How to Attract — And Select — Talent Beyond the Job Description

Type “skills shortage” into an Internet search engine and what pops up are news stories with evidence that a lack of well-equipped job candidates is weighing on the so-called “jobless recovery.”

A disconnect between job hunters and corporate recruiters is evident. Part of the problem could be inadequate education and training, yet much can also be attributed to fundamental flaws in how organizations go about searching for talent.

One of the causes of this disconnect is the “experience-needed” syndrome, argues Tammy Johns, senior vice president of innovation and workforce solutions at talent management services firm ManpowerGroup, in an April post on a Harvard Business Review blog.

The ailment, presented in the form of job descriptions posted on job boards and company websites, is usually demonstrated in two ways: Either job descriptions for entry-level positions are written to ask for specific experience, “which shuts out many young workers,” Johns wrote, or seasoned applicants, lost in the exhaustive details of many job qualifiers, confuse the term “experience needed” for “exact experience needed.”

To some disgruntled would-be applicants, the job description might as well have the headline, “Super Hero Wanted,” Johns said.

Crafting job descriptions to be specific isn’t necessarily a bad thing, however. Recruiters are tasked with finding a near perfect fit for complicated job roles across many functions in an organization, and it’s still important to make clear the entirety of the qualifications needed to be successful in such a role, Johns said.

Still, it might serve some well to rethink how job descriptions are put together, if only to reframe the fine qualifiers to provide for a more beneficial candidate experience and efficient selection process for the recruiter.

First, recruiters should think of job descriptions as job-success profiles, not exhaustive descriptions designed for someone with only those exact qualities.

“Be specific about the key skills, mindset and core competencies required to success rather than itemize every skill and duty one will conceivable encounter during the work day,” Johns wrote in the HBR post.

For every skill itemized on a job description, recruiters should ask: Does a candidate really need that for the role? Job roles tend to change over time, and recruiters should reconsider how the work is organized and take into account those changes as they write — or rewrite — the description, Johns said.

That said, it isn’t always the recruiters who write the job descriptions, stressed Elaine Orler, founder of nonprofit the Talent Board, an organization of human resource professionals who heavily track trends around the candidate experience. That’s typically generated in one of the other core HR functions — most likely compensation, where job descriptions are written to match with a firm’s pay-grade system.

Part of the challenge recruiters face is that by the time a job description gets to their link in the chain — ready to be posted on the company’s website — there is little they are given the freedom to change, Orler said.

“The recruiter has only permission to publish that,” she said. “In other cases, recruiters are given the opportunity to create more of a marketing description.”

Here are some suggestions to ensure Johns’ “experience-needed” syndrome doesn’t interfere with finding the best candidates:

First, organizations should aim to market their culture so potential job candidates, long before viewing a posting for a specific job, already want to work them, Orler said.

“I would love to say that the job description is the bait,” Orler said. “But I don’t think it is anymore. … It used to be, but the bait is a lot more about the company culture. The bait is, ‘Hey, I really want to work for this organization.’”

Once the candidate has already applied by submitting the required materials through an online applicant-tracking system, recruiters have the ability to create and present the applicant with prequalified questionnaires to screen the initial pool.

By bookending the formal job description with procedures that will ensure attraction and fit — marketing culture and adding a post-applicant screening section — the flaws of the formal job description are diminished, if not omitted altogether, Orler said.

Furthermore, the assessment is also a benefit to the candidate.

“Because the assessment is actually giving the recruiter [the opportunity] to evaluate the candidate on some specific criteria, it is [also] a better measure for the candidate as opposed to, ‘I can do all of this, how come you didn’t hire me?’” Orler said.

Frank Kalman is an associate editor of Talent Management magazine. He can be reached at