Designing useful job descriptions

A critical document in a recruitment and selection process is the job description. This document:

  • Describes the job
  • Attracts candidates
  • Forms the basis of selection.

A quality document gives candidates and accurate and useful description of the job, attracts a qualified and motivated group of applicants, and provides a sound basis for selection a person who will successfully perform the job.

Having read hundreds of job descriptions from a wide range of public sector organisations, I have identified five features of job descriptions that reduce their effectiveness. Meaning – they are confusing, uninformative, incomprehensible, are unlikely to attract a quality field, make it difficult for a candidate to work out what it is they are applying for and how to go about it, and are unlikely to provide a sound basis for selection.

1. Too much detail

It is not necessary to list every task a person could likely do in a job, nor every skill that could conceivably be used by a person in the job.

I have seen job descriptions with a full page of duties, sometimes for part-time roles! I have seen lists of complex selection criteria, up to 14 in some cases.

If the job and application process looks too onerous, people are not going to apply.

Long lists of job requirements will make selection onerous as panels try to juggle so many factors in order to reach a decision.

Stick to the most important work a person must do and five or six criteria. Use higher-level criteria rather than trying to list all behaviours. For example project management is a higher level skill set. It covers a range of behaviours including time management, communication, negotiation, contract management. It is not necessary to list these behaviours if project management is used, unless there is a special focus, in which case you could use ‘project management, including contract negotiation’.

2. Too little detail

Job descriptions that only give the bare bones of where a job is located, what the duties are and a list of selection criteria can be insufficiently informative, making it difficult for an applicant to work out what the job is really about.

If the contact person is equally uninformative, then either people will decide not to apply or a number of people will apply who are really wasting their time.

Understandably job descriptions place the job in the best light. Yet there can be information about the job context that would make a difference to applicants if they knew. For example, some jobs are created following an internal restructure. Some staff have been moved into a new team and are unclear about their new role. Some may event resent having to give up an engaging project. A potential new manager needs to understand this context in order to prepare a relevant application. While you may not wish to detail the emotional state of the team, it is possible to include in a job description that the job has come about following a recent restructure. This information can then prompt applicants to inquire further.

3. Blending what should be separate

Recently I have seen job descriptions that include a heading ‘Duties/criteria’ and then list generic criteria from the APS capability framework.

Duties are not the same as selection criteria and should be kept separate.

Combining the two is not only inaccurate but makes a job description almost uninformative for potential candidates.

4. Generic criteria

Agencies continue to use capability frameworks as selection criteria, regardless of the nature and demands of the job.

The Australian Public Service Commission’s  Recruitment Guidelines, are a ‘best practice guide’ designed to provide ‘a resource that is easy to use, practical and explains the recruitment process.’

The Information Sheet in the guidelines states: ‘There is no requirement for agencies to use the Integrated Leadership System (ILS) capabilities as selection criteria.’ Further, it states: ‘The original intent of the ILS was to provide a common language to support consistent whole-of-government capability development. It was never designed to be a recruitment tool.’

While some agencies make the application process easier by providing specific questions for applicants to answer, the continued use of the five capabilities makes preparing an application a challenge.

5. Weasil words

The way in which a job is described can be so bogged down in bureaucratic jargon and acronyms that it’s almost impossible to interpret what is meant, particularly for external applicants. Or the job can be described in such general, repetitive terms that the reader is none the wiser.

For example: The purpose of the Policy and Practice Section is to research and advise on issues relating to policy and legal practice. The Legal Policy Advisor works within the Policy and Practice Section and is responsible for the provision of legal policy advice and support to the Chief Executive Officer on a range of legal policy areas, issues and projects.(based on an actual job description)

If your intention is write a job description that informs the reader, attracts attention and helps establish a sound basis for selection, then ask yourself these questions after drafting your document:

  • If I was a potential applicant, would this job description make sense to me? Are there any terms unexplained? Would I be able to write an informed, relevant application?
  • Would this job description attract interest from relevant applicants? Is it likely to deter some people? Is it likely to attract a broader application base than is relevant?
  • Will the selection panel be able to prepare a robust selection process based on this document? Is it clear what selection methods to use? Will it be possible to obtain evidence from applicants in order to objectively assess their case and distinguish between applicants? Is the range of information gathered going to be manageable?
Dr Ann Villiers, career coach, writer and author, is Australia’s only Mental Nutritionist specialising in mind and language practices that help people build flexible thinking, confident speaking and quality connections with people.