February 12th, 2019

How to craft a compelling internal job description that improves candidate quality and diversity

Thorough job descriptions are an essential part of the hiring process. They help you and the rest of the hiring team understand what you are looking for in a candidate.

But before you can create an effective external job description to share with candidates and post on job boards, your team needs to have a strong internal understanding of what you’re looking for. Because if everyone doesn’t explicitly know what to hire for, they’ll start filling the gaps based on their own personal experiences and preferences.

This phenomenon is pretty normal. When we don’t know something, our brains try to fill in the gaps. To do that they rely on a set of cognitive biases.

A cognitive bias is a kind of shortcut your brain uses to make decisions on the spot. All sorts of biases affect us every single day.

There’s the bandwagon effect - our tendency to do what other people are doing in order to belong. This effect is one of the reasons we get scared to voice an opposing opinion during a meeting and choose to go with the majority instead.

Then there’s the availability bias. This one is fascinating. This bias makes us believe that the information we easily remember is somehow more accurate than the information we can’t recall. So if you work for a software company that focuses on AI, thanks to this bias you may feel that AI is vital to everyone simply because of your high exposure to information about it.

These biases affect the way we interact with others and most of the time, we don’t even realize it because all of this is happening in the subconscious. These biases can also creep up into the interview process and affect the way your panel make decisions.

However, there is a simple thing you can do to decrease this effect: create clarity.

If you share the specifics you are looking for in every role with the interview panel and agree on what skills and qualities to look for beforehand, you can greatly minimize the impact of implicit biases on decision making. And it all starts by creating a killer internal job description.

But before we show you how to create one, here are some reasons you should make it in the first place.

Your list gives you an undeniable advantage

Creating a thorough internal job description helps you avoid some common errors that end up repelling diverse talent.

1. Using gendered language

According to researchers certain terms and phrases can prevent women from applying for jobs they’ll be great at.

One study found that changing the language of job descriptions increased the appeal of certain jobs to women. They argued that women tend to use a more inclusive, communal style of speech while men tend to use a more aggressive style of speech.

Here’s one of the job descriptions they tested:

The researchers found that women were more drawn to the top description than to the bottom one even though the job is in a traditionally male-dominated field.

Once you have a specific internal description, it’s a lot easier to craft a job description that doesn’t use terms like “rockstar,” “ninja” and “competitive salary” and instead focuses on specifics.

2. Relying on time spent in the role to determine competence.

Experience often gets correlated with time and a lot of job descriptions focus on time in a specific role to qualify candidates.

However unless you feel there is a particularly strong correlation between time and performance in your industry, you can get better results by focusing on specific skills and competencies a candidate needs.

3. Driving away perfectly qualified candidates

Job descriptions that have too many skills- especially if those are non-essential- can stop women from applying. Women tend to not apply for jobs unless they feel 100% qualified.

However because you’ve narrowed down the skills to basic competencies, you can shorten your list to the essentials and add any nice-to-haves where they belong: in the “Wouldn’t it be nice” section of the job description.

How to create an internal job description that helps you increase diversity in hiring

Let’s go through the different steps you can use to craft a fantastic internal job description to help guide your hiring decisions.

1. Identify the specific problems the role solves

One of the key reasons you are hiring is to solve a problem. You’ve identified a specific area in your company that can benefit from bringing in someone new in order to improve productivity and increase earnings.

You hire for a role because you feel that role will help grow the company whether that’s by supporting staff and increasing retention, happiness and productivity or by building a product or carrying out a service that helps the company make more money.

That’s why it’s crucial to build your description with the problem in mind. You are looking for a hire that will be a great solution- and this means that they’ve got to have explicit skills that fit the job.

The first thing you need to do is outline the problem. You need to specify exactly why you are hiring for this role.

To create a really detailed answer - and you’ll need one in order to do really well with the next stage- here are a few additional questions to think about.

  • What specific problems that the company is struggling with right now will this role help solve?
  • Why are you hiring for the role now?
  • Why didn’t you hire for it earlier?
  • What would success look like in this role one year from now? What about five years from now?
  • Is this a role that will always be essential to production or will it evolve?
  • How long do you expect a candidate to spend in this position?
  • Does this role evolve with the candidate or is it static?
  • Can this role lead to opportunities for internal promotion? What would an exact path for that look like?

Be as specific as possible when answering these questions because your answers can help you reverse-engineer some of the basic must-have skills a successful candidate will have. It can also help you identify the skills that can be taught on the job and identify the soft-skills, drives and interests a successful candidate will need to have.

2. Brainstorm the skills needed for this job

Now that you know what problem the role you are hiring for is solving, it’s time to take a look at the skills a potential candidate needs to have to be successful in the role.

For this part, we are going to do a little bit of brainstorming. You’ll make every potential skill explicit and from there you can prioritize and narrow down the list until we get down to the essentials.

There are a few reasons for this. By making all the skills explicit and specifically prioritizing them you decrease the risk that the “unspoken skills”-- skills that the interviewing panel feels a candidate should have but are not actually essential for the job-- will not cloud the decision making process.

Ideally the brainstorming should be done together with every key decision maker in the hiring process. This will help create a shared vision of what the ideal candidate should be able to do. It’s much better to debate what skills they should have at this stage than to let potential assumptions and wish-lists affect the hiring process later.

Here’s how a potential brainstorming session could work:

  • Book a 20-25 minute session with all the decision makers for this role.
  • Send out an agenda beforehand explaining that you’ll be brainstorming all the skills and qualities a candidate needs.
  • For the first 5-15 minutes get everyone to write down all the skills they feel are necessary for this job
  • Write down every skill mentioned and markup the skills that overlap. (You can do that by adding the number of people that mentioned them.)

That’s it. You can adapt this process to fit your own needs. The important thing at this stage is that we aren’t ranking the actual skills by importance just yet - this exercise is about getting down all the skills and qualities interviewers and decision makers feel are important to the role.

There’s one more thing you can do to improve your list. You can interview successful people at your company in the same or similar roles and ask them to identify the skills and qualities they feel make them successful. Then interview their direct supervisors and ask them to identify the skills and qualities that they feel make a hire successful. When you’re done, add the skills and qualities they mentioned to your brainstorming list. Now you are ready to move to the next phase.

3. Narrow the list down to the must-haves

You’ve got a big list of all the skills your team feel are important. Now it’s time to prioritize them.

This can work better as a group activity as well. Share your full list with every decision maker and ask them to rank the top 10 skills - or however many make sense for the role - in order of importance. Make a list of the skills that made it on that list and together, use it to narrow down your list until you get to the must-haves. If you are struggling to narrow down the list ask everyone to explain why they feel their top 5 skills are essential and then through a constructive discussion work together until you have a list you can agree on.

Once you’ve got the essentials down, put together a list of the nice-to-haves. These are the skills that will definitely help the candidate do better but that can be learned on the job. This is a great opportunity to discuss the nice-to-have skills and compare them against the essentials.

There’s a couple of factors that work together to make this a powerful strategy. Generally when we’ve worked together on something, we feel ownership towards it. And ownership is essential for better performance.

Plus by running this exercise and prioritizing together, everyone on the hiring team is now on the same page and you’ve minimized the effect of implicit biases on the hiring process.

Tower above the competition

By making your job descriptions explicit you can attract higher qualified candidates who’ll solve the problems you are looking for. And you can decrease the effect implicit bias plays in the interview process. And isn’t that what we are all aiming for?