Boring Position Descriptions Are Dramatically Decreasing Your Application Rates, Part 2

Did you know that the very highest-quality candidates have estimated “drop off rates” as high as 90%…once they have scanned a position description? This means that all of your efforts in branding and marketing to get these high-quality candidates to look at your jobs become an immediate waste of time. It is the equivalent of a realtor advertising a mansion, then showing a shack. Action Steps That You Can Take To Develop a “Position Marketing Template” In order to make your descriptions compelling, you need to develop a template that can easily guide position description writers to produce great sales descriptions every time. Here are the steps in that process:

  • Find the current position description for the job you are currently in and see if it would entice you to pursue your own job based solely on the wording in it. Is it even remotely accurate? Next, grab some of the descriptions that you currently use for positions that you’re not getting the volume of quality candidates needed, and see if they suffer from the same characteristics you noted regarding your own job.
  • Take a current dull position description and within five minutes, change it minimally by only substituting current buzzwords, mentioning some exciting tools, equipment, or best practices, and reorder it so that the more exciting items appear first. Then, show it and the current one to the head of recruiting to see if he or she can’t see the side-by-side superiority of the sales approach. Convince recruiting leaders to let you try a split sample in which only a few of the position descriptions are rewritten (while others remain unchanged) in order to see if they impact application rates.
  • Walk over to marketing, sales, branding, or PR and ask for their help in developing a template that can be used on a routine basis to make every position description more exciting and compelling. If necessary, hire a marketing or sales intern, or even an outside marketing firm (not recruitment advertising), as Cisco did in the late 1990s.
  • If you’re really serious about this process, hold a focus group to identify what top applicants want to know about and what excites them about a job in your company. An easier alternative is to interview a few of your current top performers in targeted positions and directly ask them, “If you were forced to find your own job again, what specific criteria would you use and what words, tools, or other job aspects would be the best indication that this new job would be highly desirable?” A third alternative is to ask several candidates, “What are your job switching criteria?” You can even ask new hires after they start, “What factors, words, and elements of the position description were the most/least compelling?” Finally, if you don’t have time, I recommend you look at Gallup’s Q12 (there’s a link at the end of this article) because they accurately reflect the criteria that most individuals use for selecting their next jobs.
  • From the information gathered from the previous steps, develop a sales-oriented position marketing template for use in rewriting current and future position descriptions.

The 11 key elements in this template or guide should include:

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  1. Include the key “job-switch” factors that cause potential applicants to become excited about your job(s). Begin the position description with information that directly addresses the top five job-switch criteria for top performers. Be careful here, because the criteria differ significantly between top performers and Homer Simpson types. Typical decision criteria include:
    • Opportunities and challenges they are likely to encounter.
    • Learning and growth opportunities.
    • Having ideas and concerns listened to.
    • Best practices and innovations they will be exposed to.
    • Some degree of flexibility in choosing the work they do and the time they work.
  2. Include exciting projects and problems that the newly hired individual will likely be involved with. Meet with the manager and several incumbents in the target position and ask them to identify the types of potential projects that the new hire will be involved in. Be sure to focus on the types of projects that are likely to excite top performers.
  3. Include who they will interact with. Identify if the new hire will have the opportunity to work closely with and interact with executives, high-profile individuals, or other key departments and teams. Show that the individual will get to frequently interact with exciting and influential team members.
  4. Highlight key team members in general terms. Obviously, you can’t always include specific names but you can highlight, for example, the fact that there are a large percentage of advanced degree holders on the team, and there are award winners or individuals with unique or advanced skills and experience. The key here is to show them they will be working alongside interesting people in the winners.
  5. Include “wow” factors about the firm and its culture. In addition to an exciting job, the company image as an exciting place to work must also be reinforced. Start by surveying top-performing employees and new hires to find out what makes your firm/culture unique and interesting. Describe it in terms that are appealing, including elements in examples of high integrity, honest two-way communications, risk-taking, frequent innovation, and the existence of an empowered management style, etc. When possible, try to differentiate your firm from the “blah blah” platitudes that most companies include (i.e., great people, strong values, teamwork, and a family atmosphere).
  6. Mention great pay, stability, or compelling benefits, but be careful not to make it appear that these are the primary reasons why an individual should join the firm. Top performers rank these factors well below where the average worker ranks them. In addition, if it’s true, mention that your bonuses are closely tied to performance and that any corporate job stability is a result of constant growth, innovation, and coworkers and processes that make meeting business goals relatively easy.
  7. Consciously omit turnoffs to ensure that the excitement in one part of the description is not immediately countered with mixed messages in another part. In particular, try to omit or at least put at the end of the description mundane things like routine tasks that are obvious, reporting relationships that are not exciting, legal jargon that can turn off candidates, as well as any excessive mention of administration or paperwork. In addition, almost any phrase that emanates from Compensation needs to be downplayed or rewritten, to avoid having the reader go catatonic.
  8. Prioritize the factors for inclusion in the position description based on what applicants and new hires tell you were the most critical factors in influencing their decision to apply for the job. Obviously, put the most critical items first.
  9. Pre-test a sample “sales” position description with recent hires, managers, and team members to judge its effectiveness and to refine its excitement capability. Make sure that the incumbents in the position agree that it accurately reflects the best part of the job in the firm but that it doesn’t exaggerate (which will result in high a acceptance rates and later, immediate turnover after they realize it’s not true).
  10. Compare your descriptions to your competitors’ descriptions. It’s also critical that you periodically compare your own position descriptions with those of your competitors (in the same job family) to ensure that yours are continuously superior in excitement (remember, they might have read this article too!).
  11. Gradually evolve and improve the template as you learn from successes and failures. Over a period of time, provide Compensation, recruiters and hiring managers with direct feedback on what factors excite, so that these individuals can eventually assume ownership for writing exciting sales position descriptions.

