Why You Must Eliminate Job Descriptions

As far as I’m concerned, the use of traditional qualifications-based job descriptions are the primary reason companies are not finding enough top people.

In this article, I’m going to prove that they are unnecessary, counter-productive, reduce the size of the applicant pool, encourage sloppy management, and are the cause of most hiring mistakes. Of course, your comments are welcome.

A Dozen Reasons to Ban Traditional Job Descriptions for Hiring Purposes

  1. You don’t need job descriptions to source top candidates. Posting detailed job descriptions was not common pre-Internet. Somehow the job boards trained us that this was the best way to attract talent. In the olden days, companies posted smaller ads highlighting their requirements. In many cases, companies posted mass hiring notices for multiple jobs with generic titles. In the career journal sections of most major newspapers, the jobs that were posted were written with interesting titles and flowery career-oriented copy. Ah, the good old days.
  2. Top people don’t need all of the information on a job description to consider exploring an opportunity with a company. As more good candidates go online to look, the objective of a job description should not be to pre-qualify the person, but rather to generate interest in the position and company. You don’t need a job description to do this. Instead, a splash page summarizing a group of jobs with some facts about the company is all that’s needed. These splash pages should describe the company culture, the growth prospects, the importance of talent in the company, something about career opportunities and a few reasons why these open jobs are important to the company’s future. Once you interest a candidate in a class of jobs and the company, then you can begin a nurturing process or drive these people to specific jobs.
  3. Job descriptions give managers the right to stop thinking. At best, qualification-based job descriptions are shortcuts to bad decisions. They don’t describe the work that needs to get done; they describe the skills a person supposedly needs to have for doing the work. By not describing the real work that needs to get done, lots of time is spent looking for the wrong person. Understanding real job needs is the primary task of managers. As far as I’m concerned, if managers are unwilling to spend time to clarify expectations before they hire someone, they shouldn’t be managers.
  4. Job descriptions require unnecessary reporting and added technology. The OFCCP regs clearly state that you don’t need to report on people applying for generic positions. Using job descriptions requires more technology and more reporting to track individual candidates applying for individual jobs. This is unnecessary. The emphasis in the early stages of sourcing should be on attracting someone’s attention, not reporting. Consider that the OFCCP developed the requirement for reporting on Internet applicants only when companies started posting specific job descriptions. This was a problem that didn’t exist pre-Internet.
  5. Job descriptions take too much time to find. A splash page for all marketing (or sales, accounting, etc.) jobs can be found in seconds. If the page is compelling and interesting enough, good people will then want to engage with the company and spend time looking at specific opportunities. On the splash page, suggest that interested candidates email their resumes. Once these are parsed into your system, the company can then determine whether the person is appropriate for specific open positions. Then email the person back. You only need to report on those who express an interest. Finding a specific job not only takes too much time, but it also prevents a company from engaging with the candidate if an appropriate job isn’t available or if the right job can’t be found. This is a huge waste of an opportunity.
  6. Job descriptions exclude high-potential candidates. Most job descriptions list average skills and experience requirements. The best people tend to have less experience or different experience, but they more than make up for this with potential and talent. Since online job descriptions are boring and exclusionary, few of the best performers will apply. Even if they do apply, the person doing the screening will consider the person too light. For this reason alone, job descriptions listing absolute levels of skills and experiences should be banned.
  7. Job descriptions cause fully qualified candidates to exclude themselves from consideration. Even if a fully qualified person sees the job description, the person won’t apply because it’s uninteresting. Good people apply for a job because of the work they will be doing, not the skills they possess. The only fully qualified people who do apply for boring jobs are those who are desperate, or those who are already sold on the company. Since you don’t want to hire the desperate, you don’t need the job description. And since you do want the fully qualified who are already interested in the company, job descriptions are unnecessary.
  8. Job descriptions shrink the pool of high performers to zero. If you haven’t already lost the best people due to the above problems, you’ll lose anyone else remaining due to administrative problems. Some of these include “the hard-to-find the job” problem, the difficulty in applying, the problems with disrespectful knockout questions, and recruiters’ inabilities with the ATS’ built-in search engine tools to quickly bring the best people to the top of the sort list.
  9. Job descriptions don’t predict on-the-job performance. A person can possess all of the skills, experiences, industry background, and academic qualifications listed in the traditional way and still not be able to achieve the results desired. This could be for a variety of reasons, including the person is bored or the person took the job for the wrong reasons. Whatever the reasons, it’s far better to prepare a high-level overview of the job with a quick description of the challenges and big projects. These types of performance-based job descriptions will quickly broaden the pool of top people applying. During the interview you can use more detailed performance profiles to accurately assess fit using our one-question behavioral interview.
  10. Job descriptions are the primary cause of hiring mistakes. Interviewers on the hiring team don’t use the traditional job description to assess competency. Instead, each person uses his understanding of the real job to make a decision. As a result, their biases, perceptions, personality, and prejudices will dominate the selection process. It’s far better to get everyone to reach consensus on real job needs before starting the interviewing process. This way everyone is assessing the person using the same criteria. Here’s a technique you might want to try that doesn’t rely on job descriptions to eliminate 50% of all hiring mistakes.
  11. Job descriptions are not objective. If someone without the exact mix of skills and experiences listed on the job description can do the work, then the factors listed are misleading. This excludes a lot of good people from consideration. Because something is measurable (e.g., five years of experience) doesn’t mean it’s a valid predictor or an objective measure of on-the-job performance. In fact, companies promote or move people internally who don’t have the listed skills or experiences based on different criteria (generally their past performance and future potential), but somehow we don’t use this same criteria to attract and hire people from the outside. I find this odd.
  12. Job descriptions are useless from an onboarding and performance management standpoint. A good on-boarding program typically begins with a review of the real requirements of the job, including the expected results. Clarifying expectations this way has been shown to increase on-the-job performance, reduce turnover, and improve personal satisfaction. Once on the job, employees are evaluated based on what they’ve accomplished in comparison to what they should have accomplished. These types of performance-based job descriptions are far more useful than qualifications-based job descriptions for onboarding, but somehow this basic management principle is ignored when hiring the person.

