In the October 29, 2019 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter an executive is concerned about the role of the job description in employee attrition.


job description

I’m president of a $20 million company, privately owned. Due to unusual turnover, I met with my head of HR and the affected managers. They said the “talent pool” isn’t good any more. HR’s exit notes indicated poor performance and lack of skills as the reasons for termination. So why did you hire them, I asked. They were the best candidates, they said. Then I read the job descriptions they used. Lists as long as a 3 iron. Nine or 10 “tasks,” even more “qualifications required,” and then a stack of “we prefer that you haves.” I asked them, is there something wrong with our process? Are we asking for too much and not training new hires enough? What are your thoughts about a problem like this? It’s serious.

Nick’s Reply

Job descriptions? Here’s what I think of job descriptions and people that write them (with apologies to Monty Python):

I feel your pain. But the idea that the “talent pool” has deteriorated is balderdash. Your suspicion that there’s something wrong with the process is correct. The conventional interview and assessment process assumes that in six months a new hire will be doing what was defined in the original job description.

That’s almost never the case. I believe that’s a big reason why new hires fail. So, how can you hire for the changing nature of the work?

The job description

When a manager needs work done, HR uses a process that starts with the manager describing the requirements of the job. This conventionally includes the tasks, a list of necessary qualifications, and some flowery promises about the company environment.

HR adds whatever it believes will attract the best and most applicants. Too often, HR’s largesse exceeds the limits of reality. For example, a job for a programmer will require “at least 5 years’ experience” with a scripting language that was invented only two years ago. HR always figures more is better — but doesn’t bother to check with the manager. Or, a go-fer job in the marketing department is characterized as “Senior Marketing Staff,” because it should attract really talented go-fers.

What happens after the job description

Even if the job description is truthful and accurate, almost every job runs head-long into a wall. Six months into it, the new hire is not doing what they were hired to do, but different work and usually more work. That’s because most jobs evolve to fill the ever-changing needs of a business.

The problem is, employers don’t hire for changing needs. HR takes a blurry (and wishful) snapshot of “a job,” fixed in time and in someone’s imagination, larding it with enough “requirements” to make a purple squirrel gag. (There are other ways HR goes off the rails with its hiring methods. See Why does HR waste time, money and the best job candidates?)


Can a “job description” ever be a useful tool in recruiting and hiring? As a headhunter, I’ve always read job descriptions once, then tossed them aside. I call the manager and find out what kind of evolving work the manager really needs done over the next year or two.

Here’s what I ask about:

What’s the problem? What do you want your new hire to make, fix or improve?

What’s the deliverable? What should the new hire deliver to the person working downstream from them? For example, a design engineer needs to deliver a certain part of a subsystem design to the system designer or project manager. What does that part of the subsystem look like and what must it do?

What’s the schedule? What do you need the new hire to deliver or accomplish in the first week, month, three months, six and 12 months on the job? Be specific. The deliverables must be defined in objective terms everyone agrees on. They must be measurable in amount, degree and quality — what are the metrics?

How does the work fit? Finally, and perhaps most important, how will the new hire fit into the larger work flow and objectives of the team, the department and the entire company? This is key, because it suggests what else the new hire must be able to do or learn to do.

Please note that your HR people are in no position to ask these questions and to discuss the details that underpin them. Your managers must do it. While a good headhunter can help them, you don’t need a headhunter if you get on top of this yourself.

Are you doing what you were hired for?

There’s a thing I do when I speak to seasoned managers in executive MBA programs at Wharton, UCLA, Northwestern and other business schools. I ask for a show of hands:

“Who has a job where what you were doing six months into it matched the job description you interviewed for?”

Of course, I get a lot of hoots and LMAOs. No one has ever asserted they were doing what they were hired for to start with.

What to ask job applicants

I suggest you direct your managers to answer the questions above about every job they think they need to fill. My guess is they will find that some jobs have no justification or value. I think they will find that the work that needs to be done is best defined in terms of deliverables that continue to change.

