Why Job Adverts Suck and What You Can Do About It.
At the start of this year, and many years before it the pundits of HR and Recruitment (yes, they really exist) make predictions for the year ahead. As well as borrowing heavily from the mantras of Silicon Valley startups promising to be social, mobile and local there is always one persistent prediction that never seems to go away.
The mists in the crystal ball clear and a vision of the future appears, with absolute certainty, our forecasters declare “The Job Description will cease to exist!”. Then, as if to mock that same prescient certainty, they don’t.
Despite the flaws of the formats on both side of the job seeker chasm things seem to stay the same. Whilst the prognosticators may lament that their visions haven’t been proven right the world keeps turning, recruiters still want to see your CV and HR departments the world over keep posting banal job descriptions. As much as recruiters may decry applicants for their terrible CVs or offer advice on how not make CV mistakes there doesn’t seem to be quite the same amount of concern for the job descriptions and adverts that they themselves post supposedly to entice those looking for work.
The average job description is currently a mishmash of an older version of the original specification, some amendments from an enthusiastic new hiring manager and some sexier phrases stolen from various other company’s career pages. When you stop to consider the amount of work that marketers put into a banner or headline just to make a viewer click it’s mind boggling to think that recruiters expect people to consider making such an enormous change to their lives on the basis of bland copy and trite cliché.
There must be a better way… and there is…
In 1943 Abraham Maslow published his paper “A Theory of Human Motivation” in the Psychological Review. He posited a series of human drivers that worked sequentially, the lowest order of which must be satisfied in order to achieve the next. For example when starving to death we’re unlikely to be concerned with how our peer group thinks of us, until we meet that more basic need.
Maslow used the terms “physiological”, “safety”, “belonging”, “esteem”, “self-actualization” to describe the pattern that human motivations generally move through. If we are using the format of a job advert as a means to motivating an action from a reader, could we borrow from the Maslow model to ensure that we are writing a well rounded and engaging advertisement? Without too much of a mental stretch it’s easy to see how these stages can be made applicable to pressing on the underlying motivations a person may have when wanting to apply or even moving from casual interest to intention and ultimately action. At the very least we could use a model to broaden the appeal of a job advert and hit more of the motivational bases that Maslow identified.
The lowest order motivator for a job seeker has to be salary. Whilst it is foundational and important it can quickly be satisfied and judged accordingly. Try putting the actual salary range on your job postings and voilà the majority who apply will have some idea of how much you are prepared to pay for the role. Assuming that your job is not unpaid or a front for slave labour stating a salary is a good idea. Promising adequate or even fair pay for a candidate’s toil should never be the best motivator you have to play. Put simply, cash should never be your “ace in the hole”, if it is it’s time to rethink the role. Try talking to some other people who already do the job and ask them why they like it. Try to gain a deeper insight into the persona of those who enjoy the job — chances are that their reasons are probably inline with a potential employee’s too. It tends to be the third party recruiters who’s job postings feature salary as the biggest incentive. “Java Developer $90,000” is a great indicator that the poster hasn’t really understood the real differentiators or their target audience.
For a lot of job posts salary is where we stop. There may be other details given about the company doing the recruitment or a technology stack but these will be generic and explanatory e.g. “You will write code and fix bugs” these are statements which would be true of the same role in another organisation. How can we make this a little more personal? Maslow’s second step in the hierarchy is “Safety”. For job seekers this may take the form of permanent vs. contract or the security of your company as an entity. These can be addressed early on, from startups referring to themselves as “VC funded” or larger corporates stating successes “Safety” should be accepted as quickly as the salary stage. If you don’t meet the needs of the job seeker here i.e. lower than expected salary and indeterminate contract length they will self select out of the process, and that’s a good thing at this stage. Remember a great job advert isn’t about mass appeal it’s about gaining the interest of the right people.
A growing number of companies are following in the footsteps of the larger technical organisations and offering a bewildering number of perks and free incentives to their employees. These are the hyperbolic tales of free food, dogs in the workplace, on site masseuses and hot and cold running champagne. Who wouldn’t want those things? However a lot of job adverts fall at this hurdle. Promising money and free things are are a great way to have someone make a small change. Switching a bank account or internet service provider maybe but surely not enough to change employers? Job security should be implied in any job description and the benefits and perks are nice to haves — but don’t be swayed into thinking it’s enough.
