Red Alert: Why You Must Stop Using Job Descriptions, Today!

As most of you know, I don’t hide my beliefs too well. For example, in recent articles I’ve been lambasting job boards as being the number one way not to hire good people. But actually, job boards are number two on the list of obstacles preventing companies from hiring top talent. Number one is the traditional job

description. Although I have written about this before, the topic is so important that it’s worth raising the alert level again on why you must stop using this insidious document. Since I have been chastised in the recent past for writing long articles with my points hidden at the end, I decided to write this article backwards. By this I mean I’ll make my final point first, then use my best arguments to prove it in descending order of importance. (I’ll still try for a clever ending with some hidden surprise, for those of you who have a little time.) Major point of this article: If you want to implement a systematic hiring process for hiring top talent (this is Hiring 2.0), you must stop using traditional job descriptions from this moment forward. Here’s why:

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  1. The best people won’t apply for, or take, these jobs unless a company is an employer of choice. The best people want jobs that stretch them and make them better, so that they can be stretched again. Offering continuing growth is how you attract the best people, not by offering a vague promise or a boring job.
  2. Traditional job descriptions don’t define jobs at all. Traditional job descriptions mostly define the person taking the job, not the job itself. Job descriptions should define the work the person in the job needs to do, not the skills and experiences the person needs to have.
  3. The people traditional jobs descriptions define don’t exist. Combining the attributes of high potential people with too much experience, too many skills and exactly the right background is self-defeating. The best people want to do important work ó different work ó and they want to be stretched. If these people have already done the work, or assume they have, since it’s not described they won’t even apply. If top people who see the job as a possible stretch do apply, they’ll be screened out ó since they don’t pass the skills filter.
  4. If you want to attract better people, you need to define better jobs. In First, Break All the Rules: What the World’s Best Managers Do Differently (Simon and Schuster, May 1999), Marcus Buckingham shows that the number one criteria for employee satisfaction is managers who clarify expectations. In essence, this means telling people what they are required to accomplish. Traditional job descriptions fail on this count.
  5. Using traditional job descriptions make recruiters less effective. Hiring managers complain that recruiters don’t know the job well enough. Recruiters complain that hiring managers won’t spend enough time with them describing the job or that they constantly change the job specs. It’s because everyone really knows that traditional job descriptions don’t define the job at all, so it’s a waste of time talking about it.

For these reasons, I believe using traditional job descriptions for finding, interviewing, recruiting and hiring people is counterproductive. Everything changes when you stop using traditional job descriptions. So starting today, stop asking hiring managers what they’re looking for when you open a new job requisition. Instead, ask the hiring manager what the person taking the job is required to do. Then take it one step further, and ask the hiring manager what a very strong person would need to do to be considered great. Traditional job descriptions go overboard on describing the person (attributes, skills, behaviors, competencies). Even when they define the duties and responsibilities, they’re typically vague, general, and passive ó e.g. “responsible for order entry.” This is not the real job. The real job is a list of things the person in the job must DO. For order entry, it might be improve the accuracy of the data entry process and increase productivity. For sales, it’s things like pre-screen 20 prospects per day and set up 10 formal presentations per week. For technical positions, it might be activities like designing a new high-powered widget within six months and maintaining the documentation control using the NewCad 7.1 design and configuration system. For a manager, it could be to upgrade and develop the team to support the anticipated 20% yearly growth, plan the budget for this in 60 days, and meet objectives A and B under an extremely tight timeline. For a general manager, it might be to develop and present the new international strategy at the fall conference, and turn around or close down a troubled unit within 12 months. When prepared properly, job descriptions which clearly list in priority order what a person needs to do to be considered successful are fundamental to hiring top people, and to Hiring 2.0. This one change has a positive domino effect on every subsequent step in the hiring process. Here are some of those effects:

