Dear job description enthusiast!
I've been studying job descriptions for 15+ years and below is a summary of the most important things I know. If you'd like to suggest changes to it, please email me and my team at email@example.com (make sure to include both the information and the source of it).
I will update this page when I learn of anything new.
In the meantime, enjoy!
A job description describes a role in a company. It is used both to advertise a job and to set expectations for employees once they have the job.
For this report, you'll find the following job description-related terms:
I believe there have been 3 major eras in job ads and we're just on the cusp of the third!
The first era of job ads was the "Help Wanted" era and it had 2 chapters:
"Help Wanted" signs have been around nearly as long as businesses have.
It was the year 1439 when the first important job ad technology was invented: the mechanical movable type printing press. Johannes Gutenberg's printing press has a multiplier effect on the world because it made:
By the 1600s, retail stores also began adding glass windows (which had just become affordable). Suddenly, Help Wanted signs in store windows became commonplace.
In 1605, the first newspaper (Germany's "The Relation") was published. By the 1800s advertisements began to be "classified" into groups (houses, jobs, etc.).
The classified job ad was born!
Many consider this "Men Wanted" ad below by explorer Ernest Schackleton to be one of the best job ads ever.
Note: The Shackleton ad is said to have run December 29, 1913 but it's existence has never been proved.
During World War II (1939 to 1945), "help-wanted" advertising increased even more as men left their jobs to join the army.
In August 1992, Bill Warren founded the Online Career Center (OCC), the first employment site on the Internet (source: Wikipedia).
DICE launched a bulletin board service in San Francisco back in 1990 and then the full-blown Dice.com web site in 1996 (source: Wikipedia).It was quickly followed by Monster (which later bought OCC) and NetStart (later renamed CareerBuilder) in 1994.
These pioneering sites were soon called "job boards" and the ads on them were called "job ads" or "job postings".
Monster: One of the first job boards
Job board distributors entered the fray around 1994 -- they allowed employers to get your job posting listed on numerous job boards at once. eQuest and CastleLinks were likely the first job board distributors, recalls Kelly Robinson of Broadbean Technology. Broadbean later acquired CastleLinks. ZipRecruiter later offered job board distribution as well.
A key turning point for job descriptions was the arrival of the applicant tracking system in the mid 1990s. The ATS would become the system of record for creating a job requisition ("job req').
A few early and major ATS milestones:
Employers could now use an ATS to create a job description for internal and external hiring. See the Sample Job Description Template section below for differences between internal and external job descriptions.
Taleo: One of the first ATS systems.
The ATS helped power employers' own company career sites (lowering their reliance on job boards).
HR Tech Influencers Mervyn Dinnen and Matt Alder pointed out (in their book Exceptional Talent) that in this new era:
"Information on available jobs all over the world was now available 24 hours a day, seven days a week -- companies could use their career sites to sell themselves as employers on their own terms...."
In 2004, a new era began for the Web called "Web 2.0" and the "Social Web". While Job boards and ATS's generated mostly static text-based job postings, the new Web 2.0 era ushered in :
Around this time, you began hearing new buzzword terms for the job description such as:
The applicant tracking system alone could not generate such content-rich pages. As HR Influencer James Ellis pointed out in The End of the ATS:
"Applicant tracking systems were never meant to be pretty (external), they were meant to help manage workflows (internal)”.
Around this time, new platforms emerged to put a pretty face on text-only job pages.
TMP's TalentBrew offered Advanced Job Descriptions (AJDs) that included the employer's logo, color scheme and new things such as maps and links to nearby restaurants.
On the job board side, job postings got a major facelift when LinkedIn launched its social network (December 2002).
With LinkedIn, a candidate could now see a job ad that showed mutual connections they had with an employer. A candidate could see a picture of the person posting the job along with their social media profile.
LinkedIn quickly became, as HR Tech expert Hung Lee put it, an "essential/ubiquitous" tool for recruiters.
Video played a key part in this. Video job ads began to appear as early as 2007 (check out ExpertVillage, an instructional Web site, with his video job ad for a news reporter). Here's a Senior Technical Writer video job description "video job post" from Will Staney and the VMware team from Oct. 18, 2010.
Suddenly, these new Web 2.0-type job descriptions could have an impact on employer branding
HR Tech influencers like Tim Sackett began to recommend the importance of using video and pictures in job descriptions.