These reasons alone should convince you to reconsider using traditional qualifications-based job descriptions as the de facto standard for hiring purposes. From a sourcing standpoint, they are unnecessary and counterproductive.

A splash page highlighting a group of jobs is all that’s necessary to entice candidates to explore opportunities with your company. This allows you to build a bigger pool of top-flight candidates without extra reporting and bureaucracy.

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Once you have a particular job in mind, it’s better if you emphasize the results, opportunities, and challenges involved in the job, rather than composing a laundry list of specific skills and desirable characteristics.

I refer to this type of “new age” performance-based job description as a performance profile, but don’t post this publicly, either. Just use the performance criteria to screen and select people from your pool of interested candidates. This will result in a much smaller pool of stronger people. These are the only applicants you need to track. This alone will free your recruiters to do more creative sourcing and find more top candidates.

When you view traditional qualifications-based job descriptions as the problem, rather than the solution, completely new approaches to sourcing and recruiting are possible.

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).


16 Comments on “Why You Must Eliminate Job Descriptions

  1. What Lou says is true, but until there is a new way for candidates to search for jobs (other than key words in the job description) it isn’t pratical to eliminate the job description. Job seekers use key words the same way recruiters use key words to search for resumes (the job description counterpart). Another problem is that many of the positions we recruit for are with smaller companies who don’t have job families or groups of jobs.

  2. I really hate to disagree with an expert, but there are other reasons that a Job Description is a requirement. ISO-9000 still requires it. Most defense contractors need job descriptions. I beleive the Automotive companies require it as part of the new TS Quality System.

    Having said that, I do agree that most job descriptions are poorly written, and have minimal value in the real world.

    As a successful engineering recruiter, I would rather talk to the hiring manager and get a good understanding of what the job really is. However, as a former engineer, I realize this is not always possible.

    Anyway, that is my opinion, and since we do not exist in a vacuum, we must considered our customer’s needs before ours.


