Companies love to complain that they can't find talent. Might the lowly job ad be to blame?
A good job description should present a company in its best light, reeling in ideal candidates while weeding out the less-than-stellar fits.
Nobody's bemoaning the loss of yesteryear's ads—a New York coat shop posted in 1896 for a "young lady of German parentage" with a 36-inch bust and a knowledge of bookkeeping—but the job ad circa 2013 isn't faring much better. Ads today are long, dull, cluttered with clichés like "must be a team player," and overloaded with job requirements, many of which aren't truly necessary.
A good job description should be a zippy 300 words or fewer, conveying a clear picture of the position as well as a sense of the employer's culture. As if that weren't tricky enough, government oversight of hiring practices has turned job descriptions into "almost a legal document," often scaring HR departments away from taking creative risks, says Michael Kannisto, director of talent acquisition at equipment maker JLG Industries Inc. and head of a group that is drafting job-description standards for the Society for Human Resource Management.
Too often ads fail at their most basic task: encouraging the right talent to apply. Candidates spend an average of only 76.7 seconds reading even relevant job ads before they decide to apply or move on, according to employment site TheLadders.
Some companies are paying job-search startups to help them bring these dull documents to life while also making them shorter and easier to use for online and smartphone job seekers.
TheMuse.com, a career website, requires that companies posting to its job board craft a two-sentence summary for each position, along with a well-written longer description.
Companies on the site pay a monthly fee, which covers editing help to make sure the job summaries are up to snuff and creation of an employer profile page that includes videos of employees talking about their work.
"It's no longer about getting as many applicants as you can," said Kathryn Minshew, founder of the Muse. "It's about getting the 10 applicants that are the type of person you're looking for."
Jenny Brandemuehl, vice president of human resources at textbook-rental firm Chegg Inc., says the Muse helps showcase "who we are as a company" and includes a link to its Muse page in emails to job candidates.
(The Muse is a finalist in a Wall Street Journal startup business competition; interviews for this article began before finalists were selected by a group of editors not involved with this article.)
To be sure, many companies draw candidates through internal promotions, employee referrals, and social-networking sites, but 40% to 50% of jobs are still filled via a posting on a traditional job board or career website, according to hiring experts' estimates. And even those candidates who do apply via nontraditional means—say, an ad on Facebook—will at some point see a traditional job description during the hiring process.
One Fine Stay, a startup that arranges short-term sojourns in luxury homes, enlisted the job-search firm HireArt to recruit customer service and operations associates in 2012. The startup wanted entry-level people who matched its bespoke, sophisticated attitude, but good candidates weren't biting at its ad.
So HireArt revised the job description—a service for higher-paying customers—to say the company was looking for "the Wolf from Pulp Fiction," a reference to the Harvey Keitel character who parachuted into impossibly messy situations and fixed them.
"People forwarded the ad to their friends, so it had a little bit of a viral effect," said Elli Sharef, founder of HireArt. The firm didn't keep track of numbers, but the company "got so many more qualified candidates with the second post," Ms. Sharef says.
One candidate was Aaron Marcus, 24 years old, who joined One Fine Stay in April 2012. "I don't remember the specific language," he says of the job description, which he found on Craigslist, "but I could tell it was a place where I could get my hands dirty and figure out what I do best." Mr. Marcus now manages a team of "wolves"—the company adopted HireArt's language internally—and continues to use the Wolf ad for its recruiting.
Particularly damaging to recruiting efforts, according to many HR executives, is overloading ads with job requirements.
Doing so indicates two things, said Richard Fye, director of talent at New York-based marketing firm Percolate: "No. 1, unrealistic expectations because it's very unlikely any one person will have the 15 criteria the job description lays out, and No. 2, laziness on the part of hiring managers" in identifying what is truly essential.
Mr. Fye has been working with hiring managers to revise Percolate's job descriptions. Among his rules: Don't bother listing educational requirements (they are rarely predictors of success, he says) and include no more than eight requirements. "More than that, and it starts to look like you're looking for Superman," he says.
Too many requirements may also deter some candidates from applying: A McKinsey Quarterly report from 2008 noted an internal study at Hewlett-Packard Co. that found that women generally apply to jobs only when they believe they meet all the requirements in a posting, whereas men will throw their hat in the ring if they think they meet just 60% of the qualifications.
Still, those long lists of bullet points do have a part to play, as job descriptions can be useful for setting internal expectations and goals. But splitting off job descriptions from public job postings can help.
Sodexo SA, the food and facilities management company, uses dual documents—a longer one for performance management, a shorter version for recruiting. A few months ago, it began overhauling all 900 of its recruiting job descriptions, removing lingo and adding livelier text and keywords to make them more searchable online.
The new postings, which haven't been rolled out yet, emphasize the importance of various roles, says Arie Ball, head of talent acquisition. For example, the ad for a health-care position says the employee will have "a tremendous impact on patient satisfaction—from the moment of admission through discharge."
"We're trying to make a little bit more of an emotional connection" with job seekers, said Ms. Ball.
Write to Lauren Weber at firstname.lastname@example.org
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