Better Job Descriptions = Better Candidates

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Mar 25, 2020

By Dr. John Sullivan

People often ask, "What is the easiest way to convince top applicants to apply for jobs in my organization?" The answer is easy: Rewrite your position descriptions so that they excite candidates rather than turn them off. It's easy to do and it produces dramatic results.

Did you know that the very highest-quality candidates have estimated "drop off rates" as high as 90% once they have scanned a position description? This means that all of your efforts in branding and marketing to get these high-quality candidates to look at your jobs become an immediate waste of time. It is the equivalent of a realtor advertising a mansion, then showing a shack.

Develop a "Position Marketing Template"

In order to make your position descriptions consistently compelling, you need to develop a template that can easily guide hiring managers and others to produce great position descriptions every time. As you put together your position marketing template, you might want to consider these points:

• Find the current position description for the job you are currently in and see if it would entice you to pursue your own job based solely on the wording in it. Is it even remotely accurate? Next, review some of the current position descriptions that are not bringing in quality candidates and see if they suffer from the same characteristics you noted regarding your own job.

• Take a current dull position description and within five minutes, change it minimally by adding in current buzzwords, mentioning some of the cutting-edge practices that the position involves and reordering it so that the more exciting items appear first. Then, show it and the current one to the head of recruiting to see if he or she can't see the side-by-side superiority of the sales approach. Convince recruiting leaders to let you try a split sample in which only a few of the position descriptions are rewritten (while others remain unchanged) in order to see if they impact application rates.

• Walk over to marketing, sales, branding, or PR and ask for their help in developing a template that can be used on a routine basis to make every position description more exciting and compelling. If necessary, hire a marketing or sales intern, or even an outside marketing firm (not recruitment advertising), as Cisco did in the late 1990s.

• If you're really serious about this process, hold a focus group to identify what top applicants want to know about and what excites them about a job in your company. An easier alternative is to interview a few of your current top performers in targeted positions and directly ask them, "If you were forced to find your own job again, what specific criteria would you use and what words, tools, or other job aspects would be the best indication that this new job would be highly desirable?" A third alternative is to ask several candidates, "What are your job switching criteria?" You can even ask new hires after they start, "What factors, words, and elements of the position description were the most/least compelling?"

Once you have the general outline in place, flesh out your position marketing template by including these 11 key elements:

1. Include the key "job-switch" factors that cause potential applicants to become excited about your job(s). Begin the position description with information that directly addresses the top five job-switch criteria for top performers. Typical decision criteria for top performers include: 

  •  Opportunities and challenges they are likely to encounter
  • Learning and growth opportunities
  • Having ideas and concerns listened to 
  • Best practices and innovations they will be exposed to
  • Some degree of flexibility in choosing the work they do and the time they work

2. Include exciting projects and problems that the newly hired individual will likely be involved with. Meet with the manager and several incumbents in the target position and ask them to identify the types of potential projects that the new hire will be involved in. Be sure to focus on the types of projects that are likely to excite top performers.

 3. Include who they will interact with. Identify if the new hire will have the opportunity to work closely with and interact with executives, high-profile individuals, or other key departments and teams. Show that the individual will get to frequently interact with exciting and influential team members.

4. Highlight key team members in general terms. Obviously, you can't always include specific names but you can highlight, for example, the fact that there are a large percentage of advanced degree holders on the team, and there are award winners or individuals with unique or advanced skills and experience. The key here is to show them they will be working alongside interesting people and winners.

5. Include "wow" factors about the firm and its culture. In addition to an exciting job, the company image as an exciting place to work must also be reinforced. Start by surveying top-performing employees and new hires to find out what makes your firm/culture unique and interesting. Describe it in terms that are appealing, including elements in examples of high integrity, honest two-way communications, risk-taking, frequent innovation, and the existence of an empowered management style, and so on. 

6. Mention great pay, stability, or compelling benefits, but be careful not to make it appear that these are the primary reasons why an individual should join the firm. Top performers rank these factors well below where the average worker ranks them.

7. Consciously omit turnoffs to ensure that the excitement in one part of the description is not immediately countered with mixed messages in another part. In particular, try to omit or at least put at the end of the description mundane things like routine tasks that are obvious or reporting relationships that are not exciting.

8. Prioritize the factors for inclusion in the position description based on what applicants and new hires tell you were the most critical factors in influencing their decision to apply for the job. Obviously, put the most critical items first.

9. Pretest a sample "sales" position description with recent hires, managers, and team members to judge its effectiveness and to refine its excitement capability. Make sure that the incumbents in the position agree that it accurately reflects the best part of the job in the firm but that it doesn't exaggerate (which will result in high acceptance rates and later, immediate turnover after they realize it's not true).

10. Compare your descriptions to your competitors' descriptions. It's also critical that you periodically compare your own position descriptions with those of your competitors (in the same job family) to ensure that yours are continuously superior in excitement (remember, they might have read this article too!).

11. Gradually evolve and improve the template as you learn from successes and failures. Over a period of time, provide compensation, recruiters and hiring managers with direct feedback on what factors excite, so that these individuals can eventually assume ownership for writing exciting sales position descriptions.

There is nothing more frustrating than having a great company image and exciting Website that generates traffic but doesn't convert visitors into applicants. Unlike most approaches that can be used to convince potential candidates to apply, rewriting position descriptions so that they sell is a quick, cheap, and easy approach. Anyone with a strong marketing or sales background can rewrite a position description in little more than a few minutes. Put a little marketing sizzle into your job descriptions and watch the quality of your candidates soar!

About the Author(s)

Dr. John Sullivan is a professor of management in the College of Business at San Francisco State University. As an author, public speaker, educator and corporate advisor he challenges the accepted status quo in the human resource profession, pushing for a more analytical, business-minded human capital management function capable of leading business performance.
Master Burnett currently serves as the managing director of Dr. John Sullivan & Associates. In this role he advises organizations developing best practices based on the thought leadership of Dr. John Sullivan.