  3. Lou-
    Thanks for revising your ‘Classic’. Unfortunately, most resumes still have nothing but job descriptions (duties), some with 2 paragraphs about entry job duties 25 years ago, rather than recent accomplishments. Companies feature ‘People Descriptions’ (BSCE, 5 years experience, etc), rather than the ideal, ‘In a year, you could be gazing out your corner office gazing on the new factory you reorganized to bring the new product to market, planning the marketing for the next one’, etc.

  4. While I personally don’t agree with all points in the article, the first two points are quite valid.

    We have moved more to a war-footing and all the good (for TiVo) candidates we have source never demanded a description up front. Rather it was the discussion (how well-informed the recruiter was about the company, the role etc.), the selling of the idea (a potential match with what the candidate wants and where TiVo is going), and a first step in relationship – that persuaded them to move forward in the conversation.

    Job profiles/descriptions can serve a marketing purpose very well when (written well and) narrow-casted.

  5. Some great points, particularly the marketing angle, just a quick comment (or two): This all assumes managers are skilled at identifying and describing job requirements. What if they’re not? Might it be better to have a ‘good enough’, if not perfect, job description upon which to base recruiting and assessment, rather than give managers reign to use their less-than-stellar skills? It’s great when managers are hired, and held accountable, for being willing and able to accurately identify job requirements and organizations move them out if they’re not. But that’s not always the case.

    Related point: If the job descriptions are of poor quality, does that mean they should be ditched or that our documentation method is flawed? Let’s not confuse process with product.

    Smart selection of supervisors, impactful training programs, and a strong collaborative HR shop can go a long way toward preventing these problems. Good post.

  6. Lou,

    I agree that many posted job descriptions are too long, uninteresting and contain information that is not pertinent to the position. Employment brand marketing can drive candidates to a company, but I am concerned about dismissing job descriptions as unnecessary, particularly for OFCCP compliance.

    The OFCCP Final Ruling on the Definition of an Internet Applicant FAQ discusses issues related to Job Descriptions as it relates to Basic Qualifications.

    ‘Basic qualifications for a position could be, but are not required to be, stated in a job description. Under the Internet Applicant rule, basic qualifications need to be advertised to potential applicants or, if the [federal] contractor does not advertise for the position, need to be established in advance by making and maintaining a record of such qualifications.?

    Since candidates are likely to transfer resumes or job-related information electronically to a recruiter, all candidates will fall under the Internet Applicant ruling. Jobseekers still need to meet all four prongs of the ruling to be considered an applicant, but the candidates, related recruitment process, components and recordkeeping are subject to discovery at time of audit.

    I am concerned that if the Job Description is abandoned and published documentation does not state the basic qualifications for the position, the ability for the basic qualifications to have been ?uniformly and consistently applied to all other similarly situated individuals? can be compromised.

    The job description and related postings are the best places to establish the basic qualifications and demonstrate that all basic qualifications were established prior to the selection process. Basic qualifications are the qualifications advertised to potential applicants as being required in order to be considered for the position. If the federal contractor does not advertise for the position but, for example, searches an external resume database, the contractor must make and maintain a record of basic qualifications to be used in the search prior to considering any expression of interest for that particular position.

    It is inconvenient at times to work within the parameters of the OFCCP ruling for recruiters, but the elimination of systemic discrimination is the goal of the ruling. Creativity is built upon a standard, not in place of it. I agree that poorly written job descriptions and postings can dissuade talent from interest in a position. I also agree that splash pages and good employment branding can help attract talent, but I think Job Descriptions containing Basic Qualifications are important to recruitment compliance and a standard part of the practice.


  7. I’m going away for the weekend so let me make a point here to add to the confusion. I’m not saying you should eliminate job descriptions completely – only for Stage I (establish interest and convert this to a warm lead) sourcing. By steering passive or active candidates directly to a job description immediately you lose more good people than you gain. Of course, once the person is interested in your company and a class of jobs then it’s appropriate to steer the person to a specific job. For example, how many people would say yes to this question – ‘would you be open to explore a career opportunity if it was superior to what you’re doing now?’ If this number is greater than those who would say yes to this question ‘do you want an ASIC design job in Dallas?’ I’ve just proven conclusively why you must stop using job descriptions for initial sourcing.

