Write Better Job Descriptions

13 minutes, 14 links


Updated August 24, 2022
Technical Recruiting and Hiring

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.

At many companies, writing the job description is a perfunctory task, something to just get through so we can hire someone right now. But taking a thoughtful approach and investing in a good process for writing job descriptions with a D&I lens can have a significant positive effect on the rest of your hiring process. How you advertise your jobs has a proven impact on who applies.

The patterns that show up across your company’s jobs show what you truly value.Kieran Snyder, co-founder and CEO, Textio*

Improving the Job Description Format

Because every hiring manager tends to write job descriptions differently, setting some standards and guidelines can help. One guideline might be to limit bullet points to just five, each no longer than an old-school tweet (140 characters). This is to encourage hiring managers to focus on what’s essential and avoid prescribing or overdetermining potential candidate profiles too much, as that’s where biases can creep in. There are a few essential guidelines for writing inclusive JDs:

  • Describe outcomes. Describe the job that needs to be done or the problem that needs to be solved. Outcomes will get a candidate who’s a good fit excited about the job; a job description that lists only requirements just describes what you think a candidate should look like.

  • Describe the problem. Unhelpful job descriptions often try to appeal to the broadest applicant pool possible, which creates a high volume of applicants, most of whom can’t tell if the role is right for them; and this in turn means that none of them may be the right person for the role. Instead, the best job descriptions are specific about problems the person in the role will be expected to solve. This lets the right person see themselves in the role.

  • Focus on real requirements. Separate out and prioritize the requirements checklist into what’s really needed vs. what the person might learn more about on the job. Rattling off a long list of requirements often inadvertently results in describing a candidate who doesn’t exist or whom the company could not realistically recruit. By listing what’s actually the core function of the job versus what can be taught, like certain tools or languages, you open the candidate pool to more nontraditional talent who may be self-taught or otherwise lack prior exposure to specific skill sets, but who have the potential to learn quickly.

Improving Job Description Language

important The language you use matters. Textio compared the language used by ten top tech companies in their job descriptions, strikingly documenting one source of tech’s homogeneity problem. Describing your teams and company using the same typical language other companies use signals to candidates that your company is no different. In modeling yourself after your favorite Valley tech company, you may not realize that that company represents the exact thing that certain groups are eager to escape.

In 2015, Buffer realized their job postings were only getting 2% female applicants. They figured out this was due in part to one word they kept using: hacker. Buffer posted about what happened when they used different language in their job descriptions, and how that changed who applied. Nvidia saw 2.5 times more applicants from female developers after they removed “weird” language from their job titles (as described in a very helpful post by FastCompany)—titles like “guru,” “ninja,” “rockstar,” or “genius,” to which older candidates, women, and other underrepresented people are unlikely to respond, let alone search for.

Slate reported that controlled academic studies and a ZipRecruiter analysis of millions of ads on its platform have shown the same effects of gendered and exclusionary language in job descriptions. Such language keeps candidates from applying or even seeing the job in the first place.

A great tool for discovering gendered and exclusionary language in job descriptions is Textio.

Improve Your Value Proposition

Numerous studies have shown that there’s a “confidence gap” across genders that leads to unequal rates of access to opportunities. In your job description, it’s important to focus on selling, not gate-keeping. Why should these candidates join your company?

Unlock expert knowledge.
Learn in depth. Get instant, lifetime access to the entire book. Plus online resources and future updates.
  • Mission and vision. What are your mission and vision for the future? What impact will this role have in the company, and what impact will the company have on the world? If you work at a small company that hasn’t yet developed its value proposition or branding, visit Appendix B and our section on crafting company narratives.

  • Benefits. Beyond the company’s mission and vision, other ways to add to your value proposition are by honing your benefits and perks.

caution Many companies proudly list their offerings without realizing that those very offerings are biased toward certain groups. A single, childless 23-year-old male candidate has different priorities than an experienced candidate with parent and elder caretaking duties. The latter is less likely to get excited about “weekly happy hours, beers on tap, and ping-pong tournaments,” and much more likely to be drawn to clear parental leave policies, 401k matching, and flexible work schedules.

I’ve seen companies whose job descriptions and careers pages mention hot-tub hangouts and regular alcohol-centered team activities be confused about why they struggle attracting a qualified, diverse pool of applicants.Jennifer Kim, startup advisor and inclusion advocate

There’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to benefits packages, so it’ll take time and experimenting to figure out what works for you. It helps to keep in mind that the focus of the company, team, or role will make certain benefits more attractive to relevant candidates (for example, privacy protection may be a bigger concern for certain security roles.) Does your company offer childcare assistance, flexible hours, ability to work remotely, or student loan assistance? Have you considered covering physical safety costs in the case of harassment, including security details, anti-doxxing measures, or funding for emergency temporary relocation? Does your medical insurance policy include pregnancy and transgender health benefits? A candidate-focused job description comes from recruiting with D&I in mind.

