Ban Job Descriptions and Hire Better People

For the past 30 years I’ve been on a kick to ban traditional skills- and experience-based job descriptions. The prime reason: they’re anti-talent and anti-diversity, aside from being terrible predictors of future success.

Some naysayers use the legal angle as their excuse for maintaining the status quo.

To debunk this, I engaged David Goldstein, a preeminent legal authority from Littler Mendelson (the largest U.S. labor law firm) to compare the idea of using a performance-based job description to the traditional job description.

David has agreed to present his findings in a webcast on February 19. (I’ve included a summary of his white paper in one of my recent publications, and we’ll be happy to review his complete white paper upon request.)

A performance-based job description (aka performance profile) describes the work that a person needs to successfully accomplish during the first year on the job. Most jobs can be fully described in 6-8 performance objectives. These are in the form of “complete the detailed project plan for the new automated warehouse in 120 days.” This compares to the more traditional: “Must have 5+ years of logistics and supply chain management experience in high-volume consumer durables, plus 3 years of supervisory experience.”

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This comparison alone should be enough to demonstrate to any recruiter the fallacy of using traditional job descriptions for finding and assessing talent. There are about 100+ other articles I’ve written for ERE over the last 10 years describing job descriptions as fundamentally flawed and counterproductive. Here’s are my top six (out of about 20) reasons why:

  1. While some level of skills is important, the “amount” written on a job description is arbitrary, misleading, and capricious. Certainly none were developed via a detailed job analysis. From a commonsense standpoint, it’s obvious if a person can do the work described in the performance profile they have exactly the level of skills needed. It’s what a person does with his or her skills that determines ability, not their absolute level. In fact, a person with the least amount of years of experience and the ability to learn quickly are the top performers who everyone wants to hire. Why would anyone in their right mind want to exclude this people from consideration?
  2. A performance objective that describes the work including the measures of success is equally as objective as some absolute level of skills and experiences. This is the legal aspect David will cover during the webcast. He’ll point out that performance profiles are not only more objective and better predictors of success, but they are also non-discriminatory.
  3. A recruiter who doesn’t know the real job requirements is quickly branded as a gatekeeper by any talented candidate. Knowing the job is essential for a recruiter, at least if they want to find, recruit, assess, and close passive candidates. Hiring managers also treat recruiters without real job knowledge as vendors, box-checkers, and paper-pushers. As a result these recruiters have little influence on who is actually interviewed and ultimately hired.
  4. Traditional job descriptions prevent diversity candidates, high-potential lighter candidates, returning military veterans, and highly qualified people with different but comparable results from being considered. All of these problems are eliminated using performance profiles.
  5. Attitude, cultural fit, team work, organizational skills, drive, and consistency are easy to assess using performance profiles. Measuring these without consideration of the performance requirements for the job and the underlying environment (manager’s style, resources, constraints, challenges, and pace) is an exercise in futility. For proof, consider why all of the competent people who have been hired later underperform.
  6. Top active and passive candidates are not looking for lateral transfers. This is exactly what a list of “must haves” implies. The only differentiator then becomes the compensation package. Using performance profiles as a benchmark, the interview can be used to demonstrate the “opportunity gap” between the candidate’s background and real job needs. This opportunity gap can then be used as a tradeoff for a big compensation increase.

This should be enough to convince anyone why traditional job descriptions should be banned if a company wants to hire more top people, expand their diversity hiring programs, hire some great people who bring a different mix of skills and experiences to the job, and implement a robust military veteran hiring initiative. You’ll been able to stop making excuses at the very special webcast on February 19.

Lou Adler is the CEO and founder of The Adler Group – a training and search firm helping companies implement Performance-based Hiring℠. Adler is the author of the Amazon top-10 best-seller, Hire With Your Head (John Wiley & Sons, 3rd Edition, 2007). His most recent book has just been published, The Essential Guide for Hiring & Getting Hired (Workbench, 2013). He is also the author of the award-winning Nightingale-Conant audio program, Talent Rules! Using Performance-based Hiring to Build Great Teams (2007).


14 Comments on “Ban Job Descriptions and Hire Better People

  1. Lou,

    Agreed. I’ve put a “Deliverables” section on every “job description” I’ve written as a recruiter.

