How to create a more effective job description in one afternoon

Recently I’ve been helping a small tech company with their recruitment strategy and hiring process. One of my first steps was to examine the company’s existing job description. It may seem more like a necessary administrative task than a strategic priority, but the humble job description presents a number of opportunities. For a company of any size it should:

  1. Create clarity about a role and clearly state what skills and experience are necessary so that these specific attributes can be assessed in a structured interview process.
  2. Signal that the company is serious about seeking diverse talent (through explicit statement and unbiased language).
  3. Make a professional first impression to candidates.

Fortunately, companies large and small can leverage some great online resources to up their game in the job description department. I did the following over the course of about eight hours using free tools and a free trial of a relatively inexpensive subscription service.

Step 1: Understanding the role

First, I took the existing job description for an engineering role and sat down with the company’s co-founders to discuss how accurate it was in describing the position and what they were looking for. I asked probing and clarifying questions so that I could understand not only the technical skills that were required, but also the non-technical skills and behaviors that would make someone successful in the role. This conversation helped me identify some attributes that were important to the company but missing from the description of the position.

Step 2: Using Google Re:Work tools to add structure

Once I had a better understanding of the role and requirements, I used the Google Re:work Create a Job Description Guide to help build structure into the job description. The guide outlined four sections of the job description (Area, Role, Responsibilities, Qualifications) and provided guidance on the sort of language that is effective in each section. I supplemented the guide by looking at actual Google job postings to see examples of the advice in action.

Step 3: Using Textio to refine language and remove bias

After I had incorporated the additional requirements into the job description and made the changes suggested by the re:Work guide, I used a free trial of Textio, an application that uses natural language processing to “show you how your job listings and candidate emails will perform before you’ve even posted them.”

According to Textio, the original job description was better than most (see screenshot, left). It predicted that this listing would be more effective than 67% of similar listings.

The software identified a few problems in the posting. Hovering over the problem produced a pop-up that provided an explanation and some guidance on making improvements.

The most interesting aspect of the analysis to me was the tone. The white line indicates that the language in this job description was consistent with a greater than average number of men applying to the listing. Job description language in engineering skews male overall, but this job description had even more gendered language than the average engineering posting. This surprised me. The job posting by no means sounded like it was written by and for “tech bros” but words used in the posting like “tackling” and “expert” were flagged as attracting more male applicants.

With this feedback in mind, I did a re-write of the job posting and made additional tweaks on the fly in Textio. I used their suggested wording for the Equal Opportunity Statement and took a second look at some of the gendered language in the posting. I’m under no delusion that the new job description will be more effective than 100% of similar postings, but it has undoubtedly been improved by the process. Perhaps even more importantly, it’s given me (and the company’s co-founders) a better idea of what to think about and look out for in future postings. The awareness itself was one of the greatest benefits.

The result

By going through this process, the company’s co-founders and I were able to:

  1. Build a shared understanding of the role. Spending the time talking through the job description forced the co-founders to get on the same page and really think through what was important in a new hire. They’re now in a better position to assess candidates on the attributes that are critical to success in the role.
  2. Recognize and remove biased language that we hadn’t even realized was there. It’s easy to see extreme cases of biased language, but we didn’t see more subtle signals like the use of corporate cliches (which tend to alienate people from underrepresented groups) and words that tend to dissuade women from applying. Including an equal opportunity statement was something that should have been obvious from the outset, but most postings I see from small and medium-sized companies don’t have them.
  3. Feel confident that the company would be putting its best foot forward when it starts its next hiring process. Everyone agreed that the final product was a clearer and more professional representation of the role while still embracing the culture and values of the company.

Why it matters

During my two week trial of Textio I felt compelled to drop every job description I came across into the tool. Few fared well, especially from small and medium-sized technology companies. Quality online resources like Textio and Re:Work present one opportunity to avoid the people and culture problems many larger tech companies are facing now. Too often companies grow without thinking through key people processes early on and only address these areas once they are already a problem. I hope that spreading the word about these low-cost resources can help growing organizations improve their people capacity even before they make their first HR hire.