fish in the job pond, both Active Server Pages (ASP) and Application Service Providers (ASP) were popular terms.  Combine that with recruitment firms that can’t tell an enum from their left elbow, and that made for some ‘humerus’ pre-interview screenings.  Actually, they’re funny now, but back then they were a PITA.

    I’d like to add one more to your list: avoid business buzzwords/buzzphrases.  "We implement holistic strategies to exploit first mover status and enable market-share capture…"  That’s so meaningless it’s almost a Dilbert catroon.  Seriously, cut the crap–if your aim is to kick @$$ and take names, say just that.  We programmers are simple folk, and on the off chance we can focus our sleep deprived neurons (often recovering from a donut-and-caffeine haze), your point needs to be simple and clear.  Any MBA who reads that and nods in ecstatic agreement is probably drooling and rode the special bus to school, and should never be put in charge of sharpening pencils, let alone something important.

    Pissy?  Yes, but I’m out of shiraz.  I think I need to rest my neurons.

  4. HeatherLeigh says:

    Oh Richard Dudley, we love it when you are pissy! I’m a glass and a half into a bottle of Hangtime Pinot Noir (and before anyone says a word about Sideways and snobbery, I bought it before Sideways premiered…it’s a 2000 bottle, it was $12 when I bought it and it’s fabulous). Humerus…I get it and it’s, ahhh, humorous.

    I’m with you on the buzzword thing. I let the word "paradigm" fly today and I felt an immediate need to punish myself. My pastime these days is asking people to define "strategic" if I hear them use it in a sentence ("what do you mean by ‘strategic’?"). It’s fun!

    The problem with job descriptions is that there’s nobody around to make a facial expression when you say something like "critical mass’ or "paradigm".

  5. Dennis Smith says:

    By the way, I rode a giraffe just last week? 🙂


  6. HeatherLeigh says:

    Dennis, you’re hired! Ahhh, I wish it was that easy.

    Thanks for phrasing it as a question. Are you secretly channeling Alec Trebeck? ; )

  7. Norwegian recruiter says:

    Reg. acronyms – I couldn’t agree more 🙂 I have found MS and other large multinational corporations to be the "worst". They have a blueprint with the standard requirements and even more so – the English job title – not translating very well into other languages. One MS hiring manager actually was surprised herself when I as an external recruiter used the GTM term in our conversation in between interviews.

    "- I didn’t know you were familiar with our internal expressions?" And yet she had wanted to include GTM in the job description posted..

    (Also: SOA = Sarbanes Oxley Act = Service Oriented Architecture =…)

    It all comes down to communicating – understanding who’s on the other end, and adapting the message.

  8. Dennis Smith says:

    H – ok, I’ll try to be serious for a moment, but this is hard for me.  

    I, too, am tired of hearing…..

    "Are you ready to work for an industry-leading organization that really cares about its employees?"

    However, questions that are completely unrelated to the job at hand can be used as teasers to grab attention.  Then, we can segue to the real point of the ad.

    On occasion, I will use a something corny.  I’m not above that.  But I think you and I are more aware of the overuse of "questions" than the average job-seeker.

    If I see something that is of genuine interest to me (when I’m in job-seeker mode), I won’t let a tired JD keep me away.  And I think most job-seekers follow suit.

    Here’s a few unrelated questions that I think would at least catch enough interest to entice the job-seeker to read.  You may not agree, but that’s the beauty of job-seekers….there’s lots ‘o them, and they all have different tastes.  

    Did you know that 10,000 people will read this job description in the next hour?

    Did you know that only 1 out of 1,000 job-seekers will take the time to read this entire job description?

    Are you tired of submitting your resume online to the ubiquitous black hole?

    Did you know that 76% of applicants submit their resumes online?

    Did you know that only 40+% of online job-seekers ever land an interview?


  9. Gary Chin says:

    I’m alway annoyed with job descriptions that specify x years of experience in xyz (ok you can substitute xyz to ASP – I’m a .Net advocate).  I would substitute this phrase with "As an experienced .Net developer, discuss the feature differences between v1.1 and v2.0"  Years of experience just does not measure the person’s knowledge.

  10. HeatherLeigh says:

    Norwegian Recruiter- sometimes that stuff feels like the "secret password" doesn’t it?

    Dennis-Hmm, I still don’t like the questions much. But your questions are attention grabbing, I’ll give you that much!

    Gary-good point. Being more prescriptive about what people need to know not how long it took them to learn it.

  11. daryllmc says:

    I’ll take the contrarian position here… 🙂

    I prefer the "question" approach as a candidate.  If well crafted, the question will intrigue me to want to know more.  IMO, a lot of JDs take too long to get to the *real* point.  So, if a JD starts with "are you passionate about Rights Management?" I know to keep moving.

    So perhaps I’m not so much a "fan" of the question method as much as I am looking for the JD to get to *real* point.

  12. HeatherLeigh says:

    Ah Daryll, I don’t actually think that  is contrarian at all. I know I have a personal peeve with the questions but not everybody does. I agree with you about getting to the point for sure. Less fluff, more substance.

    I think part of my issue with the question approach is that *words* like "passion" and "impactful" are way overused. Let’s use your example above and pretend like the job is for a DRM Product Evangelist. It could be very possible that the right candidate for the job is really passionate about the BDM segment (or consumer segment or IT Pro segment), or the types of strategies used in the job and that though they are extremely knowledgable in DRM, that it’s not what gets them really psyched. These passion questions seem to revolve around something very specific the hiring manager assumes the candidate will be passionate about.

    I think about this in relation to my own space, recruiting. If you were to talk to the best recruiters at Microsoft and asked them what they are passionate about, you will get a bunch of different answers. Some recruiters (like myself when I was recruiting directly) love the thrill of the hunt, some love the engagement with the internal clients, some love negotiating offers. If I read a job description back then that asked me if I was passionate about interviewing candidates, I’d say "nope, but I’ll do it to get to do the part of the job I really love".

    So given that every job has aspects that people are excited about and other aspects that people just do because it’s part of the job, I often find that these questions make erroneous assumptions about what people should be passionate about.

    Also, consider that people in staffing and people looking through the Microsoft external career page (candidates)  could be looking at JD after JD. So the "are you passionate about this?", "are you passionate about that?" approach looks different in the context of just about every single JD starting out the same way. Ditto with the "do you want to make an impact?" stuff.

    So maybe where our opinions meet is here: If you are going to include a sell statement at the beginning of your job description, keep it short and don’t make it sound like the same question that everyone else is using. I’m open to the concept of using questions if someone can coome up with an original way to do it.

  13. Jade says:

    I am ‘said copy writer for a recruitment advertising firm’, and after reading this blog – literally it was like a kick in the %$£$.

    I do, unfortunately have to conform to alot of the points you make – but when you are writing job descriptions for leading companies and they dont like that your work is different (never mind that it actually works), it is difficult to move away from the mould. God knows what my employer ill do when I start screaming ‘no! i DONT think they should be called Sandwich artists!!)

    I do agree with the majority of points, but disagree with the ‘dont start with a question’ paragraph’. Where I am the first to agree they are a bit naff, there is no denying that in a list of jobs that all start ‘our client is a …..’ they do stand out, and they do get hits (well for our company anyway)

    I was told if it works –  keep using it, but adjust your style to make it your own. If my opening line is a question I will ensure it targets the specific candidate, ( can you tell i have been reading numerous pages of Bly who says- at the end of the day – the job of a copywriter is to sell, not to be creative

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