Crafting the Job Description

12 minutes, 16 links

You’re reading an excerpt of The Holloway Guide to Technical Recruiting and Hiring, a book by Osman (Ozzie) Osman and over 45 other contributors. It is the most authoritative resource on growing software engineering teams effectively, written by and for hiring managers, recruiters, interviewers, and candidates. Purchase the book to support the author and the ad-free Holloway reading experience. You get instant digital access, over 800 links and references, commentary and future updates, and a high-quality PDF download.

While every job description will have its own set of unique details, there are a few basic principles that you can use repeatedly as you continue to hire. (Many of the practices in writing good job titles also apply to writing good job descriptions.)

Anatomy of a Job Description

An informative and compelling job description may have some or all of the following elements:

  • job title

  • job level

  • location (and/or “remote friendly”)

  • company name (including logo or branding, if available)

  • company narrative

  • role narrative

  • outcomes expected for the role

  • skills and/or experience required to meet expected outcomes

  • skills and/or experience that is preferred but not necessary

  • traits and values of the ideal candidate

  • compensation, benefits, perks

  • how to apply

  • EEO statement.

Depending on your priorities, you may spend more space on one or another of these elements, or combine some of them. How you choose to structure these elements typically indicates a lot about the company’s priorities and even their hiring philosophy: Does the job description focus on a long list of requirements first? Does it describe the ideal candidate up front? Or does it begin with a detailed description of the company’s mission, or conversely, omit it?

If you’ve already established the outcomes of the role and the skills, characteristics, values, and experience that will make success in the role likely, listing these in the context of a job description will be relatively easy.

caution Be mindful of length. Candidates will often skim quickly and may not even make it to material lower on the page. Put what you most want your ideal candidate to read at the top—is it the company’s mission, the candidate’s traits and values, their required expertise, or something else?

Here’s what that can look like in practice, from a Splice job description for a Software Engineer position:

Figure: An Annotated Job Description

Source: Splice; annotation by Holloway

Balancing Outcomes and Requirements

A key goal is to find a balance between making the role description too broad (which may make it less enticing to candidates with a specific set of experiences and interests) or too narrow (which can cause candidates who may have been a good fit to self-select out).

If your job description is built around checklists of requirements, it will be a lot less compelling to candidates than if it is built around the challenges and impact of the work—the outcomes.

Experience requirements are tempting to use because they are concrete, so someone on your team can easily compare a candidate’s profile to the experience required. Likewise, candidates can look at the required experience and decide whether or not to apply. But experience may not always translate to ability or even seniority, so you may wish to be more specific about the kind of experience you are looking for.

For example, if you’re looking for someone with “5+ years of C++ experience,” you might end up spending a disproportionate amount of time assessing candidates’ C++ skills (and probably will struggle to attract the best candidates). But if you focus on the outcomes for the role, you might say something like, “successfully develop and scale microservices handling 10M requests per day.” This description can help to filter out candidates who don’t have enough experience to be able to accomplish that kind of work, while leaving the application open for the kind of experience that might surprise you.

cautionThere is research indicating that certain candidates may take requirements more literally than others—in particular, women may be less likely to apply if they don’t meet all the requirements listed for a job. There are plenty of anecdotes of companies themselves not taking the requirements they list literally. Only use requirements if they are truly requirements; and when you do, it can be helpful to list which requirements are “minimum requirements” and which are simply “preferred.” For many roles, a degree in computer science may be preferred, for example; but there might be plenty of qualified candidates who don’t have one. If you don’t really need it, consider not including it at all.

Remember, this is all about finding candidate-company fit, not about enticing the “best” people to join your team.

Fairness and Inclusivity

danger Wording in your job description can have unintended consequences in determining who applies. Attempts to make your roles sound more enticing can actually discourage people from applying. Researchers have found evidence that using gendered language contributes to an imbalanced pipeline of candidates; certain language can also discourage older candidates or candidates from marginalized communities from applying.

To avoid this, it’s critical to think carefully about your word choice and test your wording on a variety of people. There are also tools like Textio that you can use to check your text for discriminatory or biased language.

important There are a number of ways in which you can make your job descriptions and company About pages more inclusive, thereby increasing the number of qualified candidates who will be interested in working for you. These include the job description format, its language, the company’s value proposition, and how the company talks about Diversity and Inclusion on its website or in the context of the job description.

Should Job Descriptions Include Salary Information?

controversy Many companies include such compensation details as benefits, time-off policies, and perks like remote work, gyms, and free lunches; but they rarely include specific salary information.* While a small number of tech companies (like Glitch and a handful of others) and all U.S. government agencies do, most organizations prefer not to include salary data so as to allow room for negotiation. Salary transparency in job postings might also reveal inequities in the pay structure for existing employees.

