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How to Write a Job Description: Reign in Job Requirements

How to Write a Job Description: Reign in Job Requirements

By: John Rossheim

One question that often comes up with how to write a job description is the number of  job requirements it should include.

Make this your mantra: bullet points are cheap, but the attention of your top-grade candidates is dear.

Act on this premise as you write your job description and you will stand out from the crowd of prospective employers of every size.

The Burgeoning Job Description
In the 2000s, the trend is for job postings in general -- and their “skills,” “requirements” or “qualifications” sections in particular -- to grow and grow.

“Employment ads are getting longer,” says Richard Lukesh, managing partner of Your Part-Time HR Manager in Exton, Pa. Lukesh is no fan of the trend. “Employers are suffering from the ‘more is better’ concept. Making the job ad longer is just feel-good silliness for the business owner or HR manager.”

There are several reasons for the proliferation of job requirements, but the big enabler is that pixels are much less costly than newsprint. “It’s happening because with online postings companies are no longer limited by their budgets,” says Roberta Matuson, president of consulting firm Human Resource Solutions in Northampton, Mass.

There are other contributors to qualification inflation, chief among them the reach of technology into ever more occupations, and the abundance of highly-qualified candidates in this buyer’s labor market.

How to Write a Job Description: Quantity vs Quality
How can you optimize the quantity and quality of a job’s requirements to effectively set the bait for your next talent acquisition? Consider the context of the full job posting, starting with the fundamentals:

First, consider what will attract the best candidates
When you list the requirements for a job, it’s easy to focus on the negative: screening out plainly unqualified people from a potential deluge of hundreds of resumes. But remember, in the end what really matters is attracting the best people.

“My focus is to entice candidates, so they’re not so overwhelmed with the skill set that they don’t even get to the part about why our company is so fantastic,” says Danielle Kashuck, director of human resources at Garden State Tile in Farmingdale, N.J.

“The people you’re trying to attract mostly have limited time,” says Matuson. “They want to feel special. But when they see a posting that goes on for 15 pages, they don’t even know if they’re qualified.”

What’s the magic number for job requirements?
Finding the optimal length for the job requirements section of your posting is tricky. Take time to think about how the candidates you most covet will go about searching for a job by striking a balance between these terms:

  • Action-oriented (self-starter, team player,  detail-oriented)  terms that quickly turn into  an ungainly assemblage of clichéd personal attributes 
  • Dry terms that describe technical know-how (such as PHP, Python, Javascript.)

Some experts say the scope of the qualifications section should depend on the nature of the job. “There is no one-size-fits-all answer,” says Matuson.

Others take a more minimalist approach. “Less is more,” says Pam Hoey, director of human resources at Sentient Jet in Weymouth, Mass. “It’s good to put two key skill sets at the top and the nice-to-haves at the bottom.”

Can you set an absolute limit on bulleted requirements in a job ad? Lukesh thinks so. “The optimal length is the minimum qualifications for the position, and never more than seven qualifications.”

A deliberate process creates quality job postings
The quality and content of the job requirements are as important as the length of the job description itself. That’s why it’s critical to design a process for creating effective job postings.

“I ask the manager to write up the skills they’re looking for,” says Kashuck. “I research which skills are most important and which are redundant, then I tune the description to just the key areas, highlighting what’s specific to our company.”

Still, many small-business owners go their own way, writing unconventional postings and getting a skewed pool of responses, for better and worse.

“My job descriptions freak people out because they don’t have detailed responsibilities,” says Nancy Shenker, owner of theONswitch, a boutique marketing firm in New York City. A recent posting for a “Marketing and Sales Superstar” described the required professional qualifications briefly: “Must have great telephone and presentation skills and be assertive, independent, energetic, flexible and motivated. You need exceptional time-management skills and strong work ethic.”

Shenker asks applicants to pitch themselves in a 250-word email, a requirement that limits the number of respondents and tests their energy and talent for the job at hand. The result? A small number of “super-qualified” candidates, many of which make fine employees who are unlikely to stay with the firm for more than a year, she says.

Additional resources on how to write a job description:

Job Posting Best Practices (PDF)

Creating Effective Internet Job Postings (video)

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