better job ads / what are we actually hiring for?

better job ads / what are we actually hiring for?

2020, Jul 31    

This is a question we don’t ask ourselves often enough when we’re hiring.

Sometimes you reach the end of an interview process and realise that everyone has different expectations, there is no shared idea of what the job is, and despite hours of interviewing nobody knows whether a candidate will be great or not. But this is preventable, and I want to share how.

Let’s start with two personal stories:

  • Early in my career, I was supporting hiring someone new into a business. We arranged on-site final-stage interviews for four candidates for a business-critical role. Afterwards, the six of us who’d interviewed the candidates sat together to make a decision on who we should hire. We couldn’t reach agreement because every one of us was looking for different traits, skills and experience. None of us really knew what the role was, what we wanted or what we needed.

  • Last summer, I was searching for a new role. I spent seven hours being interviewed with multiple people at one company. Towards the final stage, I presented a first year strategy and spent a couple of hours discussing it with a handful of the existing leadership team. And then I was rejected from the process, because they were looking for someone with a background in consultancy. I have exactly zero consultancy experience. This is clear from my CV. No amount of strategy presentations would have changed this fact!

What’s clear to me is that in both of these, the question of “what are we actually hiring for?” didn’t get asked and properly addressed at the right point, which resulted in a lot of wasted time for everyone involved. I don’t think either of these are rare - I could shared more from my own experience, let alone from friends.

Copy pasta

Most job ads contain a lot of jargon, obtuse phrases, contradictory copy-pasted bullet points, and sentences that seem to be void of meaning.

Job ads take a pretty standard format:

  • Here is a bit about us
  • Here’s what you’ll do
  • Here is a list of requirements you should tick off before we’ll think about hiring you

That static format lends itself really well to just quickly copying and pasting from others that you find around the internet. A good job ad will often follow the same format as a bad one, so it’s hard to tell at a glance whether you’re doing it right.

But quality is all about thought. The thought and consideration that we put into connecting the actual job itself with what ends up on the advert - making sure that the page that forms the start of our job searches fairly represents what an actual human will spend 40 hours a week doing once you hire them.

Start at the beginning

When we start hiring for a role, I believe we need to begin with what the problem is that we’re solving. There are a few reasons we might decide to start hiring:

  • to fill a skill or experience gap within the existing team
  • to start doing something new
  • to address an increase in workload within a team

Regardless of which of these it is, it should be possible to clearly and concisely articulate what the problem is that we want to solve by bringing someone new into our business. What new capabilities we’ll have as a result.

This then becomes a one-sentence ‘mission’ for the role: how will the company be changed by this person joining? What will success look like for them, in a very general way?

For example, my job as a people leader is to make the company that I work at a fulfilling place to be. I do this so that we can hire, grow and retain staff who are productive and engaged. This is necessary for the business to sustain itself and make money.

And this ‘mission’ statement - what the job is for - dictates how the person we hire will spend their time at work, what they’ll really be doing, what the job at its heart actually is.

How we articulate that varies, particularly depending on the seniority of the role. We see job ads with a “responsibilities” list, but that doesn’t always make sense.

For junior roles, we can describe the day to day activities that we expect the person to spend their time doing.

When hiring for a mid-career role, we can list out a set of types of problems the person will take on and work to solve using their skills and experience.

With senior roles, it’s better if we articulate the mission and then some vision of what we’d like the world to look like, or some of the context that will shape the strategy they take.

Once this is complete - once we’ve set out what the person is actually here to do, what they’ll focus on, how they’ll spend their time - we can build out the requirements. What we really need the person to already know, and what we need them to have done before.

Know what you need

This list of requirements directs how that the assessment process is designed.

At its heart, an interview process should assess the candidate’s capability to solve the problems you have. I don’t want to get too deep into interview design here, so will focus on what skills we assess, rather than culture/values/behaviours or how we assess.

Our assessment process should look at their experience and their skills. This sounds super simple and straightforward, but from my personal experience - reading job ads, designing interview processes, working with external recruiters and dozens of hiring managers - a lot of the time we use shorthand to articulate these requirements.

And this is why you see so many job ads listing 10+ years of experience, or a specific university degree - because these are indicators that you likely have what they’re actually looking for, they correlate somehow to the real requirement. And it’s become common practice so looks familiar to the humans reading and considering applying.

But this is lazy shorthand: ultimately if we’re asking for 10+ years of experience, and only using that to screen out applications, then we’re left with little to work with. We perform the interview, but don’t learn whether the person is right for us, because we haven’t articulated what it is that we actually need to find out.

If we can unravel what these requirements are shorthand for, then we can assess early, before wasting someone’s time with hours of interviews, whether or not they have experience that’s well-suited to the problem we need to solve. We can open up our job opportunity to people with all the skills but not the shorthand proxy tick-boxes.

Instead, so often, we pick a job title and start hiring for that because it might solve a problem that we haven’t articulated, and we copy-paste requirements from other job ads, instead of cutting back to first principles to understand the problem do the work to build up to the job spec.

We forget that the job spec is the end of a piece of work, not a starting point. It needs to communicate so much, it is often the single observable slice that candidates have, yet we someone forget about its importance.

We can do better

A good hiring process should:

  • start with a proper ‘why’
  • have a clearly identified problem to solve, and a one-sentence mission
  • list out activities or responsibilities or problems to tackle
  • specify previous experience or knowledge we’d like to see
  • consist of interviews and assessments specifically oriented around these criteria

It is very simple, yet not at all trivial to do well. It takes a reimagining of the hiring process, stepping away from the tendency to tweak others’ job ads, and to reconsider the job ad as a window into the real work and workplace.

When you’re writing a job ad, you’re in the company, so you already know & understand a host of things that our prospective job candidates don’t have access to.

As candidate on the outside of the business? You haven’t met the existing team; you don’t know the company’s mission; you’ve never used the product; you’re new to the industry; you can’t get a sense of the culture or values; you don’t know which skills, experience & perspectives exist in the team you’d join; you have no insight into the challenges the team currently face or what’s hard about the day to day. You don’t know what salary they’ll pay in exchange for your skills, knowledge, time and work.

Yet the candidate somehow has to be able to determine enough of this from a single job post to make a decision on whether they want to spend time on your company. This is even harder when they’re working with a hastily-written or ill-thought-through job post that doesn’t even try to reflect the reality of what they’re signing up for.

The fairest, most genuine thing we can do for people that we’d like to hire is to put time, thought and consideration into how we help candidates make a well-informed choice. (And yes, you should definitely post the salary range.)

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