Maslow’s third tier was “belonging” or “love”. For a job advert how can we convey a sense of somewhere a candidate might want to belong? This is where a lot of job adverts fear to tread. We stop at the inanimate perks and don’t consider the social interactions that having a job will bring. Belonging in job adverts is best conveyed through the people the candidate will be working with. Humans are (mostly) social creatures and benefit from interaction. Who really wants to spend eight hours a day treading the same carpet as people you hate? At the other end of the spectrum who would want to work with an ex-colleague or former manager who was an inspirational leader? Who might want to join a team of renowned experts in their field? If we make a job advert generic and impersonal e.g. “You will work with our team of developers” we risk becoming generic. Talking about the team is an opportunity to sell successes to a candidate and gain engagement from selling the pedigree of a potential peer group. In the world of startup it’s normal to see adverts proclaiming founders who are ex-Google or ex-Facebook in this way an employer borrows some of the perceived quality bar of their previous employers.
Another consideration for the “Team” level of a job advert is how the team organise and work together. A job may be more attractive for a reader if it explicitly states that the team don’t like to hold lengthy meetings, or that they work closely with other parts of the business. There are some great examples here that would make brilliant recruiting messages like Spotify’s excellent Engineering Culture video. For those who are harbouring frustrations about their current employer’s bureaucracy or lack of insight and innovation, referring to how the prospective employing company gets work done can be revealing and enlightening. Moreover, talking candidly about these things can help convey authenticity and engender trust in the reader.
For his fourth level Maslow talked about “Esteem”. This is the need for appreciation and respect. People need to sense that they are valued and by others and feel that they are making a contribution to the world. When employees become unhappy and disengaged they slowly start to stagnate. If they feel under appreciated or second best to others this happens all the quicker. It may seem obvious to mention that people like to feel valued but in a job advertisement it is wholly appropriate to mention how the role they will play will be important to the rest of the team or company. It’s a certainty that some of the role you’re advertising will be similar to other roles at other companies — in these cases it’s important to differentiate at a personal level. It’s a rare candidate that wants to be a cog in machine but still I see companies loudly proclaiming they are hiring “one thousand software developers this year!” the intended message is clearly designed to be one of security, though it’s hard to escape from a different “come and be one of a crowd” vibe. Remember a good job advert spurs the correct audience into action and acts as a self selection point for those who are not right. A job advert should not be generic enough to attract all comers — if it does you just ensure that someone will have to wade through the mire of terrible candidates and machine gun applicants that apply to everything.
Knowing that the role you are performing is worthwhile and needed is a far better motivator than the lower level “carrot and stick” incentives of salary and mock “benefits” of legally mandated holiday entitlements. The better job adverts will mention those truly motivating factors — autonomous working, results driven environments without the reliance of rules and policies. This further adds authenticity and can be a real differentiator for a reader.
So what’s left? You have an advert for a new job that tells a candidate they’ll be adequately financially rewarded, they’ll be given a great set of benefits and the company is secure so their job will be too. You’ve told them about the great team they they get to work with and then you’ve gone on to tell them how they’ll fit into that team and why the work they will do is important and needed. If you said that was all a job could do it’s still pretty compelling, but Maslow has a further tier on the road to fulfilment. “Self- actualisation”. This is the final level of psychological development that can be achieved when all basic and mental needs are essentially fulfilled and the “actualisation” of the full personal potential takes place. Research shows that when people live lives that are different from their true nature and capabilities, they are less likely to be happy than those whose goals and lives match.
In job advertising terms how can we then offer this form of greater fulfilment to a prospective candidate? A majority of job descriptions fail in the balance of power they portray. Despite the current market for hires becoming tighter, in far too many posts on job boards there is a weird “you should be thankful that we deign to allow you to read this” holier than thou language choice that only the most spirit crushed drone would find engaging. However, this has become the accepted convention for weird mash-up of job description cum advert that employers post. Part internal HR document, part external facing “sexed-up” hyperbole.
Instead of using language straight out of the mouths of the mill owners of the Industrial Revolution why not let candidates know what they stand to gain from being an employee. What are the experiences they will have that will let them grow as individuals. Will they gain new skills or be trained in new areas? Will they get to mentor or be mentored by other employees leading to more rewarding interactions? Will they have the scope and the freedom to be truly creative? Are they empowered to innovate? This is the future facing final tier of any great job advert and if you can hint at a brighter future for those who come and work for you it might just be the tipping point for them to hit that big red apply button.
Originally published at thekingsshilling.io.