Writing effective job descriptions: a style guide

Daniel Howden | |

Given that the purpose of a job description is to attract applications it would make sense for it to be inviting. Yet, all too often this logic seems to escape the people who actually write job descriptions.

What should be an exercise in storytelling has come to be dominated by a style that’s best described as “forensic”. Other descriptors could include inhuman and mechanical. It’s always worth remembering that it is people who apply for jobs, even if they are applying through an ATS.

Job descriptions can be taken to refer both to the lengthy Human Resources documents that outline all duties and requirements, as well as the shorter versions which are used as job ads. The following points on style are addressed to the latter category.

Think about what the job you’re describing consists of when deciding how to write a job description. Discuss it with someone who already does this job, or its nearest equivalent within your organization, and get them to describe their average day. Break down what that involves into bullet points and then discard the trivial ones to make a feature of what’s important in the role. As a general rule, do this in no more than a half-dozen bullet points.

It starts with the job title

While it’s people who apply for jobs they often use search engines to find a job advert. With that in mind make sure your title is something someone might look for on Google. A designer might reasonably be expected to search using the term “designer”, which won’t help them to find your posting if you’ve used the job title: “graphical ninja”.

Not everyone agrees with this approach. Github, the programming repository, is comfortable asking for “bad-ass Ruby specialists”. The power of their brand means people head directly to their careers page or search “GitHub jobs” to see what opportunities are out there. It works for them but think seriously about whether it works for you. In this one respect it doesn’t hurt to be straightforward when writing a job description.

Drop the formality

Too often postings are addressed to the “ideal candidate” — a moniker with all the warmth of a Cold War thriller title. Postings should talk to “you”.

Writing a job description might start by telling the prospect in a couple of sentences about your company, what it does and why it’s a good place to work. Moving on it would make sense to lay out in plain language what kind of person you’re looking for. And what an average day in the role looks like.

Use full stops

Use plenty of them. The Portuguese novelist Jose Saramago won a Nobel prize for his surrealist writing which contained almost no full stops. He did not write job descriptions. Long sentences won’t help you or the busy people you want to engage with.

While this may sound simple it’s remarkable how wrong companies, big and small, can get it. These mistakes made when writing job descriptions fit into three broad categories which we’ll visit for some real examples.

The dry and dull

Also known as vanilla, because it’s the most commonly chosen route to getting it wrong. Here’s a job description sample from Facebook:

“Facebook seeks an experienced Corporate Communications Manager to support its global monetization efforts and programs. The successful candidate has strong experience in developing and executing high- profile communications initiatives, is an excellent writer, and has knowledge and interest in the concepts and technologies for online and interactive advertising.”

Even the biggest and best are not immune to the machine tendency. While a huge number of people would like to work for one of the most famous brands in the world, few of them daydreamed during math classes about “global monetization efforts”. You don’t really need to do better if you’re Facebook. But you’ll be making a mistake to try the same dry and dull approach if you’re not.

Trying-too-hard

Some efforts to bring color and excitement when writing job descriptions go too far.

This ad from games and comics site Penny Arcade avoids the vanilla tendency too vigorously. There’s a hint of what’s to follow in the job title: “Web/Software Developer & Sys Admin”. If that sounds like two jobs, they are in fact looking for someone to combine four. It concludes:

“So yeah, we know that’s a lot to ask of a person, but all of us here work tremendously hard to do a lot of things, and if you’d like to be at the technical epicenter of it all and don’t mind having a really bad sense of work-life balance…”

A general style point here for job description format is to beware of hyphens. If you’re tempted to ask for a results-driven, high-energy A-player; or a battle-hardened, deadline-oriented dynamic self-starter, don’t.

The outrightly hostile

The rarest but most entertaining category when deciding how to write a good job description.

It’s hard to look beyond the niche London publishers Dalkey Archive Press for the clearest example. Their infamous job description for an unpaid intern warned that the following misdemeanours would be grounds for immediate dismissal:

“Coming in late or leaving early without prior permission; being unavailable at night or on the weekends; failing to meet any goals; giving unsolicited advice about how to run things; taking personal phone calls during work hours; gossiping; misusing company property, including surfing the internet while at work; submission of poorly written materials; creating an atmosphere of complaint or argument; failing to respond to emails in a timely way…”

Check out our library of job description templates, ready to post and easy to customize for your needs.

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Daniel Howden

Daniel Howden is the former VP of Comms at Workable. He writes about the ideas shaping the world of work. He was formerly with the Economist and Guardian. He tweets @daniel_howden.

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