Conclusion There is nothing more frustrating than having a great company image and exciting website that generates traffic but doesn’t covert visitors into applicants. Unlike most approaches that can be used to convince potential candidates to apply, rewriting position descriptions so that they sell is a quick, cheap, and easy approach. Anyone with a strong marketing or sales background can rewrite a position description in little more than a few minutes. The differences in the descriptions will be striking and clear to everyone, and the revised descriptions will produce a dramatic increase in the number and quality of currently employed top performers who take the time to apply for your jobs. So, what are you waiting for? Get up and run over to the marketing department and ask for their help right now! Supplement The Gallup Q12 (for use in estimating what excites candidates to apply for a job) are online, and include such questions as, “At work, do your opinions seem to count?” and “At work, do you have the opportunity to do what you do best every day?”

Dr. John Sullivan, professor, author, corporate speaker, and advisor, is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high-business-impact talent management solutions.

He’s a prolific author with over 900 articles and 10 books covering all areas of talent management. He has written over a dozen white papers, conducted over 50 webinars, dozens of workshops, and he has been featured in over 35 videos. He is an engaging corporate speaker who has excited audiences at over 300 corporations/ organizations in 30 countries on all six continents. His ideas have appeared in every major business source including the Wall Street Journal, Fortune, BusinessWeek, Fast Company, CFO, Inc., NY Times, SmartMoney, USA Today, HBR, and the Financial Times. In addition, he writes for the WSJ Experts column. He has been interviewed on CNN and the CBS and ABC nightly news, NPR, as well many local TV and radio outlets. Fast Company called him the "Michael Jordan of Hiring," called him “the father of HR metrics,” and SHRM called him “One of the industry's most respected strategists." He was selected among HR’s “Top 10 Leading Thinkers” and he was ranked No. 8 among the top 25 online influencers in talent management. He served as the Chief Talent Officer of Agilent Technologies, the HP spinoff with 43,000 employees, and he was the CEO of the Business Development Center, a minority business consulting firm in Bakersfield, California. He is currently a Professor of Management at San Francisco State (1982 – present). His articles can be found all over the Internet and on his popular website and on He lives in Pacifica, California.



6 Comments on “Boring Position Descriptions Are Dramatically Decreasing Your Application Rates, Part 2

  1. John seems a bit prejudiced a against ‘recruitment advertising’ agencies while pushing for a quick ‘marketing’ department solution to better position descriptions. Sullivan wrote:

    ‘If necessary, hire a marketing or sales intern, or even an outside marketing firm (not recruitment advertising), as Cisco did in the late 1990s.’

    ‘Anyone with a strong marketing or sales background can rewrite a position description in little more than a few minutes.’

    [pardon the centering of the type]

    While I do not claim that recruitment advertising agencies are without sin, may I respectfully remind John that some of us in recruitment advertising have been extolling the benefits of writing candidate-friendly position descriptions for years. The new recruitment advertising agency is more in tune with contemporary marketing techniques than John would have you believe. We?re way past the Cisco 1990s and have spotted Godin?s Purple Cow!

    In my practice, I have witnessed how well-intentioned marketing generalists can also fail to deliver recruitment communications that work. Some of the work I?ve seen suffers from a lack of a strong employee value proposition, feature poor call-to-response mechanisms and show a general misunderstanding of the recruitment process, budgets, and media.

