Last week, a job advertisement on Indeed went viral because it sought “Only Born US Citizens [White] who are local within 60 miles from Dallas, TX.” The Virginia-based IT firm blamed a junior recruiter after it faced online backlash, and then later said that the offensive ad was published by a former employee who took an existing post and added the line to the description.
Either way, it stirred up debate online about how much a job listing can reflect a company’s culture. And it can tell potential candidates more than they might even realize. For example, phrases like “must handle stress,” “able to work under pressure,” and “fast-paced environment,” could be seen as red flags that it’s a toxic work environment. Revelio Labs, which created a universal HR database, found that the share of postings with red-flag phrases that push applicants away has been increasing steadily.
“In a world where applicants also have the option to go to websites like Glassdoor and Blind, and learn extensively about the culture of the company and how their current employees feel about the company itself, the job posting text really evolved to be a good signaling mechanism for the company to tell potential applicants about the work and the culture,” said Reyhan Ayas, a senior economist with Revelio Labs
That’s why it’s especially important for companies to carefully consider who is writing their job listings, what it includes, the tone of it, and much more.
Kim Gottschalk, head of innovation at talent acquisition and recruitment solution company LHH, says job listings should be treated as a piece of marketing material for a company. Once it’s published, anyone can read that and form an opinion about the company.
“In the new world, it’s becoming more and more important what a company puts out as public information,” said Gottschalk. “Job postings are a great example of it. You’re not only speaking to your audience about what you may be seeking, but you’re going on record as to what your organization is looking for with their human capital.”
What to include in a job description and who is writing it
Above all, a job description should always be clear and concise. But the ones which stand out are those that are written in a tone and style that reflects the company’s internal culture.
Katrina Kibben, founder and CEO of Three Ears Media, a company that teaches recruiting teams how to be confident writers, says that a good rule of thumb is to consider how you would describe the job to your best friend’s kid who wanted the position. Then, you can write it down exactly like you would describe it verbally to a human being.
Then, you need to also take into account the company’s culture, the position you are ultimately trying to market, and some legal bounds, like including that the company is an equal opportunity employer and follows the Americans with Disabilities Act requirements.
It might sound somewhat straightforward, but there’s a level of skill that is needed to nail all of that.
“There needs to be a centralized person who is skilled at this,” said Gottschalk. “Editing is an important piece of any content published. Editing is powerful and you wouldn’t necessarily want someone to do it if it’s their first job.”
That’s why Kibben started Three Ears Media.
“The inconsistency is that we are having people who are not job post writing experts, often the hiring manager, creating postings,” said Kibben. “It’s people who think they’re hiring experts, but they’re not. Then, the consistency is in the mistakes they’re all making. The things that are previews into the business and people don’t even realize because they are just copying and pasting things that sound good but won’t attract the right person.”
Who writes a job post is different at every company. While the HR team is typically responsible for the job description, which is the compensation document, they aren’t necessarily the ones who write the listing, which requires a touch of marketing skills. Kibben says that if you think your job postings suck, it’s time to teach your team how to nail the skill.
At the core of a good job description, Kibben says, is one that tells the truth. Otherwise, a company might end up hiring someone who isn’t interested once they start the job, which can end up costing the company time and money. If you’re working with a recruiter who will write the job description, that means sitting down with them and helping them understand very specific needs for the role.
“Instead of asking for a list, you need to ask for questions that help them imagine the right person,” said Kibben. “If you ask for a list, you will get a list. But, people often make things up with lists, like little kids at Christmas. But when I say, in six months, what’s going to be happening if we hire the right person that is not happening right now, we can work backwards from those experiences to find the right person.”
Biases in job descriptions
“The focus is truly ensuring we have a diverse, inclusive environment,” said Don Carter, evp of people and culture at microfinance company Kiva. “In order to do that, it really starts with the job description, how we’re articulating the roles that we have and the type of talent we’re looking for. Whether it’s intentional or unintentional, unfortunately sometimes job descriptions have that exclusionary effect just by the nature of the language.”
At Kiva, all job descriptions are run through Gender Decoder, to ensure the most inclusive language is used. The free-to-use tool identifies masculine- and feminine-coded words and gives an overall summary of which way the ad is leaning. Textio is another tool that interrupts bias in performance feedback and recruiting.
Aside from language use, there are other requirements added to job descriptions that include bias.
Looking at workforce data, Ayas found that the share of job listings that require a Bachelor’s degree has dropped, while skills-based hiring has risen. That’s not a new trend, but it is one that allows employers to be a little more inclusive.
“If you require degrees blindly, on all job listings, that’s what I would call a privilege bias,” said Kibben, who also helps companies understand how to get rid of bias in a job description. “You’re saying every person who comes to your company must have privilege to work there. I had the privilege of going to college because I could choose learning over feeding a family.”
While skills-based hiring is coming more to the forefront, Kibbben believes another standard job ad requirement should be dropped: minimum requirements for length of time in the field.
“Years of experience quantifies time, but it does not qualify people,” said Kibben. “It means you did it for that long, but it doesn’t talk about what you actually did.”
Instead, Kibben suggests outlining that you want someone who can write, for example, value statements for companies, or someone who has written an article a day, rather than falling back on length of time at a job.
Kiva has an inclusion committee, which now reviews and makes recommendations for job ads. The challenge will be ensuring that the committee doesn’t slow down the process for the hiring manager – who is usually under pressure to fill a position fast. “It’s making sure we have the right descriptors, the right language, the right inclusiveness for the job description,” said Carter.
Organizations need to stop regarding the job description as a box-ticking administrative process, he added. “There are still a lot of companies that have static job descriptions that have never been updated. They don’t give a second thought to how it represents their brands. Intentionality around the job description truly represents the organization and what’s important to them,” said Carter.