Why You Must Eliminate Job Descriptions

As far as I'm concerned, the use of traditional qualifications-based job descriptions is 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.

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 regulations 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.
  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 onboarding 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. 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.

This article originally was published in the Electronic Recruiters Exchange (www.ere.net). Check out ERE for more great recruiting information.

How to Prevent Just About Every Common Hiring Mistake There Is

It starts by defining the work that needs to be done - not the skills required to do it.

In this article, I want to present six common hiring problems that can be virtually eliminated by using Performance Profiles instead of job descriptions when taking the assignment.

But first some history. Before I became a recruiter, some 25 years ago, I had significant industry experience in engineering, finance and operations management. As a recruiter this hands-on background allowed me to very quickly start placing high performing CPAs, engineers, financial analysts and managers in related fields. Two to three sendouts per hire was pretty typical. Of course, I cherry-picked contingency search assignments, so this helped the metrics. As I moved into retained search and branched out to other fields, particularly medical science and senior management positions in functions I wasn't familiar with, I suffered a significant performance setback. Five to six sendouts per hire became more the norm and I lacked the confidence to fully represent my candidates. Even the candidates I presented weren't as good.

This all changed when I started working with a medical products company that was ultimately bought by Baxter International. What was different about this company, from the CEO on down, was that they refused to use job descriptions. Rather than focusing on skills, experience or academics, they focused on results. When I took an assignment they gave me a list of deliverables and performance objectives the person needed to achieve. They then made me prove that the candidates I submitted could achieve these results. I made about 10 placements at this company over a three-year period.

Two stand out. I placed a VP of Operations who was running an industrial products company and a plant manager who was running a high-precision plastic injection molding company in the electronics packaging industry. Neither had medical industry background, yet both had a track record of delivering results in comparable complex situations. Both continued to deliver exceptional results in their new roles.

This was an eye-opening experience. As a result, since the mid-80s I have refused to take an assignment where the hiring team wouldn't agree to a list of deliverables and performance objectives rather than the job description as the basis of the selection criteria. This is a Performance Profile. It lists in priority order the 6-8 critical tasks, challenges and deliverables a person needs to accomplish in order to be considered successful. Since then, we've prepared Performance Profiles for every conceivable job from college kids giving away samples of Red Bull and YMCA camp counsellors to engineers and managers in all disciplines; consultants and sales people who have unstructured jobs; retail clerks in fast food, nurses, housekeepers, VPs and CEOs.

If you're faced with any of the following common hiring problems, you might want to try substituting a Performance Profile for the traditional job description:

  1. Consensus is hard to reach. Since a typical job description doesn't define the work, members of the interviewing team use their own biases or understanding of job needs to assess competency. By getting all members of the hiring team to agree to the real tasks and performance objectives of the job in priority order, agreement is a natural outcome.
  2. Too many candidates need to be seen. When you don't know what you're looking for, you need to present extra candidates to make sure you get full coverage. This wastes a lot of time presenting the wrong people and using the wrong sourcing channels. Spending an extra hour up front defining the real job can save at least 20 hours per search assignment.
  3. Not hiring enough top performers. In the order of importance, here's why top people accept job offers: 1) the job offers stretch and long term opportunity; 2) the hiring manager is a leader and mentor; 3) the team is strong; 4) the company is solid and the job ties to an important company initiative; and 5) the compensation is fair. Top people will base their decision to accept an offer based on what they'll be doing in comparison to other offers and to their current position. The clearer this is and the more job stretch involved, the more likely the person will accept your offer as long as the compensation package is reasonable.
  4. Not seeing or hiring enough top passive candidates. Passive candidates won't even talk to you if you don't have a compelling job to talk about. A Performance Profile is your door opener. It also gives you the confidence you need to make the phone call and ask for more referrals. Make sure you have a short, compelling summary to send to the person when they say "Send me a copy of the job description."
  5. Candidates accepting counter-offers or competitive offers. Top candidates who are employed get buyer's remorse the moment an offer is accepted. Either they think the offer isn't good enough or they feel the unknown isn't as attractive as the known. This is human nature. Candidates who clearly know the job they're taking and the challenges offered tend to be more confident in their decision and are less likely to accept counter-offers. When the hiring manager gets more involved in the entire recruiting process, it's even that much less likely.
  6. Hiring managers won't make as many bone-head hiring mistakes. Here are the three most common hiring mistakes managers make: 1) hiring candidates who are competent, but unmotivated to do the work; 2) not hiring good people because they were uninterested in the job being offered; or 3) hiring good people for the wrong job. This is what happens when skills, competencies and experience are used to assess ability to do the work rather than past performance. Candidates who have excelled in the past will excel in the future if they are allowed to do comparable work that they like doing, especially if the work offers true job stretch. The best-selling book, First Break All of the Rules - What the World's Greatest Managers Do Differently, makes a great case for the tossing of job descriptions and the use of Performance Profiles.

It's pretty simple to prepare Performance Profiles. On your next search assignment, just ask your hiring manager to tell you what the person taking the job needs to do to be considered successful.


Using Performance Profiles to Improve Recruiter Effectiveness

It is my contention that the only way to systematically hire superior people is to clearly define superior performance before beginning any new job search. Using a performance profile instead of a job description is an effective means to accomplish this. The benefits of using a performance profile include more accurate assessments, a bigger pool of top candidates to choose from, significant reductions in time to hire, and – by clarifying expectations upfront – a more highly motivated and competent workforce.

