… define the work that needs to be done before defining the skills the person needs to do the work.

Let me be perfectly clear – I hate skills-infested job descriptions. They’re useless for hiring anyone other than clones. In fact, 95% of the job descriptions listed on LinkedIn (or any job board for that matter) are not job descriptions at all; they’re people descriptions. Job descriptions should describe what the person in the job needs to do, ( e.g., design circuits, sell homes, diagnose problems, fix automated test equipment, and architect systems, and the like,) not describe the skills needed to do the job.

One huge problem with skills-infested descriptions is that they exclude some great people who can do the actual work extremely well but don’t have the exact list of skills and experiences supposedly required.

So instead of falling into the skills and experience box-checking trap, I suggest recruiters ask hiring managers to define the work that needs to be done before defining the skills the person needs to have to do the work. I refer to this as a performance-based job description listing the 6-8 critical tasks and performance objectives defining on-the-job success.

The Most Important Interview Question of All Time can then be used to determine if the person is competent and motivated to do this work. Just have the candidate describe a personal accomplishment most comparable to what needs to be done for each of the objectives. The assessment is made on the growth and trend of the candidate’s accomplishments over time; the scope, scale and complexity of the accomplishments in comparison to actual needs, and the results achieved. (Here’s the full manual.)

How to Convert Skills into Performance

An example may help explain the idea of clarifying job expectations this way. Last week I asked a VP who was planning to hire a number of research associates to define job success. She said one critical skill the person should have is the ability to write well. I thought this was pretty coincidental since that same morning I had read this great post on Pulse, “The Dullest, Most Vital Skill You Need to Become a Successful Manager.” It turned out to be the ability to write well, which brings me back to the problem with using generic skills: they define a person, not a job.

A painless way to convert any skill or having-based requirement into a performance objective starts by asking this question, “How is the skill used on the job and what does success look like?” For strong writing skills this is what we came up with:

Prepare clear and concise summary reports. An ongoing aspect of this position is to evaluate and convert all types of technical, quantitative and qualitative research based on surveys, polls, interviews and data analysis into 1-2 page executive summaries used for daily executive debriefing sessions.

The One-Question Performance-based Interview

The VP had just completed our Performance-based Hiring interview training program and asked, “Okay, I agree with the objective, but how do I use the one-question interview you recommend to determine if the person can do this work?” I suggested the following:

Ask the person to provide an example of a recent or typical report and ask how it was developed and about his or her role in preparing it. Then, peel the onion and find out:

  • the actual format of the report and how it was used (ask to see a copy, if possible)
  • the key findings and how they were developed from the research conducted
  • the purpose of the research project, how the info was gathered and how the major conclusions were drawn
  • the details of how the person organized and prepared the written report and how the information was summarized and condensed
  • if anyone challenged the conclusions and, if so, how did the person respond
  • the sources used to develop the data and who helped and the role they played
  • the audience and who beyond the department needed the information and how the information was tailored to best fit their needs
  • if the person received any recognition for the quality of the report and if some meaningful action was taken as result

There are many factors involved in this type of questioning. One is just to understand how raw information was converted into a written report and the other how it was summarized. Both factors are critical for putting together a well-written and useful document. The ability to do this successfully reveals much more about the person than just his or her writing skills. You can gauge, for example, insight, critical thinking, multi-disciplinary perspective and problem-solving skills, just to name a few. On this basis alone it’s a useful question to ask every candidate for just about any job.

From a practical standpoint, this type of performance-based questioning combined with fact-finding can be used to better assess any critical skill or ability. But unless you define the work before you define the person you’ll never be able to make a correct assessment. That’s the real reason I hate skills-infested job descriptions.


Lou Adler (@LouA) is the CEO of The Adler Group, a consulting and training firm helping companies implement Performance-based Hiring. He's also a regular columnist for Inc. Magazine and BusinessInsider. His latest book, The Essential Guide for Hiring & Getting Hired (Workbench, 2013), provides hands-on advice for job-seekers, hiring managers and recruiters on how to find the best job and hire the best people. You can continue the conversation on LinkedIn's Essential Guide for Hiring Discussion Group.