    As with anything in life, there are some brilliant examples of marketing departments stepping up to the recruiting plate. We have the pleasure of collaborating with some of the best. But all too often marketing and public relation departments are focused on promoting a company?s products and services and may have scarce resources and time to devote to writing position descriptions.

    How quickly can a position description be written? Can an intern do it just as well? While writing a position description may not be the most challenging thing in the world, writing effectively for different media may present more of a hurdle for those not accustomed to recruitment media. Some things do take a little longer: optimizing a job title for a search engine or writing an effective Google AdWords campaign for example.

    What I often do find challenging is getting buy-in to a better ?position description? from the hiring manager or from the ultimate decision maker.

    Recently, we have argued for, and have facilitated, the training of hiring managers in the various ?job marketing? techniques available today. We also educate individuals on the differences between position-based advertising and branding communications. This training is best done well in advance of writing a pressing position description. I believe that this is a good way to establish common ground between HR, the hiring managers, and the marketing professionals
    (the agency in our case).

    So I?d recommend to our friends in recruitment that before they run into their busy marketing departments they contact their recruitment advertising agency and challenge them to: A) write more effective position descriptions and B) to help educate others in their organization about the power of effective recruitment advertising and marketing.

    I could go on but have to get back to work in recruitment advertising!

    A note of appreciation: I?m generally thrilled to read John?s opinions and admire him for the time and effort he devotes to the field. Hope we can talk some more at the ERE Conference in FL. Looking forward to listening to Seth Godin as well!

  2. I will grant you that not all Recruitment Advertising agencies are strategic, but there are firms out there.

    There’s real value that strategic Recruitment Advertising agencies deliver to their clients every day. Contrary to John’s ‘Old World’ view, the Recruiter of today has little time to go through a multi-step process of rewriting volumes of job descriptions. And really, that’s only the tip of the iceberg.

    The best Recruitment Marketing firms partner with their clients’ internal Marketing Departments but few internal Marketing Departments have the time, the resources,the inclination, and the niche expertise to cost-effectively provide all of their company’s Employment Marketing in a timely manner. They are busy helping to drive revenue for their organizations by supporting the Sales function.

    Generally, it is more effective for a Recruiting department to outsource to a firm that specializes in Employer Branding and Recruitment Marketing…not just a generic ‘marketing firm’ or worse, a ‘marketing intern’. By partnering with a strategic Recruitment Marketing firm, Recruiting Departments have greater control, faster delivery, and a superior product. To denigrate the value delivered by strategic Recruitment Marketing firms is misguided at best, and potentially damaging to firms who need to compete for talent.

    Typically, John, you like to showcase ‘best practices’ but I am afraid you’ve missed the boat on this one. The market has changed. The ‘best practices’ Recruiter of today needs to partner with multiple providers to create a blend of ‘Technology Tools’, ‘Employer Branding’, and ‘Recruitment Marketing’ expertise to be successful.

  3. Seems like there is a way to get benefits of the focus/expertise in a particular field with the ‘sizzle’ of a marketing/advertising function.

    Niche boards that effectively reach a specialty (be it technology, audit, tax, SOX, legal) can also effectively sell opportunities to a particular community. They have the knowledge to help the employer write an ad that not only contains the right technical content (whether it’s .Net, risks/controls, transfer pricing, accounting controls or tort law), but because they are inevitably going to be closer to their members base, will also know how to sell that position; they will know what aspects of the positions to highlight. Furthermore, since they are targeted at their niche, the candidates will be more inclined to be the types of professionals intent on managing and progressing their career. Just the type of candidate pool an employer would be hunting for; not just a job seeker but a motivated professional.

  4. …I have had a pretty high rate of success with ‘cheekier’ ads. We are looking for entrepreneurial top-performers with a sense of humour and perspective. The ads we are putting out reflect that.

    We work out the essentials of the position – what we need, and what we have to offer. Then, I write a non-traditional ad: minimize the bullets, minimize the technical requirements unless they are absolute deal-breakers, and write the ad as if it’s personally addressed to the person reading it. The tone of the ad lets people know that this is a pretty intersting, unique, and enjoyable place to work.

    Once we adopted this approach, the number of applicants increased, and the percent of them who were appropriate for us culturally jumped too. Not only that, but when they apply, they say things like ‘I want to work for a company that writes ads like this’, ‘thank you for writing this ad’, and ‘I’m not applying, but I have forwarded this ad on to my network because it’s such a great read’.

    That last bit is probably what has made these ads work so well – they go viral on us.

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