    I also encourage job seekers to understand the 12 to 24-month deliverables of any job they’re serious about — and to avoid taking a job where the hiring manager can’t articulate the deliverables.

    Donna Svei aka AvidCareerist

  2. All great points and I agree. However, how do you balance this with OFCCP requirements? Utilizing the “minimum three years….” sets clear expectations to everyone and can be easily explained when audited. Could using a performance based approach, although potentially more effective, also be more subjective?

  3. @Miranda – that’s why you need to go to the legal review – David will review the OFCCP implications of using performance-based job descriptions

  4. Thanks, Lou. I think you’ve hit on a really critical area of recruiting- getting adequate information out about a position that a candidate needs to have to determine if they can/want to do the job, and adequate information from the candidate so the recruiter can determine the same thing. ISTM that the most important thing is accurately conveying this information, rather than exactly how it is done… It seems that performance-based systems are a more-specific way of asking the same thing as the traditional method..

    You’ve also hit on another very important question- if you’re hiring someone for either a promotion or a significantly new type of duty: how can they convince you that they can do this new work if they haven’t done it before?

    There is a point I am not understanding, though:
    A performance-based system emphasizes “what you will need to accomplish to successfully perform this job”, correct? I think that for new positions (and not just new openings) the hiring managers won’t have a clear idea of what the deliverables would be, and even if they did, there’s a reasonable chance that these would change over the course of the year, at least in dynamic environments.



  5. Really interesting post! It’s true, the traditional job description is actually more likely to help you lose out on great people than bring in the talent you need. It’s similar to how the traditional resume isn’t giving you the full story on job seekers. A video resume can tell you a lot more about cultural fit, communication skills, and passion for the job. Likewise, using a performance-based job description is much more likely to nab you someone who can handle the challenges of the position.

  6. @Keith and All – the performance-based deliverables should be both accurate and representative. Accurate in the sense that they represent what the work really is. Representative in the sense that these will evolve and are representative of all of the types of work the person is likely to encounter in the job whether it’s the first year or the fifth. Of course, if the person meets all of the objectives they’ll get promoted into a bigger job which they won’t have the “requisite” experience for, but the person will be successful anyway. The reason – it’s what a person DOES with their skills, not the absolute level that determines success The whole point of a good assessment is to figure this out and compare it to the required performance objectives.

    Keith – an offer – do you want to review my book and write-up your findings – good, bad, or indifferent? If so, I’ll send you a copy (it’s only available as a Kindle eBook, but every device has free reader apps.)

  7. Thanks, Lou. It makes sense that the performance-based deliverables should be both accurate and representative; it just isn’t clear to me that:
    1) They’d be inherently better than history-based identifiers that are both accurate and representative to help convey the information to the candidate (they might be though, would like to see what people have found out about this).
    2) Also, ISTM that performance-based deliverables might be a good “AND” to history-based identifiers.
    3) Since you mentioned “assessments”: shouldn’t Drs. Handler and Williams drop in at this point?

    Finally, I would be very flattered to review your new book; by appealing to my vanity you’ve already improved your chances for a decent review! (That’s good salesmanship…)



  8. I just got a chance to read the article and there are some good points. I think it goes back to some basics that a lot of recruiters do not do, due to the face they were either poorly trained, don’t want to take the time, and there is more. But a good job description along with a good understanding comes from the intake questions. Like any opening, if you do your homework, you should be successful.

  9. Thanks for teh post … agree and would add that to add to a great performance profile … add a great bit of AV to really bring the job to life – nothing better tha [people knowing what they are really letting them selves in for … Ive see some great ones recently really bringing a job to life in less than three minutes – we are workling on some here at Bromford at the moment – be good to see impact of these when released

  10. Lou I have tested your approach and find your research very sound.

    You have not come up with a fancy sounding/looking “thought leader philosophy”, and honestly there are a bunch of thought leaders in the recruiting space with ideas that are simply not worth pursuing. This is practical stuff that gets results.

    I like to fact that you understand both sides of the coin (staffing and corporate).

    I also like the fact that you stick to what you know works, by keeping your area of recruitment research simple and realistic.

    There is a lot of clutter in the recruitment space but your stuff stands out.

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