Eliminate Job Descriptions if You Want to Hire More Passive Candidates

I’ve been a very successful recruiter, a reasonably successful trainer, and a middling author for the past 25 plus years. Early on, I came up with a new way to take search assignments, by first asking my clients to describe what successful people doing the work required did differently than average people. My objective in asking this question was part of a youthful and dubious goal of doubling my search commission income while cutting in half the time spent on any search. The answer to the question got me over halfway there. Once I knew what the best people did differently, only two things were left to do: 1) get everyone on the hiring team to agree to use this instead of the standard job description, and 2) find people who were good at doing the work described. The reason the “What do the best people do differently?” question even came about was the obvious fact that traditional hiring, recruiting, and interviewing practices were largely unproductive ó too many candidates needed to be seen; consensus was hard to reach; and often the best person wasn’t hired. Since I only sourced passive candidates, I got to know the needs of this group pretty well. Top performers have their own unique demands that had to be met to get them into the game, keep them playing, and get them hired. Over the years, here are some things I found out about recruiting and hiring top-performing people. The list below will seem familiar to those of you who source and recruit high-performing passive candidates:

  1. The best people don’t look for work or even engage in the looking for a new job process the same way that less-talented people do. Just to get them to listen to another opportunity, you have to be either an employer of choice or offer the prospect of a bigger and better job. Traditional job descriptions are neither bigger, nor better.
  2. Traditional job descriptions are too vague, and lack any real insight to induce a top person to even consider applying. Even worse, traditional job descriptions preclude the chance of seeing some great people with less or different, but comparable, experience and great potential.
  3. Traditional job descriptions are so vague and boring that even those top people who are qualified won’t apply.
  4. Top people who did apply often turned down offers if the manager talked too much, sold too much, didn’t listen enough, didn’t conduct a professional interview, or didn’t know the job.

On the flip side, here are some things I found that do work when recruiting and hiring top-performing passive candidates.

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  1. It’s easy to get them interested and hired if you can offer them a bigger job with more stretch, more opportunity, and more challenge. It’s even easier to get them to accept an offer if the hiring manger is a strong and dynamic leader.
  2. Top people don’t mind a tough interview if it assesses real job needs.
  3. Compensation is not the primary reason top people accept offers, even if it can be used as a lure to get them to explore something new. This is obvious when you consider that compensation is a lower order need (see Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs) than job scope, job satisfaction, team involvement, and long term opportunity. Unfortunately, most managers are pretty weak in articulating real job needs ó and are very weak when it comes to making jobs bigger and better.

These issues collectively required a different type of job description than the one my clients used if I wanted to reach my double-double goal. But before the solution, fast forward 18 years to 1999. This was the year Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman’s book, First Break All of the Rules ? What the World’s Best Managers Do Differently (Simon and Schuster), was published. Without getting into all of the details, the authors (part of Gallup) interviewed tens of thousands of managers and staff and came up with two big lists. The first list was what top managers know to be the truth about their team members, and the second was the things that great managers do to maximize their team members’ performance. The first list basically concluded that good managers know that people don’t change too much, so it’s best to hire top people who are highly motivated to do the required work. The second list can be summarized with the general idea that top people want their managers to first clarify expectations, then they want the tools and equipment needed to do the work effectively, then they want the support and encouragement of their manager, and finally they want to work on stuff they like to do. This leads to a pretty basic recruiting principle: Define what you want done, and then find people who want to do it. Traditional job descriptions do not meet this need. They are neither sufficient nor satisfactory. Furthermore, they’re counter-productive. One reason is that the work is described in terms that are too general, like “responsible for order processing.” Surprisingly, the skills and experience requirements are described in excruciating detail, such as “Five years of ASIC design with two years of Verilog in combination with VOIP industry experience.” The whole idea of writing job descriptions this way should be turned on it’s head. Be more detailed when describing the actual work required, and more general when describing the skills required. For example, we might transform the above description into: “Use your ASIC and Verilog experience to lead the design optimization and layout of our new VOIP chip.” When you write job descriptions that describe primarily what people need to do rather than what they supposedly should have, everything changes. For one, this way meets the underlying criteria of top performing passive candidates to begin consideration of your opportunity. Here are some other things you’ll notice:

  1. More top candidates will apply if they see ads highlighting the opportunities and challenges rather than demanding skills.
  2. More top passive people will become interested when you describe the job.
  3. Fewer people need to be seen, since it’s more obvious who can do the work by getting examples of comparable performance.
  4. Consensus will be easier to reach since everyone is using the same measurement criteria.

If you’re a recruiter, buy a few copies of First, Break All the Rules. You might want to give a copy to your hiring manager clients the next time you ask them to discuss a new job opening. When you walk into the manager’s office, ask the person to read pages 60-61. The whole book is summarized on these two pages, so you’ll make your point very quickly. Then ask the big question: “What does the person in this job need to do to be considered successful?” Get a list of five or six things. Next ask, “What do the best people do differently than the rest?” Then go find some people who are talented and motivated to do this type of work. I call these job descriptions that define what people need to do “performance profiles.” What’s interesting is that the best managers already prepare them naturally as part of their hiring and management process. This is a management best practice, but one that seems to be largely ignored. It’s also a best recruiter practice, so you might want to start preparing them. Not only will you be more productive, but you’ll also find your job more satisfying. Send me an email (lou@adlerconcepts.com) if you’d like a sample performance profile for a sales position, a manager position, or a mid-level techie. This will get you started on doubling your income in half the time.

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).


1 Comment on “Eliminate Job Descriptions if You Want to Hire More Passive Candidates

  1. Another advantage to recruiters that can be read between the lines of this article is that in using this approach suggested by Mr. Adler, a recruiter does not need to be a comprehensive ‘expert’ of the discipline or talent they are trying to recruit. As a matter of fact, when talking with one of these high-talent targets, you can elicit copius responses out of them by almost acting a little naive. You can say something like, ‘ Mr. So-and-so, just between you and me, what this company really needs in this position, is someone, perhaps just like you, who can bring to the table the ability to achieve (specific goal or mission)…yada yada.’ You go on to say, ‘Compensation aside for the moment, is this something you would be compelled (notice I did not say ‘prepared’) to do from a professional standpoint, and why?’ Trust me, they will open up the dam and all kinds of things will spill out. I’ve done this countless time and it works.

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