  8. Are indeed necessary, not only for OFCCP Compliance, but also for EEOC/ADA – Then there are the other issues that come up by not having valid Job Classifications/descriptions and of course Salary Associations – Department of Labor, Union, OSHA, Hippa, OSC/INS, and we can’t forget the IRS.. Wouldn’t Sox also play in here somewhere as well? These are only a few I can think of.. but sure there are other agencies that have interest in these

    Uniform Consistency in employment is necessary.. Maybe sticking with the Minimum may make ‘life’ easier in some aspects, but when having to prove intent, it does become difficult –

    some may not even consider the FSLA and job descriptions.. but it is imperative to figure out via a job description who is exempt, what overtime is, how does one get promoted, what about bonuses and comissions? what is required to meet exemptions, what about performance reviews? .. then there is the issue of wrongful termination.. those duties, responsiblities, expectations and qualifications are the very thing that could help save your companies check book in this litigious society.

    Job descriptions are indeed necessary for recruitment, interviewing, selection, hiring, and of course even termination

  9. Today’s recruiting marketplace requires more than one document to meet our needs.

    The posting document that is used to attract candidates should definitely NOT be the job description. It should be a marketing-based, compelling ad for the position and the company.

    Job descriptions should still exist as internal documents and should be used as supplemental information during the secondary stages of recruitment.

    That said, our job descriptions still need some work. A move away from generic responsibilities is in order. I’ve been using descriptions that include more goal-oriented information: what the position must accomplish in the first 6 months, 12 months, etc. As well as a concise narrative ‘picture’ of a successful employee. Responsibilities are listed not just in terms of what the employee will be doing, but some context of how that fits into the overall position relative to company objectives. So far, I’ve had very positive feedback from the users of the descriptions. They seem to like having a better idea of how the position works within the company as a whole.

  10. Implementing Lou’s strategies has lead to very positive results for me. My project load is typically one or two positions with various small to mid sized software vendors or system integrators. One technique I practice when marketing for new Candidates is to weave all my various Clients and opportunities into one tapestry, utilizing the performance-based job description methods. Forget the old methodology of ‘selling jobs’ and focus on attracting the best Talent. One of the direct results I experienced is the generation of a much higher quality of Candidate. I am able to build strong pipelines of highly skilled Candidates for multiple positions and clients, all through one artful performanced based job posting.
    I find that much of what Lou Adler practices and teaches requires a true paradigm shift in the recruiting practices that most of us have been taught. It’s not easy to break away from techniques we have learned, practiced and thus far have allowed us to build successfull careers. However, I have always experienced positive measureable results implementing Lou’s strategies and techinques.

  11. Congrats Lou! This article will no doubt become a classic as it clearly exposes the folly that underpins so much of the useless and wasteful activity that passes for talent sourcing and screening. Read this article together with John Sullivan’s piece on boring employment web sites, and one becomes both realistic and depressed over the sad state of staffing left in the hands of overworked operations executives and their HR weenie henchpersons (what with their bachelors degrees and familiarity with Microsoft Office and all).

    I’m all for Lou’s recommendations, with the provisio that one then needs an automated, engaging, and accurate (Google the word ‘validated’) online talent assessment system that progressively sifts the motivated applicants into becoming candidates for positions at which they add maximum value. Behavioral interviews are good, but with high applicant volumes, starting there makes no practical sense. Virtual Job Tryouts that contain performance-keyed assessments handle the numbers without turning off top talent. Good interviews require more than one question, even if they start with one powerful, performance-focused question that uncovers the behaviors critical to success.

  12. Ok, this is why so many managers get confused. There is a difference between a job description and a job posting.

    A job description is a necessary internal document. Employees need it to understand expectations of their job, and understand how they fit in with relation to other positions in the company. It serves for many legal purposes as well.

    A job posting, on the other hand, is what you use to attract candidates. It shouldn’t be the same as the description. It should be marketing-based and concise.

    Rather than saying we should eliminate job descriptions, we should be saying not to use them as our posting copy.