Many recruiting and HR experts advocate for putting salary information in job descriptions, noting that this reduces the amount of time you have to spend screening early in the process, and leads to better retention rates and more productive, satisfied employees.*

Candidates prefer to know the salary up front, or they risk wasting their time applying for a position that cannot meet their needs. In a candidate-focused hiring process, it’s worth considering including the expected salary, a salary range, only the lower bound (assuming candidates will negotiate up), or only the upper band (“up to” X amount). Of these choices, a salary range is most often what specialists recommend.*

Sharing information about salary can be positive for companies: As reported by Dice, in an A/B test Stack Overflow found “ads that featured a salary range experienced a 75% average increase in click-through rates. Even jobs that advertised salaries below $100,000 saw a 60% increase.”*

Another concern competitive companies express is that including high salaries will bring in a whole lot of unqualified applications. This may well be true. In the same Dice report, the company Proforma is said to have found an increase in the number of unqualified applicants when they included salary ranges. However, it also ultimately increased the efficiency of their hiring process: “My closing rate has jumped from the mid-40% range to 84%, so I’ve more than made up for the extra time I spend screening applicants,” said Proforma’s Director of Career Advancement.

startup If you’re worried about not being able to offer a competitive salary, it’s still not wise to avoid including it. Candidates will find out sooner or later, and keeping them in the dark will build bad will and may cause them to withdraw from the process. Instead, it’s best to include the salary or a band, and bring attention to other parts of your job description—if you’re highly mission-driven, emphasize why the mission matters; state that you offer competitive equity packages and benefits; and include narratives about the team and the impact they’re having or working to have. Your transparency alone may be attractive to candidates.

The EEO Statement

Definition An equal employment opportunity statement (EEO statement, equal opportunity employer statement, or diversity statement) is an expression of a company’s compliance with federal equal opportunity law, which is administered and enforced by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Only federal government contractors and subcontractors are required to include EEO statements in their job descriptions,* but many other companies do so voluntarily.

The advantage of EEO statements is that they show the company is operating in good faith—but they’re also part of how the company markets itself. Companies often opt to make the EEO statement specific to the company’s values, even if their practices do not always comply.

Examples of EEO statements:

  • Basic: “Acme Corp is an equal opportunity employer.”

  • Google: “At Google, we don’t just accept difference—we celebrate it, we support it, and we thrive on it for the benefit of our employees, our products, and our community. Google is proud to be an equal opportunity workplace and is an affirmative action employer.”

  • Dropbox: “Dropbox is an equal opportunity employer. We are a welcoming place for everyone, and we do our best to make sure all people feel supported and connected at work. A big part of that effort is our support for members and allies of internal groups like Asians at Dropbox, BlackDropboxers, Latinx, Pridebox (LGBTQ), Vets at Dropbox, Women at Dropbox, ATX Diversity (based in Austin, Texas) and the Dropbox Empowerment Network (based in Dublin, Ireland).”

  • Dell: “Dell is an Equal Opportunity Employer and Prohibits Discrimination and Harassment of Any Kind: Dell is committed to the principle of equal employment opportunity for all employees and to providing employees with a work environment free of discrimination and harassment. All employment decisions at Dell are based on business needs, job requirements and individual qualifications, without regard to race, color, religion or belief, national, social or ethnic origin, sex (including pregnancy), age, physical, mental or sensory disability, HIV Status, sexual orientation, gender identity and/or expression, marital, civil union or domestic partnership status, past or present military service, family medical history or genetic information, family or parental status, or any other status protected by the laws or regulations in the locations where we operate. Dell will not tolerate discrimination or harassment based on any of these characteristics.”

This is an interesting, if niche, topic. If you’d like to read more about EEO statements:

Creating Narratives

The job description is a tool for reaching toward candidate-company fit: it is as much about the people you hope will apply for the role as it is about the company. The job description exposes your company—possibly for the first time—to the candidate pool, so it’s crucial to think about how you are representing the value proposition of your company and team through this medium. At the same time, a good job description will be designed to find and attract candidates who are both qualified for and interested in the role. The best way to do this is to build narratives—that is, telling stories—about the company and the ideal candidate.

Storytelling doesn’t come naturally to everyone; it’s easy to do too little, with a list of requirements awkwardly crammed into a character study, and too much, with a grandiose story that doesn’t map to people’s expectations about the nature of their work. After all, you’re hiring people to solve engineering challenges, not fight dragons. And odds are, you don’t have a writer on staff to help you craft these artifacts. For a smaller company or team, you’re probably best off having everyone, even non-engineers, review the job description to make sure the mission, company narrative, and role narrative feel right. Larger organizations might already have enough experience writing these that you’ll have a bank of options to choose from, but that doesn’t mean what you’ve been working with has really been effective. It may be time to update your story for the next great candidate.

Company Narrative

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