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How to write a job ad: 7 common mistakes to avoid

Nikos Moraitakis
Nikos Moraitakis

Nikos is Workable's CEO and co-founder.

Today we look at some of the most common mistakes people make when writing job requirements on their job ads, and how to avoid them.

1. Skip the euphemisms

We start from this one because it’s my personal pet peeve. Stick to qualifications and criteria you can realistically select for.

“Must be enthusiastic with a positive attitude” does not belong in the list of requirements on the job advert. Nobody’s going to think “nah, I’m a slob with a negative attitude, better not apply for this position.” It’s not even possible to self-assess objectively.

Plus, I bet money that it’s not even a real requirement. Let’s say you found a candidate with all the right skills who was “enthusiastic but with down-to-earth and pragmatic attitude”. Would you really turn her down?

Most of the time, such requirements are mere euphemisms, outward expressions of the way we want to think about the kind of people we have in our workplace. Put that in your blurb about your company culture. Not in the requirements.

2. Requirements are a screening list, not a description of the perfect candidate

The second most common mistake is trying to describe the ideal candidate. In hiring, there is no unique breed of ideal candidate.

There is a minimum viable threshold and a diverse set of profiles above that threshold that you’ll end up choosing from. Requirements are useful if they can set the threshold, help you screen out the people who are unqualified for the job, so you can focus on choosing among the qualified ones.

So, tone it down. Describe the minimum acceptable profile. If you want someone with 4 years of experience in X, don’t write 4 in the requirements. Ask yourself “if I found someone with 2 years of experience but some other positive quality to compensate, would I consider her?”. If yes, put the lower threshold.

If this makes you feel you’re settling for less (and who doesn’t want the best for his team?) remember that you haven’t settled for anything yet. You’re exploring your options and postponing the final choice for later. We’re not choosing yet, we’re merely disqualifying the ones we should not be wasting time with.

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3. I have created a monster!

Especially in newly formed positions, people have a tendency to create completely unrealistic expectations.

You know, this person who is an engineer, but also good at marketing, and speaks 4 languages, has 5 years experience in our obscure industry, knows a bit of finance, is under 25 years old, from an Ivy League university, will work for equity only and plays the violin.

We naturally get carried away and describe what the position needs, without thinking too much if there are actual people combining those skills. Sometimes there are too few, or none at all. If that’s the case, you might have to go back and re-think the role itself or get two separate people to do the job.

Here’s a quick trick to avoid creating Frankestein job requirements. Try to think if you know a real person fulfilling all of them. If you don’t know anyone, that’s a red flag. Try to imagine what this candidate would be like, their background, current job, in other words where would this person be found. If this person sounds unreal, then she probably doesn’t exist.

4. If you wouldn’t blindly reject for it, then it’s not a must-have

Separate your requirements in two sets: The must-haves are your absolute minimum to even consider someone. All the rest goes into nice-to-haves.

Be brutally honest with the must haves. This is a very common mistake that ruins the efficiency of screening. Someone puts “experience in the telecoms industry” as a must have. Then they realise that there’s a candidate who doesn’t have that experience but is otherwise perfect. (Plus a few good ones who never applied because they believed you really meant it) So, whatever, let’s have a look at him anyway.  So, we didn’t save any time screening, instead it only made things more complicated.

If there’s wriggle room, it’s not a must have.

Must haves are your most important screening tool, it’s the blind screen. If you don’t trust them blindly, if you’re not adamant about them, then you have no way to auto-screen the majority of unsuitable candidates and you just wasted a ton of time. Be very frugal with them, and very accurate.

RelatedHow to write the best job description ever

5. Ask for things the candidate can self-assess

“Must be hard working”. Lazy people will say yes to this, invariably.

“Must have good communication skills in client-facing situations”. People who suck in front of clients will typically think they’re adorable.

These are things to assess in the interview, through tests, mock assignments and past work results. You have to get to the trouble of figuring them out. You can’t just ask. If you really must know, the only way is to use proxies, which leads us to the next tip:

6. Use objective criteria or their proxies

Ask for things that help the candidate understand, objectively, if they fit the description. Give the candidate an objective description of what you mean.

Instead of “very experienced in enterprise sales” ask something like “closed more than a dozen sales deals with large enterprise customers.

Instead of “ability to manage large teams” you could say “has managed teams with more than 10 direct reports for at least two years”.

A good rule of thumb is to get rid of all epithets: words like large, senior or excellent should better give way to phrases that include specific numbers or qualities to define what they refer to.

7. Ask directly

Sometimes the best way to find out if the candidate matches the job is to ask the candidate: here’s what will be expected of you, are you ok with that?

Example: “Are you comfortable spending a full day talking to disgruntled and often rude customers on the phone?” It’s much better than “excellent customer communication skills”. It tells the candidate what the job involves and a positive answer in a question phrased like that is better proof of confidence in this particular skill. Incidentally, this is also a good time to ask things like “are you eligible to work in X country?” or “are you available to start on X date and relocate if needed?”.

Remember, requirements are a screening tool, and if you ask the right questions, non-qualified candidates will probably not apply in the first place.


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