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Roasting the job description

Last time, I talked about Hiring people who will succeed. Of course, this implies that a manager knows how to hire, or it doesn’t matter how good the stream of candidates is, or how well they perform on tests or in interviews. Sorry to insult a few million people, but in general I think most managers suck at interviewing and hiring. It’s not because they’re dopes; it’s because they act like dopes because the process is dopey.

Take a random manager. He or she probably does a pretty good job running their operation and managing their team. They get the product — whatever it is — out the door. Now, cut to the hiring process, and they open The Rules of Hiring Handed Down by the HR Gods. We quickly shift from getting the work done to acquiring the talent. The manager fills out the HR form — the job description. HR massages it. The objective is to find the perfect candidate who fits the specs and can hit the ground running on day #1. Now the job description has less to do with the job, and more to do with who is The Perfect Candidate.

Trouble is, The Perfect Fit, Isn’t. None of them are. Even a headhunter never finds the perfect fit, and we try. So, now the poor manager is left to acquire the talent, as defined in the job description, and the incoming talent is busy trying to slather itself with key words from the job description. Presto! Everyone is now on the spit, the coals are stoked, and we’re all about to get burned.

I wanna roast the job description. Toast it black, because the damned thing is full of words that distract the manager and the candidate from the work. In The Words We Choose, engineer David Hunt skewers seven juicy sacred cows, and delivers a satisfying take-away meal for every manager who wants to avoid Fast Food Hiring with HR Sauce. His essential message: Stop dehumanizing the hiring process and the interview discussion. Respect the candidate. These ain’t flank steaks — they’re people. And dimes to dollars none of them has ever designed a urinary catheter… keep reading…

Hunt borrows from the world of linguistic determinism — the idea that language shapes thought and the words we choose determine our actions. When we’re interviewing “the talent” and “acquiring the human resources”, we get stupid and distracted and we make dopey mistakes. I love the example job description Hunt highlights: “Wanted: Urinary Catheter Design Engineer. Must have at least five years of experience designing urinary catheters.”

Imagine the poor sucker manager who tries to find The Perfect Candidate for that job. We could bring in 50 talented engineers, but we might as well run a job description that says, “Wanted: Cow with five years’ experience being roasted for dinner.”

Filling a job isn’t about the job description. Candidates are not key words. You cannot identify a candidate’s ability to do the job if you’re interviewing for a Perfect Fit. The job description, more often than not, is a fantasy cooked up down in personnel-junkie land. So, let’s play a little game. You’re a manager. Job descriptions are illegal. How do you attract people who can do the work?

  1. Nick:

    Thanks so much for the mention – kind words indeed. :)


  2. I have never seen a job description that actually describes what a person does all day. Whenever HR makes needs one from me, they do not ask me to describe what I do – they ask me to fill out a form designed by someone who is completely clueless about my job. Naturally, the form is meaningless. I always felt the name change from “Personnel” to “Human Resources” said a lot about the mental attitude – people are just one more resource, like paperclips, desks and machine tools. “Personnel” used to be that part of a company who helped workers deal with certain types of issues. “Human Resources” is now the part of a company which provides income for people who can’t do anything useful.

  3. Weren’t job descriptions invented to facilitate salary administration? Comparison shopping is easier when similar things have similar names.

  4. Tom: Yah, the slave trade is alive and well in corporate HR. Line ’em up, scrub ’em up, give ’em a name, get ’em ready. What am I bid?

  5. A few weeks ago I interviewed for an easy short term software development contract through a well-known large (North American) agency. After discussing the job details with the staffer, the manager comes in to speak with me, and starts referring to me as “the resource”. I politely stopped him right there and asked if he realized that most of not all job seekers (including me) DETEST being referred to as a “resource”, as it implies we are a disposable commodity to be used up and discarded when no longer convenient or useful.

    Apparently I was the first candidate to ever chip him on this as he responded that he’d been in HR for 15 years and never heard this before. Thereafter in the interview he did drop the “resource” moniker and used “you”. I did not get the contact as another agency got someone interviewed first.

  6. @Stewart: You’re raising a very important but subtle point. The applicant tracking systems tacity encourage employers and recruiters to see people as things. It’s downright stupid. This leads to treating them like database records with “skills” and “attributes.” This in turn lets them reduce their judgments to ticking off the keywords they need. People need not apply or even really interview. Are your keywords correct? That’s what matters. And that’s what leads to disastrous management decisions. Good for you for speaking up. What the HR clown revealed is that he’s been living and working in a circus for 15 years.

  7. I once was contacted by a recruiter about a position with a large software company (not to mention any names) based in Redmond. We discussed the job description and I agreed to be submitted as a candidate.

    The recruiter called a couple of weeks later, and said that the hiring manager wanted to know why I, who have 20+ years of experience in the RF field, was interested in an entry-level position. We looked back at the description, and I pointed out that it was requiring “at least 5 years of RF experience”, as well as some other very specific knowledge and experience that I brought.

    And this is what the market is like. They want experienced, entry level candidates. They don’t see the conflict between the terms “entry-level” and “experienced”. They want interns, or slaves.

  8. @Brian: I think what they want is experienced candidates for entry-level jobs at slave pay. It’s called “capitalizing on desperation.”

  9. I have heard the use of the term “human capital,” which I think is even worse than “human resource”!
    Also,in a way, I think the internet has destroyed opportunities for many applicants….I can remember when my father was hiring sales representatives for a textbook firm, and he would receive resumes and personal letters (some even hand written-in cursive) which gave candidates a way to express themselves as a person, not a key word match. It is an interesting fact that the entire world can now apply to jobs through a search engine, rather than actually knowing about companies because you live in the area.

  10. What I’ve found is when an ad says X+ years of experience, companies pay X, not +.

  11. I unwittingly contributed to job ad enhancement. Applied to local defense contractor, had in person interview. No offer. Then they ran another ad similar to the first, but with skills and keywords from my resume! Reapplied of course, but no response. It’s almost funny.

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