Writing Better Job Descriptions: What Do You Mean?

by : Chuck Castagnolo

I cannot tell you how many times I have read a job description or a bullet in a job description and have shouted out in frustration "What does this mean!?"

What brought me to write about this was a Dilbert cartoon by Scott Adams in The Argus of Fremont, Newark and Union City, California, Saturday Edition, December 22, 2007, in the Living Section, Page 8. You may have seen this one in the syndicated comics of your own hometown paper. There are three frames but only the first two have relevance for this topic. The first frame caption is "What have you done lately to enhance our strategy into the next adjacency?" The second frame is "I don't know what that means, so I'm going to say 'Everything'."

Now, let me ask the H.R. (Human Resources) professionals reading this: What thesaurus or dictionary do you read to come up with the words and phrases used when writing a job description? Is it Roget's Thesaurus of English words and phrases? Or perhaps it's Ebenezer Cobham Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. I myself am not sure. I can only guess that you are using both or you have way too much time on your hands.

Thinking back to my college days in business writing class, one of the tenants stressed over and over again was to write in simple words and sentences. Write so your message was clear and able to be understood by the reader. I don't think "...strategy into the next adjacency..." meets those criteria.

I know you H.R. folks do not consider yourselves to be in "sales", but the job description you post is really an advertisement for your company, it is a reflection of your company's personality and its culture not unlike an ad the marketing department would produce to sell your company's product or service.

The purpose of the job description, like any advertisement, is to attract, in advertising jargon, the appropriate "demographic" i.e. a qualified job applicant, to your "product", i.e. the job opening. If your advertisement is not attractive, attention getting or ambiguous in its meaning, the prospective applicant is going to move onto the next company's job posting. For those of you who like fishing, think of it as tossing your lure or bait into the water. There may be plenty of fish around, but if none are biting, maybe you don't have the right bait.

If you are not getting the types of applicants you would like, revisit your posting and do a postmortem. See where the description can be improved rather than reposting it again because "We just can't seem to find the right candidate."

Okay, let's take a look at how one might improve on a description. In doing my research for this article I found what I believe to be the bedrock techniques for writing exceptional job descriptions. Here they are:

Job descriptions should be written in brief and clear sentences.

Keep sentence structure as simple as possible omitting unnecessary words that do not contribute pertinent information.

In other words, write to attract a candidate, not to stoke your ego.

Let's take a look at some bullet points culled from actual job postings found on the web and see how we might improve on them.

Partner with subject matter experts to research, design and develop training and product knowledge solutions to include project management and resource allocation on key projects and cross-functional teams.

Huh? What does this mean? I think this could have been rewritten as follows:

Work with various company departments and personnel to develop training as needed.

No fancy words and reduced the word count from 29 to 12.

How about this one:

Understanding of cross-functional impacts relative to the end-user groups and work-flows.

I think what is being said here is the applicant must understand their work will have an effect on several different departments. I might be rewritten this way.

Experience making decisions that will have a direct impact on several departments.

Now, what does this one mean?

High caliber degree from a leading academic institution.

So, if I have a degree from an "Institute" or trade school should I not bother to apply? How do I know if my University or State College degree is "high caliber" enough?

Let's take a look back at the Dilbert cartoon that started this piece and see if we can translate "...enhance our strategy into the next adjacency?" into something more meaningful. How about "What are you doing to help us get ahead? At least we know what that means.

Note: Information for this article was collected from a number of sources located on the internet by searching under the criteria "Writing job descriptions."

Copyright? Chuck Castagnolo 2008 All rights reserved worldwide.