  • Think about the visuals. What kind of information does your jobs page communicate about the team and environment? Who is featured in the photos and what are they doing? What would candidates from underrepresented groups say about what they see?

It is critical to directly ask a variety of people if they are willing to give you feedback, instead of assuming what you think their perception will be. You might find that the casual language and photos that you thought were conveying a “relaxed, chill” vibe might be a signal for “unprofessionalism” to an engineer who was burned at her previous startup. A showcase of photos from your company’s exotic retreat, the whole engineering team in their bathing suits, can be a big turnoff to URGs; this is the last thing some will be looking for.

This doesn’t mean URGs are wet blankets on your cozy team bonding; it means you need to balance what you view as a “fun” workplace environment with a value proposition that reaches people with broader lives and concerns, such as family, health, personal safety, and so on. This is an exercise in considering how you might be limiting your talent pool because of the ways in which you present (and sometimes misrepresent!) your company’s values.

Present Existing D&I Efforts with Honesty

Checking the About page on a company’s website is an important part of the job search process for many candidates from underrepresented groups. While all candidates want to learn about the people they’ll be working with, URGs tend to pay special attention to existing diversity, to figure out whether that particular environment is one where they could be set up for success, both as a candidate and as a potential employee.

important The number-one most effective way to attract underrepresented talent is to have a proven, demonstrated record of URGs thriving at your company. That not only means effective hiring, but also retaining and promoting people from underrepresented backgrounds into leadership positions. Your company’s reputation as an inclusive space amongst URG engineering networks will precede you. While changing jobs is always risky, URGs tend to be especially conservative when it comes to risk tolerance. Pay inequity, career stagnation, harassment, and assault are just a handful of the additional concerns that URGs have to weigh when deciding on a new career opportunity. If your candidates can see that others like them have been successful at your company, they can put a lot of those concerns to rest. On the flip side, lack of these indicators makes it too easy for candidates to screen you out and move on to another company. Increasingly, more candidates from all backgrounds are operating this way.

story “When people interview with me, they see a signal that they can bring themselves to work. I can be a living, breathing ‘Black people are welcome here’ sign.” —Bukky Adebayo, Product Manager, Microsoft*

Chances are, your organization does not currently have the halo effects of an excellent record and reputation when it comes to diversity—few companies do. Being honest about your D&I efforts likely requires changing your recruiting pitch.

danger Photographing the one Black employee and two women on the team and plastering their faces around your site is not a good idea. You don’t want to “fake it.” Never lie to candidates—it won’t end well. And do not lie to your employees either. Get consent from anyone whose photo or bio you want to use in marketing material, and tell them what you will be using it for. Give them the option to opt out without professional consequences (don’t tell them they’re “not a team player”). In addition to privacy and safety concerns, individuals may not want to be the face of D&I at your company, especially if the company is still struggling.

But if you truly are making an effort in diversity, what can you show, if the numbers aren’t there yet? Embrace this opportunity to engage in real talk with candidates. Acknowledge deficiencies and your growing awareness, and explain the journey behind the learning process. More and more employees are expecting this level of honesty from their leaders.

Questions to reflect on:

  • How do the team or company leaders currently talk about D&I?

  • Is D&I being discussed as an important part of overall business strategy, beyond hiring numbers?

  • What concrete steps has the team taken or will take to expand understanding of the issues that affect underrepresented talent in tech?

  • What are some recent actions you or your team have taken to create a more fair and equitable organization?

This will allow you to point to specific examples—along with upcoming initiatives.

important You don’t need to have a perfect answer. In fact, you may be the only company a candidate is talking to that has anything like a thoughtful response to their questions or concerns about D&I. They will likely find your willingness to talk refreshing. Just be honest. You’ll find that candidates are much more open to the truth that you’re working on it, than to a charade that you’ve somehow mastered D&I—they will definitely see through that.

Diversify Your Candidate Pool

In technical hiring, especially at startups, this is a common practice: “I just reached out to all the guys I know and hired who was available.” In fact, your most effective recruiting channel is probably internal referrals—even for later-stage companies—and referrals typically share the demographic characteristics of your existing team. Expanding the pool and being intentional about who you are inviting to interview gives a chance to those who may otherwise have been overlooked. Luckily, there are many ways to diversify your initial candidate pool and expand your pool of qualified candidates.


If your organization already has a university recruiting program, consider expanding your efforts to include schools with more diverse populations than Stanford, MIT, and Harvard, whether that’s HBCUs (historically Black colleges and universities), women’s colleges, or state universities and community colleges. You can choose to recruit from colleges where the student populations are closer to the audience for your product. You can look at the schools that belong to BRAID or other schools that have made effective strides in diversifying their engineering programs.

You’re reading a preview of an online book. Buy it now for lifetime access to expert knowledge, including future updates.
If you found this post worthwhile, please share!