At first, many of these new dynamic job ads were one-off pages. But soon there were job description platforms.
In 2011, Ongig launched its job description marketing platform that let employers attach video and pictures to the job description text coming out of their ATS. Candidates could see a video or gallery of pictures of the job, view employer ratings and reviews and chat directly with the candidate.
"Smart companies are fostering this by thinking of job descriptions as content rather than advertisements".
In 2014, job descriptions began to be measured in new important ways.
Textio was founded and used artificial intelligence/machine learning to measure what impact an individual word or phrase has on a job description's apply rate. Ongig could tell you how to boost your apply rate through a change in video or picture or engaging in a chat.
Appcast and other technology companies helped you target candidates with programmatic job advertising.
Google launched Google Cloud Job Discovery (later renamed Cloud Talent Solution) that impacted job descriptions because candidates could now:
The concept of machine learning on job descriptions is that the system gets smarter with every click. This can further increase key metrics like apply rate and quality of candidate.
In short, during this new "interactive, performanced-based" era, job descriptions have become more dynamic and data-driven.
Job descriptions are important for 3 main reasons -- they:
A JD is written by one of 4 people depending on the size of your business:
Often it's a combination of 2 or more of the above.
Check out The 8 Key Stakeholders in a Job Description Rewriting Project to see all the people involved in a job description rewriting project.
In a large company, the workflow of job descriptions is usually:
Some employers will leverage their Marketing department to write job descriptions. Marketing team members will likely also get involved if you are including the following in your job descriptions:
Another way to write a JD is to hire a copywriter from an outside consultant or recruitment agency.
If you want to learn the difference between how an amateur and a pro writes a job description, check out the How Copywriters Write Job Descriptions section below.
If your employer works with the government or is publicly-traded then Your Legal department will usually get involved in reviewing JDs. Their main concern will be that your EEO language is in compliance.
Many JDs now include a Diversity Statement. This is sometimes combined with an EEO Statement or might be standalone.
HR Influencers Sabrina Baker and Christine Kopp point out that:
"One way to express your commitment to diversity and inclusion is by including your diversity statement on your postings. If it’s lengthy, you can make it small statement on your posting and link back to the full statement on your careers page."
If you have a Diversity team or Head of Diversity, she will likely craft your company's diversity statement.
The vast majority of JDs are biased towards men which means that you are likely losing quality female candidates due to your masculine biased job descriptions.
You're also going to want to make sure that your JDs are gender-neutral to attract both men and women. There are now job description text analysis tools such as Ongig, Textio, and Talvista (formerly Talent Sonar and Unitive before that) that will tell you if your JDs appeal more to men or women.
These gender-neutralizing text analysis tools work based on a combination of a database of words proven to attract men and women and artificial intelligence (tracking the clicks on apply of a JD by men and women related to the words used in those JDs).
Some studies show that women are different than men when it comes to the types of job posting they will apply to. For instance, an HP study showed that men apply for a job when they meet only 60% of the qualifications, but women apply only if they meet 100% of them.
So, one tip to attract more women is to:
And don't forget about how visuals affect diversity in your job ads. For instance, if you're trying to hire more women
"Don’t show two men in their 40s in your posting...Make your postings represent your diversity goals."
A good job description needs to be readable...just like a good book or text ad.
Check out Wikpedia’s Readability entry. Readability takes into account length of words and sentences, number of syllables, use of pronouns and much more.
Writing readable copy means writing in Plain English as HR Tech Analyst Matt Charney wrote:
"No one makes an emotional connection with company acronyms, industry keywords and bulleted lists. Formal language like “ideal candidate" or "top performer" can often hinder time to fill, time that could often be saved by simply addressing the person straight on, without all the fluff or purple prose."
But most job descriptions are not written in Plain English.
Most job descriptions are written at a 11.2 average grade level according to my analysis of 3,500 job descriptions in June of 2018. However, they should be written at a much lower grade level (8th grade or lower) to attract busy candidates (see Why I Write My Job Postings at the 8th Grade Reading Level (or Lower!).
Some of the most readable text out there is at 8th grade or lower readability:
Note: The grade level is based on grades of the U.S. school system where 1st grade is an early year of schooling and 12th grade is senior year of high school.
Humans have positive and negative reactions to different words.
Dr. Andrew Newberg, a neuroscientist at Thomas Jefferson University, and Mark Robert Waldman, a communications expert, wrote the book “Words Can Change Your Brain."