Over the last 25 years, I've come to the conclusion that every job has six to eight key performance objectives that determine on-the-job success. This is what separates the best, highly motivated employees from the average employees. While the hiring manager needs to take responsibility for determining what these are, the recruiter can play an important role in facilitating the preparation of these performance profiles.

Following is a shortened example of a performance profile for a software developer. As you can see, it differs from a typical job description by listing what the person taking the job must do to be successful, not what skills and experiences the person must have. In this way it defines the job, not the person. This fundamental difference has a domino effect in the way candidates are sourced, assessed, hired, and subsequently managed.

Performance Profile for Software Developer, Quick Version

  1. Complete software design, writing high-quality, efficient code to meet project deadlines.
  2. Quickly understand project scope (one week) and prepare detailed design layout.
  3. Prepare and organize activities to meet a tight, time-phased software development plan.
  4. Work with team of other developers in meeting aggressive project deadlines.
  5. Effectively work with users to develop specs and implement programs during first month.
  6. Overcome critical technical challenges specifically (describe).
  7. Lead project from post design to final implementation.
  8. Effectively utilize configuration management system to track changes.

Once completed, a performance profile lists the key results required in priority order, the critical processes or steps used to achieve these results, and an understanding of the company environment. Candidate competency and motivation is then determined by obtaining detailed examples of how a candidate has achieved similar objectives.

Recruiters who take a lead role in preparing these performance profiles are much more influential throughout the hiring process. Hiring managers and candidates alike see recruiters who have this type of understanding of job needs more as advisors and consultants rather than just head-hunters.

Described below are the three basic ways to prepare performance profiles.

1. The Big Picture Approach

Ignore the job description and just ask, "What does the person taking this job need to do to be considered successful?" Start off by getting the top two to three objectives, and then determine the two or three most important things needed to achieve these objectives. Also ask what the person needs to do in the first 30 days, first 90 days, and first six months.

As part of the major objectives, consider projects, problems, and improvements needed. Include some technical, team, and organization objectives to obtain a true understanding of all job needs. Here's an example: "By Q2, complete the assessment of all marketing needs and competitive products to support the fall launch of the XYZ product line." The Big Picture Approach works best when the job has specific projects, tasks, or assignments that need to be completed.

2. Benchmarking the Best

For jobs that are more process-focused (e.g., call center, retail, non-exempt), performance objectives can be determined by observing what the best employees do differently than average employees. At the YMCA, we discovered that the best camp counsellors proactively engage with their kids in daily activities. At a major fast-food restaurant, the best counter staff went out of their way to clean up the store during their shift. At a large call-center, the best reps were able to complete the processing of orders with all team members in a very positive manner, even at the end of a long day.

3. Convert "Having" to "Doing"

Just convert each "must have" skill or factor on the traditional job description into an activity or outcome. For example, if the job description indicates the salesperson must have five years of industry sales experience, ask the hiring manager what the person needs to do with that five years of industry sales experience. A typical response might be, "Conduct a thorough needs analysis and present the product as a solution."

Here's another example for the oft-stated "good interpersonal skills." Ask the hiring manager what good interpersonal skills look like on the job. You'll probably get a response like, "Work with other departments in completing the launch of the new system."

Using the above techniques, collectively or individually, usually results in a list of 10 to 15 objectives. The top 6 to 8 are usually all that are needed to assess candidate competency and interest. It's best to pare the complete list down to a more manageable number, and then put these in priority order. During the interview, you'll look for candidates who are both qualified and highly motivated to achieve these top objectives.

I suggest to my clients that they make each of the performance objectives as "SMARTe" as possible. SMARTe objectives are Specific, Measurable, Action-oriented, Results-driven, Time-bound, and include a description of the environment. The example in Step 1 above is a pretty good example of a SMARTe objective.

The SMARTe acronym is also useful for interviewing candidates and digging deep into their accomplishments. For example, ask candidates how long the project took to complete, what the environment was like, what actions they actually took, and what specific results were obtained. The key to this assessment approach is to first obtain a list of SMARTe performance objectives, then ask the candidate SMARTe questions, and don't stop until you obtain complete SMARTe answers.

Performance profiles are a practical way to assess competencies, skills, behaviors, and motivation. It's what a person does with these attributes that really matters, not the attributes themselves. During the fact-finding questioning, you're evaluating how these attributes really come together to achieve measurable results. These results – and how they are achieved – can then easily be compared to the objectives described in the performance profile.

Another key point: Candidates like this form of interviewing for a number of reasons. First, it lets them talk about their accomplishments. This builds their egos, and is a subtle but powerful recruiting technique. Second, they learn what they'll really be doing once on the job. This is the key determinant that the best candidates use to accept or turn down an offer.

Interviewing is only one aspect of a complete interviewing and recruiting process. Too many recruiters and managers wait till the end of the process to "sell" the candidate. By then, it's too late. Recruiting must start at the beginning. If you describe a compelling job and then challenge the candidate to earn it, they'll sell you. If you want to hire superior people, start by defining superior performance. Then get everyone with a vote to agree. Once you know what you're looking for, it's much easier to find it.

This article originally was published in the Electronic Recruiters Exchange (www.ere.net). Check out ERE for more great recruiting information.