Trying to write better job descriptions

As I've spoken about many times before, trying to make change happen in companies isn't just about technology and systems; moving from spreadsheets and paper to fancy databases and AI systems. Having the right people in the right roles and creating the best culture possible can play a huge part in any transformation, and this is an area that I work on with clients through my consultancy work.

In my last regular check in with one such client I spent some time writing full job descriptions for some potential new roles. We’d previously talked about the kind of people, the structure, and the relationships between the positions, and now it was time to create something to summarise those discussions.

In my former role as Head of Technology at Lightmaker UK, I had to write job adverts, review CVs and interview staff. Working with my own clients, the process is similar but different as you’re usually looking with more of an outside perspective. As a conference speaker, I’ve become more and more aware of the impact that the wording and presentation of Call For Proposal requests can have on the people who decide to apply, and I’ve also been aware that a lot of people have been working hard to create awareness on this job description front. I wanted to apply some of this thinking to these latest role recommendations, so in my quest to write some better job adverts I first started with some research.

Learning from others

As with all good research, mine started on Twitter.

Some great resources came in, and a couple that I really liked certain elements about included:

  • Stripe vacancies - This one had sections that outlined what was expected but not demanded, and left it open for someone to show other skills. I also liked how they demonstrated the projects people could work on, and who you’d work with.
  • fffunction vacancy - I really liked the “more information and applications” section, and the point about calling yourself whatever you wanted.

Since then, I’ve also really liked seeing how Snyk share their vacancies:

  • Snyk recruitment repo - the fact that it’s in a repository won’t be appropriate for everyone, but for a tech company it makes sense, and allows people to see the history. The current Front-End Developer role gives a great outline of typical responsibilities, and things like “how we like to code” helps the reader to understand more about the culture.

There were also a couple of useful references that talk about other companies’ experiences of what makes a good job advert:

The pitfalls of a typical job advert

My next port of call was to review the sort of job advert document that had been created by the organisation in the past. There were many of the standard areas that you’d expect: an overview of the role, key responsibilities, qualifications required, experience required, and a table of competencies and requirements for the candidate to meet. There was nothing really awful, but based on what I’d been learning from others I felt that we could do better.

Qualifications required

One of the areas that I’d been aware of is that within the tech industry a key consideration for new roles is the huge range of backgrounds that candidates can come from. With an education sector that hasn’t quite been able to catch up or keep up with the rapid pace of change of industry, people don’t always have the same neat educational background as can be expected in more traditional sectors.

Individuals may be entirely self-taught, come from bootcamps, have done extensive internships, remote courses, or switched from other backgrounds. A job post for a UX professional flippantly requiring a degree in UX may cause many to pass the opportunity by (entirely user experience-centric degrees are not well-established). I was really pleased after discussing this with the head of the team, that they were happy for me to remove requirements around education or professional qualifications, instead replacing this section with:

Qualifications required No formal qualifications are required, although A-Level education or above would be desirable. You’ll need to be able to demonstrate previous relevant professional experience in this area.

Reducing the diversity of applications

Another area that I was aware of is how much the diversity of your applicants can be affected by the wording and content that’s included in job adverts. There are a number of different facets here, but key areas include:

  • The language you use for the job title and description
  • The way that you present requirements
  • The benefits and flexibility on offer
  • Whether your culture appeals to a diverse audience

Let’s just quickly clarify what I mean by ‘diversity’ before we go any further. This isn’t just about numbers for your female/male split, disabilities, sexualities, or encouraging more applications from particular ethnicities. This is about supporting people whose situations may differ from what’s typically expected as the norm of tech workers - a young single mother who’s breastfeeding, a recently qualified graduate with no professional experience, people returning to work after a long absence, those who have battled previously with alcohol and may struggle in certain situations… It’s about getting a wide set of people, all with different life situations, perspectives, and experiences they can bring to your company, to picture themselves in your vacancy.

Job titles and description

Advertising for a “rockstar” or “ninja” will likely put off those who don’t self-identify with such brash terms, just as…

Whilst the end titles will likely be an internal matter, it’s great if you can give the applicant some flexibility. If it doesn’t matter to you whether they’re classed as a “developer” or “engineer”, then advertise based on what works for you and consider making it explicit that the person can have some input. It’s really important to some people that they feel like their title adequately describes who they are.