In it, they write that “a single word has the power to influence the expression of genes that regulate physical and emotional stress."
And negative words have the power to negatively influence the reader.
Examples of positive words in job descriptions include:
Examples of negative words I've seen in job descriptions include:
Some legal departments might insist you use certain negative words in a disclaimer section of your job description (e.g. work is "hazardous" to your health because it involves heavy lifting of 40+ pounds).
I recommend that at least 95% of the words you use in your job descriptions be positive (the 5% accounts for the words that Legal might mandate you use).
Opinions on the most effective length of job descriptions vary:
I recommend 300 to 750 words per job description with exceptions. For example, an entry level call center job might need to include a description of the training program with the actual schedule (that requires extra text that most job descriptions don't need).
A strong argument is made to include compensation on job descriptions:
That's one of many reasons Ongig began offering employers the option to include a Glassdoor Widget showing salary estimates on their job descriptions.
To write a good job description, you might keep these 10 tips in mind:
Check out 10 Tips for Writing Effective Job Descriptions for more details on how to write your own job posting.
It pays to implement JD writing tips from the experts. A copywriter writes a job posting with the following 4 things in mind:
"How would you enjoy writing software that will be used by millions!?"
And good job ad writers always answer the "why" question the candidate has. Ben Gledhill of Yodell sums this up nicely:
"Job Descriptions need to start truly selling the role from not just a skills/experience purpose but from an emotional perspective with a real focus on the purpose and the why for the candidate."
Check out How to Write a Job Description Like an Ad Copywriter for 5 easy tips on how to turn your JD into a real ad!
In 2014, HR Tech Influencer Matt Buckland wrote in Why Job Adverts Suck and What You Can Do About It that job descriptions would be a lot more effective if they applied psychology such as Abraham Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs.
He emphasized that job description writers should tap into motivators such as Financial Gain, Job Security and Benefits, Team, Individual Opportunity and Personal Growth.
Buckland beat me on this topic by 4 years (sorry Matt, I only read your thoughtful article after I had written mine!). Here's my version of Maslow's Hierarchy of Candidate Needs (for Job Ads).
I don't believe that great job descriptions have to have great titles. Sure, if you have a professional ad copywriter (think Don Draper of Mad Men) who could write a different title for each job, go for it. But my advice is to keep it simple.
Titles for job descriptions should be:
Once you've nailed the job title, you need a consistent job description template.
The format for job descriptions are different based on whether it's for internal or external purposes (though some employers use the same JD for both).
Here's a sample of a job description template that might be used internally:
Job Title: e.g. Sales Rep, Developer
Job Type: e.g. Part-time, full time, etc.
Job Location: e.g. 50 Broadway, New York, NY 101583 or New York, NY
Reports to: e.g. Reports to VP of Sales James Murdoch
Job Requirements (or "Skills & Experience")
An external job description is often called a job posting or job ad).
It might look the same as the internal JD but exclude the name of the direct report, the actual compensation and the performance goals. It might also add an "About Us" section and EEO/Diversity Statement.
Here's a sample job description template you might use externally:
I wrote this job description writing guide in which I included the general job description format used by some top companies. Some job description template examples include:
You can see that the job description format varies by number of sections. They also vary by the point of view from which they're written. For instance, some are 1st/2nd person ("We" and "You/Your") while others are third-person (About Team, Requirements, etc.).
Some employers have even eliminated job descriptions altogether.
A job description is sometimes used to prove insubordination.
Anniken Davenport, an employment law expert at Davenport Communications, described how this works in Insubordination in the workplace: Managing misconduct:
"Generally, three elements must be present to constitute insubordination:
Anniken goes on to say that a manager's orders can be verbal or written. The duties listed in the employee’s job description are "essentially orders", Anniken says. If an employee refuses to perform those duties, that's insubordination.
In May 2014, Zappos eliminated job postings in favor of having candidates join their Zappos Insiders program. This was part of an innovative program led by Stacy Donovan Zapar that received encouraging results. Zappos (as of November 15, 2018) uses both the Zappos Insiders program and a listing of job descriptions on its site.
I enjoyed sharing this summary about job descriptions and look forward to updating it for you from time to time. Please write to firstname.lastname@example.org if you have anything important about job descriptions that you think I should add.
Rob Kelly, Co-founder & CEO of Ongig