Since the record-breaking U.S. unemployment rate in April 2020, the workforce has experienced a seismic shift, and in a lot of ways, become more of a candidate’s market as the COVID-19 pandemic pushed people to question their work-life balance and what they value in regard to their careers.
This trend has only held steady, as four million Americans a month have left their jobs in 2022. According to a recent worldwide survey released by McKinsey and Co, 40% of workers are looking to leave their roles in the next three to six months, even on the precipice of an economic downturn.
Despite a bit of volatility in the power dynamic between employers and candidates as companies announce rounds of layoffs, the reality is employers need to do better to attract and retain employees — and their job descriptions are a great place to start.
“There’s been a fundamental shift in workers’ mentality, and their willingness to prioritize other things in their life beyond whatever job they hold,” Bonnie Dowling, one of the authors of the report, said. “We’re never going back to how things were in 2019.”
As such, employers should let go of some of the tired ways they construct their job descriptions. “There was this era of trying to stand out using a bit of shock value where employers were really trying to sort of set a precedent for being quote unquote, different,” Director of Recruiting at Lever, a talent acquisition software company, Caitlyn Metteer told The Org.
Senior Manager of culture, DEI and client engagement at Perfeqta, Tamara Dias added, “I noticed the shift around 2013 and 2014 to be really eye-catching.” Twitter was finally reaching the mainstream. Instagram was three or four years old and had fully entered the mainstream as a social network. Buzzfeed lists dominated the social timelines and VICE’s entire existence was centered on provocation. The media that shaped us looked profoundly different. “We found this new era where traditional models are no longer working,” Metteer added.
Dias said this era shifted the language of job descriptions. Eye-catching, quippy or otherwise unorthodox job descriptions that looked good in a screenshot or were more concerned with the headline than the content took the lead. Metteer said, “In tech, it has become so commonplace using these really tongue in cheek phrases or lingo maybe meant to sort of catch people off-guard. I do think it’s had its day in the sun.”
The purpose of a job description is to efficiently attract the best candidates to execute the responsibilities of a role needed to successfully run a business. Recruiting costs companies an average of $4,425 per position in the U.S.
Dias said she regularly sees job descriptions that are too generic or almost read as a one-size-fits-all posting. “They don't really say, ‘We're looking for this ideal or specific type of candidate,’” she pointed out. “They're not aware of this candidate's goals or how they want to grow or why they would even want the role.” Without awareness of the candidate employers are looking for, a job description ends up lacking the specifics that let candidates see themselves in the role or believe they are a good fit for it.
Conversely, she also said job descriptions that are too lengthy are commonplace as well, and they run long because they list too many responsibilities. “I've seen a lot of companies that create job descriptions that are really seven jobs that have been combined into one,” she said. “You want a person doing human resources and to do finance and to do sales and to do strategic development.”
Job descriptions that highlight someone that can “wear many hats” are often combining multiple roles into one. Ultimately, these both read as if the employer is unclear (or arguably, unrealistic) about the job position itself, which translates to a lack of clarity for potential candidates as well.
In addition to a lack of clarity, exclusionary language is often included in job descriptions, to the detriment of employers and candidates alike. “One of the big mistakes I see is using any terminology that is going to alienate a large group of people from your posting,” Metteer said.
Both Dias and Metteer pointed to gendered language, specifically when it comes to pronouns. Using “he” or “she” to describe the hypothetical candidate not only has the potential to discourage people who don’t identify using that pronoun, but Dias said it’s also “not making that job description open to those that are non-binary.”
In addition to pronouns, terms that are stereotypically gendered can be hurting job descriptions. Dias said, “Sometimes you'll see people say words like ‘strong’ and ‘assertive’ can even be gendered and can be thought of as masculine, so it’s really about being mindful of who we are including or who we are excluding when we're creating this job description.”
Metteer offered “cutthroat” as another example. “If you're describing a sales position, using a term like cutthroat can actually be discouraging for women, whereas it might be more encouraging for a male applicant.” Stereotypically, “cutthroat” may be considered a complement to salesmen and can carry a negative connotation when speaking of women sales representatives.
“I think candidates are much more aware of the internal [company] culture and what feels like a place where they can authentically be themselves,” Metteer said. “I think people are really motivated by working for a company that is inclusive, and so ensuring that the language and the posting is mirroring that I think is really important.” The job description is the first impression, and it’s lasting.
Arguably the most important part of every job description sits at the very top – the job title. It’s the first thing applicants see. What exactly does a “Social Media Ninja” do? Does a “Chief Troublemaker” have direct reports?
“I think there was a fad of creating these job titles that would definitely catch someone's eye but wouldn't necessarily come up in a search,” Metteer said. “They then have to read through your job description line by line to understand exactly what the role is, and if they are someone who is really actively looking, the likelihood that they're going to take the time to do that is fairly unlikely.” She believes using the most common title for the responsibilities makes the most sense for search and to ensure candidates the employer is looking for actually apply.
This also applies to the other sections of the job description, whether it’s what employers are looking for from an applicant on their resume and cover letter or within the listed qualifications. Clarity is crucial, and rather than offering “bonus points” for creative resumes or wanting someone that “wears many hats,” Dias says it’s on the employer to state what it is they’re actually seeking.
“It may sound catchy and it may seem creative, but it is very confusing to people when they are applying, and it can result in taking more time on the back end,” she said. “Be specific about what it is that you want, instead of using very broad terminology.”
And, the same clarity should be applied to what information the company offers about themselves. One example that has become particularly sensitive during the COVID-19 pandemic and The Great Resignation is saying that the company is like a “family.”
When an organization says, ‘We're like family here,’ that is making a certain assumption about families. It assumes that people know what you mean when you say family or that you're trying to communicate something about what a family environment is,” Dias said. “Everybody has a different family. Everybody has different experiences and interactions with their families.”
She said she assumes it is to try to impress candidates and it’s easier to focus on those specifics an employer is trying to put under the umbrella of “family.” “I always wonder why they don’t use “community” instead,” she said. “Say we have open communication, people are respectful. We're flexible. We understand if you need to leave work early because you have other obligations. We're understanding. I think you can say all of that without saying we're family.”
Ultimately, job descriptions should focus more on effectively communicating what the role is and the type of candidate and person they desire to fulfill those responsibilities rather than treating it as a creative writing exercise. The goal is to find candidates that are the best fit, not to gain clicks.
Kill the jargon and embrace clarity. “It just requires a lot more work from the candidate, especially for candidates that are actively looking,” Metteer says. “I feel like we should simply make things easy for people.”