In terms of the description, think again about how this reads, and whether you’re unintentionally excluding people. A great tool that I found (I think originally through my friends at the Open Data Institute) is this Gender Decoder for Job Ads by Kat Matfield. You’re able to run your advert through a checker that highlights potential wording issues, based on research. As she puts it:

In this paper the researchers showed job adverts which included different kinds of gender-coded language to men and women and recorded how appealing the jobs seemed and how much the participants felt that they ‘belonged’ in that occupation […] Their results showed that women felt that job adverts with masculine-coded language were less appealing and that they belonged less in those occupations. For men, feminine-coded adverts were only slightly less appealing and there was no effect on how much the men felt they belonged in those roles.

Your requirements

Whilst it’s understandable that you have certain needs that should be met, thinking about how you present these are crucial. Too many, and you’ll struggle to find people who meet them all. Too few, and you may get applications presenting the wrong set of skills.

In my experience, what’s most useful is to explain about the need for the role, and the type of work that will be done. Rather than requesting a concrete set of skills or experience with tools, instead leave some flexibility for different types of people. Perhaps you’ll find someone with less boxes ticked, but you’re willing to help them up-skill. Maybe the person you’re speaking to has slightly less experience with a certain programming language, but has had 10 years with other languages and also brings extensive architectural or DevOps skills.

An oft-cited study in this area talks about how different people approach lists of requirements, and how you may be hurting the diversity of your applications through how you’re presenting these:

“Women working at HP applied for a promotion only when they believed they met 100 percent of the qualifications listed for the job. Men were happy to apply when they thought they could meet 60 percent of the job requirements.”

I tried to cover this by including a few select lines of encouragement in the relevant areas:

“Whilst there are a set of skills and experiences that we think would fit in well here, we’re aware that a person to fit this role could take many forms. You may be an experienced [specialist developer] looking to become more strategic, or may have already gained wider experience in a senior architectural or leadership role. We’re keen to hear from people who may not necessarily fit the below description 100%, and if you have additional relevant skills that could be useful we’d love to hear about them.”

“Depending on the individual and their particular strengths, we’d like you to do things like the following:”

Benefits and flexibility

I’m a big believer in remote teams when done in the right way, and considering different options in terms of benefits and flexibility can often help to open up your applicants. Are you able to be flexible in terms of hours or locations? If someone would prefer to ask for more holiday for less money is this something you’re prepared to discuss? How about bringing dogs into the office? Letting applicants know what is and isn’t negotiable can make it much more likely that people will consider your jobs if they can see it working for them.

Thinking about culture fit

Cultural fit is often something that’s seen as important by the hirer, but not always thought about from the perspective of the hiree.

Stating that candidates will be expected to work all hours at the drop of a hat may not suit a single parent, and advertising your free bar and drinking culture may not work for the recovering alcoholic, let alone people who feel unsafe mixing alcohol and work. This really goes deeper than just a job advert, but if your company isn’t as diverse as you’d like, perhaps consider whether there are other ways to improve your culture rather than throwing a table football set and beer fridge into the mix.

Don’t just think about when the person arrives, but also how they’ll fit in over time. How will you support them through training and on-going learning? How to people normally progress from this role, or is there scope to take on other kinds of responsibilities?

Where we got to

After thinking carefully about all of these areas, I came to a place where the following structure seemed to work well. Whilst it’s not my place to share any individual vacancy on behalf of the company, I’ve instead created a generic Google Document which follows the same format and includes some things that I’ve learnt along the way. You can find it here, and you’re welcome to make additional suggestions through comments:

Job description template Google Doc

Alternatively please feel free to email over other suggestions or resources if Google Docs aren’t your thing. My hope is that sharing these learnings and thought processes may help others to think how best to present their vacancies, and in turn help more people to find some great jobs.

Posted by Sally Lait

Sally is the lead consultant and founder of Records Sound the Same, helping people with digital transformation. She's also a speaker, coder, gamer, author, and jasmine tea fiend.