  1. Hiring managers are better managers when they clarify expectations. (For additional examples of this, read Jim Collins’ Good to Great, Marcus Buckingham’s First, Break All the Rules, and Jack Welch’s Jack: Straight from the Gut.)
  2. Clarifying expectations up front minimizes the moving job-spec syndrome. This point alone will make recruiters more productive.
  3. It’s easier to find top people who are both competent and motivated. When you lower (not eliminate) the skills filter standard and expand the performance criteria, you increase the quality of people you attract, and reduce the number of over-qualified, under-motivated candidates you see.
  4. The accuracy of the interview is increased. To test this out, just compare a candidate’s past accomplishments to the performance objectives listed in the new job description. You should be able to quickly assess competency, motivation, and cultural fit using just one question. (See my article, The Best Interview Question of All Time, for help on this.)
  5. A recruiter’s ability to coach and influence hiring managers is increased. Not knowing the job well enough is why hiring managers don’t trust their recruiters’ judgment when presenting candidates. When recruiters lead the preparation of these performance-based job descriptions, hiring managers instantly see their ability to understand what drives on-the-job success. This changes the recruiter’s typical role from “necessary evil” to trusted advisor. Recruiters who do this well get called in by their hiring managers before they even start the requisition process.
  6. A recruiter’s ability to influence, recruit, negotiate with, and hire top performers is increased. Recruiters who know the job can clearly pinpoint areas of growth to their candidates and better justify the job as a good career move.
  7. These descriptions can be used to write ads that are compelling. It has been shown that compelling ads which define opportunities rather than just list requirements are more effective in attracting top people.
  8. Your organization can tie jobs directly to its strategic vision and departmental objectives. This increases the importance and impact of the job in the mind of the candidate. This is the balanced scorecard concept, and an important management trend.
  9. It increases a recruiter’s ability to hire more top people without paying unnecessary salary premiums. When people know what they’re doing, and if the job provides real stretch, the compensation package is secondary.
  10. The same tool can be used for hiring, for on-boarding, for managing and for performance appraisals. The performance-based job description is really a management tool that should be used for hiring and interviewing purposes. What I propose here is not rocket science, just common sense. Somehow, we’ve gotten fixated on using traditional job descriptions for hiring. Breaking this habit is the first step to better hiring and better management.

When you make the job description describe the real job, everything changes for the better. You can call these new performance-based job descriptions performance profiles, job profiles, or success profiles, but whatever you call them, make sure they list what the person taking the job must do to be considered successful. Put these performance objectives in priority order with everyone on the hiring team. This gets everyone using the same yardstick to assess candidate competency and motivation. If you want to continue to use traditional job descriptions, go through each item listed and ask the hiring manager point-by-point what the person taking the job needs to do with the skill, trait, behavior, industry and experience noted. In 30 minutes, you’ll have defined the real job. It’s what a person does with what they have, not what they have, that counts. As a recruiter, this is what you need to do to start hiring more top people. [Note: If you’d like to help make Hiring 2.0 a reality, join the hiring revolution. Our Band of 176 will become the focus group to set the standards for these next generation hiring tools. Our first “Satisfaction with Current Hiring Tools” survey will be sent out shortly to all revolutionaries. We’ll present the results in an online conference in November. This will be your first chance to join the growing number of people who want to dramatically change the way top people are hired. Separately, with ERE support, my national hiring revolution Zero-based Hiring tour has begun. Over the next few months, I’ll be in Los Angeles on November 5, New York on November 19, San Francisco on December 11, and Dallas on January 21. If you or your organization would like to be a city host for one of these events send me an email at We’ll be visiting the rest of the country in 2004 with 12-15 tour stops. I look forward to meeting you in person at one of them. Be heard. Join the revolution.]

Lou Adler is the CEO and founder of The Adler Group – a training and search firm helping companies implement Performance-based Hiring℠. Adler is the author of the Amazon top-10 best-seller, Hire With Your Head (John Wiley & Sons, 3rd Edition, 2007). His most recent book has just been published, The Essential Guide for Hiring & Getting Hired (Workbench, 2013). He is also the author of the award-winning Nightingale-Conant audio program, Talent Rules! Using Performance-based Hiring to Build Great Teams (2007).