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The two most important letters missing from your job postings

TL:DR it’s 2020 and it’s time to ditch the endless bulleted lists of arbitrary “required skills” in our job postings. Replacing “required skills” with “IF” statements create an amazing amount of context for candidates, resulting in a better experience for all.

I want you to imagine that you’re preparing to spend some of your hard-earned money to take a trip to Japan. Because it’s your first time going to Japan, you decide to book a tour. You hit-up Google, find a tour operator, head to their website and click into the Japan itinerary to see this:

Days 1–3: sightseeing things
Days 3–5: travelling to places and eating foods
Days 5–7: staying in hotels and cultural things
Day 8: Go home

Contrast that itinerary with these items pulled from a G Adventures Japan tour:

Day 3: Visit the Jigokudani Monkey Park, where wild snow monkeys can be seen bathing in the natural hot springs. The pool where most of the monkeys soak is man made, fed by the hot springs. Along the walking paths up to the pools, other monkeys tend to stop and watch visitors curiously.
Day 4: Stop at the castle of Matsumoto one of Japan’s most treasured castles, maintaining its original wooden interior and stone exterior. Explore this castle, where 16th century Samurai once roamed, before venturing out with the group to wander Matsumoto’s ancient streets and or dine in a traditional storehouse.

Which is more likely to pique your interest, earn your click and possibly your dollars as well?

So what does this have to do with job postings? Just about everything.

Most job postings are like the first example itinerary: Must have leadership skills, communication skills and problem solving skills.

See the relation?

Candidates arrive at job postings with a list of questions they’re trying to answer and if they’re not getting the context required to answer those questions, they’re forced to interpret your job postings… and those candidate interpretations are where you end up having extremely poor-fit candidates applying. Because when you asked for somebody with “creative problem solving skills”, they believed the time they were cold and microwaved their polyester pants to warm-up, was Mensa-level-genius problem solving. They are definitely qualified for your most recent Senior Data Scientist opening.

How do you give candidates the context they need? You give it to them by telling them exactly what they would’ve done today, or this week, if they were already working in the role you’re hiring for.

In 2010, 37Signals (now Basecamp) lowkey published the G.O.A.T. example of what a job posting should be:

Basecamp knew exactly what candidates wanted from their job postings

The part I want you to really focus on, is this heading and the list that follows:

The “if” statement is the most impactful statement in a job posting.

Some people may see the list in the image and think, “pffff I can replace all of that by simply writing, Communication Skills.” — and that’s exactly my point.

“Communication skills” can mean so many different things on so many different levels. And if you’re not telling a person exactly how they’ll be using those skills, you’re leaving far too much room for candidate interpretation.

If we’re thinking about this from a candidate experience perspective, which question do you think is easier for a candidate to answer:

Do I have “proficient communication skills”?

OR

Could I “write thank you notes to customers and book two hotel rooms and two flights for out-of-towners”?

Giving context is phenomenal candidate experience and it literally costs $0.00 to provide to candidates.

There are three steps to replacing your traditional skill requirements with clearer context.

Step one: Scrap the skills.

For decades the vast majority of job postings online have included some variation of a “Required Skills” section where recruiters and/or hiring managers include a laundry list of arbitrary skills with zero context and it needs to stop.

It’s time to delete all of the skills from your requirements section. The “Requirements” section of a job posting should be reserved exclusively for credentials, certifications, role-specific experience and relevant education.

Step two: Introduce the “IF”.

This is the most critical step. The “Required skills” section needs to be replaced by an “if” statement and then a list of job-specific tasks. Basecamp’s “if” statement looked like this: “If you were working for us, here are some of the things you would’ve done last week”

But you don’t have to copy them. Find something that works for you, your culture and your tone but here are some examples to get things rolling:

  • If you were already in this role, here are some things you would’ve done today:
  • If you were currently doing this job, here are some things you would’ve done last week:
  • If you were already working as a [job title] at [your company name], here are 5 things you would’ve accomplished today:

Let’s look at an example:

a) In the outdated job posting format, you might see something like: “must be familiar with Microsoft Office”.

Imagine a candidate, fresh out of high school, looking for his first full time job. He used Microsoft Excel in his grade 12 computer class to create a bar graph visualizing “how often they serve tater tots vs grilled cheese” at his school as a project. He’s “familiar with Microsoft Office” and might just click that “Apply” button.

b) In the new format, we use an “if” statement to help him better understand the role: “If you were currently working in this role, today you would’ve: used Microsoft Excel to create a financial model outlining 3 possible revenue and headcount scenarios for the next three years of operations.”

Using this approach allows you to avoid long lists of arbitrary skills and becomes exponentially more helpful for poor-fit and great-fit candidates alike.

Step three: Dismiss the non-specifics

I personally have said it roughly a million times (like here, here and here) but if you are mentioning a skill in your job posting, it must be accompanied by a deliverable or outcome. This is the most important thing to remember when creating context for candidates in your job postings.

You must avoid ambiguity at all costs.

Imagine you’re hiring a sales agent for your credit recovery/collections company, although it may be tempting (and easy) to write: “if you were doing this job today, you would’ve used your customer service skills to assist customers

It’s much more effective and a better use of everybody’s time and energy to be as specific as possible with something like: “if you were doing this job today, you would’ve spoken with 20–30 customers over the phone, listening to their needs and taking as much time as you needed to put them at ease about their financial recovery options.

I think we can agree that the second example provides candidates with much more insight as to how they will use their communication skills and what they will achieve as a result.

Just like you would want the exact details about a travel itinerary before spending your time and money on a specific tour, candidates want — and deserve — more context before spending their time and energy applying for a job. The best way to give them that context is to introduce a few simple “if” statements in your job postings as a replacement for the old-school, over-bulleted, overly-ambiguous, “required skills” section.

If you like what you’ve just read, have something to add or think I’ve missed the mark on something, I’d love to hear from you. Send me a note on LinkedIn anytime.

Oh, and feel free to hit that applause button to let us know that you like this type of content.

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Ryan Porter

Ryan Porter

Founder: Ruutly.com & RaiseYourFlag.com. Traveller: world. Author: “Make Your Own Lunch”. Lover: hip hop, sushi, dogs, laughter, life.