  13. Right on Lou!

    Clarity is a beautiful thing. There is no need to dummy down your job descriptions for a job posting. Write your posting as if it is a brand new exciting thing. Save the detailed description for when the employee and the HR mgr can discuss one to one.

  14. OK- First to everyone Happy New Year!

    My definition of a job (God knows I have created and written many of them over the years). ‘A job is a generic role that is within a certain business group in an organization, and which should be independant of any of single part of the organization.’

    A job ‘position’- is a very specific DAILY occurrance of one job, that is fixed within one specific organization (this is why I keep saying that HR is different than recruiting- and we all know that sales is different than recruiting- I can’t wait to see the responses on this one!!!)

    So then the question begs to ask what are the advantages?(counter-point to some of the postings)

    The advantages of a ‘job’ are that it is broad based (ever look at some of your own job posting requests and laundry lists?) it is generic in form, can be evaluated company wide- and is in fact a ‘job’. ‘Hey, Joe when you are finished sweeping the floor over here- can you sweep the dining room?’

    The advantages of a ‘position’ is that it is used by organizations as a role-based environment, it posseses a deeper role in the organizational structure they report to, at times is a MUST for the procurement/purchasing process, and of course having been a military officer I can tell you that position is in fact ‘REQUIRED’ in any ‘government’ sector position and provides how one is graded (although during battle a bullet never seeks out a Captain over a Corporal).

    Ask a Military recruiter if a job description and job position does not matter- and if we were to dispose of them how would we fight a war (yes I know it is all George Bush’s fault anyway)how would we exist? Or for that matter ANY organization? I guess a ‘student’ could then teach a class over a ‘professor’ if the student has more work experience than the professor- NO?

    Certainly, if we are looking at a SOX environment if Sally (the AR/AP clerk who has been working at ABC company for 40 years) trys to sign off on a financials report as oppossed to the CFO (Jane) who has the roles of the company’s current level of risk tolrance, the management of business performance and the view of the allocation of resources- there are ‘postions’ that must be maintained.

    Absent of these ‘positions’ who would be able sign-off on the 10K report? Sally, or the CFO? More importantly when the government (and stockholders) want to hang someone- who do you think they will go after? Yes, Sally might be a working accomplice- but the big bad CFO is who they go after (and is spelled out in the SOX rule).
    I guess that is why the word ‘accountability’ is more and more widely used where actual multi-million dollars transactions are taking place and investors are looking at who is running the company.

    I guess if we were to get rid of job descriptions and job positions, then we also would not need words like ‘talent manager’ ‘guru’ ‘expert’ ‘Dr’ ‘professor’ ‘senior recruiter’ or many of the descriptions we post on ERE.
    But then I guess I am ‘old-fashioned’ (and yes to me- that is not only a job ‘description’ but a ‘position’) not created- but earned!

  15. Pamela is right on point — job descriptions and job postings are two different issues. However, this is just the tip of the recruitment marketing iceberg. In addition to 16+ years in recruiting, I spent 12 years in software marketing, advertising and sales. I’ve seen the results of a successful comprehensive, fully integrated marketing plan that includes research, identity development, branding, etc., in selling products and services.

    Question: Why not apply tried-and-true marketing principles to selling an organization?s Employer of Choice value proposition to the targeted candidate market?

    We’re hearing more about Employment Branding but it is still a relatively immature emerging movement. Yes, some organizations have employed some of the measures but the exceptions prove the rule.

    I spend most of my time for clients proactively recruiting ‘in the trenches.’ I enjoy recruiting a great deal — it’s my career. I can cold-call ‘with the best of them’ and have an excellent track record, but how many of my clients would send their salespeople out without the support of a comprehensive marketing program? Well, that is exactly what most companies do with their recruiters.

    I’ve been on the recruitment marketing soapbox since returning to recruiting in ’96. I look forward to the day when I can work with clients that understand the bottom-line value of a strategic recruitment marketing program in building a rich dynamic talent pool. Such a program would fully leverage the skills of talented recruiting staff and yield revolutionary bottom-line results.

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