Three good questions for job applicants might be:

  1. Can you please show us how you would deliver X, Y and Z in three months, six months and 12 months?
  2. How would you help these 3 other teams deliver their objectives?
  3. How would you help the company achieve goals A, B and C?

I won’t even get into discussing your company’s plans for new projects, products or services — but your managers need to assess whether job candidates can shift gears quickly to meet the company’s changing needs. One good way to do this is to have applicants spend time with your teams before you hire them, so everyone can see how everyone else thinks and works. (But don’t go here: I think they expect me to work for free.) Of course, it’s your responsibility (and your managers’) to show applicants how you teach employees to do new kinds of work.

Please forget about filling jobs. Think about hiring people who can do changing work and deliver specific outcomes, and who can intelligently discuss how they might contribute to your company’s specific objectives.

There’s not a job description in this mix.

Does the work you do today match the job description you were hired for? How should employers assess job applicants to maximize success for everyone? What’s the most effective way you’ve assessed or been assessed for a job?

: :

  1. >I’m president of a $20 million company, privately owned.

    How do the salariea of these jobs compare to the competitors? To rhe market?

    >Or, a go-fer job in the marketing department is characterized as “Senior Marketing Staff,”

    Which leads to looking for someone willing to do Senior Marketing Staff duties at go-fer duties.

    Would LW work for a VP salary?

    If you want a SMS hire at SMS salary.

    I’d suggest hiring managers having a veto over the contents of their job ad. With the president coming down hard on any HR job ad that doesn’t have hiring manager sign off.

    That way it’s a small change, avoids centralising it and I’d bet you get better quality. Especially if the hiring managers delegate.

    • >Which leads to looking for someone willing to do Senior Marketing Staff duties at go-fer salaries.

      Stupid autocorrect

  2. Whether the blame is at HR or wishful managers, I imagine that the story goes like this:

    HR/manager: We want a 35 year old candidate with 25 years of experience in a technology that came into existence five years ago, who can evolve into everything we wish, but is also content to do exactly the same job as before for a small salary increase, who is a good team player but also can work independently, who will swear allegiance to our Corporate Mission Statement, who defines work-life balance as a love to spend 10 hours a day here. And who can bake purple squirrel shaped cakes.

    Reality: Not sure that candidate exists.

    HR/manager: Talent shortage!!!!!

    A couple of years ago, I was involved in a hiring process, where the preferred candidate declined, the second best candidate appeared to have a too large ego, and other candidates failed at the tasks. The managers scratched their heads in what to do then (actually they interviewed more candidates, which they rejected) but I suggested we should have hired the third choice from the first round. His aptitude may not have been bullseye, but his attitude was great; a bit of training and he would be good enough. (In the end no-one was hired due to budget issues…may be someone should have though on that in the first place…)

    • We were hiring for a technical specialist (generic job title that covered a wide range of things) when we stumbled onto a candidate who could have filled two roles. Now that second role hadn’t been officially approved by HR yet though my manager had been working on that. He’d noticed that the candidate had a background that would have allowed him to provide some backup for my position (via that not-yet approved position) and included me in the interview process even though the specific reason for calling the candidate in was for a different technology focus. Everybody — and I mean EVERYBODY — that was part of the interview process wanted to bring this candidate on board. Well, everybody but HR. The candidate’s desired salary desire was more than what HR decided that a “technical specialist” should get — even though it was less than what TWO technical specialists would typically be paid — and decided that they were not going to allow the hiring manager to “kill two birds with one stone”.

      • @Rick:

        HR: Hiring is an expense that reduces our bottom line.
        Me: Hiring is an investment that, done properly, increases your bottom line. Invest to make more.

        • I don’t remember where I was, precisely, but somehow heard that in the 80’s everything got monetized with a value tagged to it. Thus, people shifted from being assets / investments to be brought along, cultivated, and developed, to costs to be minimized.

    • @Karsten: Training?? What’s that??

  3. Who moved my cheese applied to hiring. What a surprise this is not.

  4. Nick:

    You and I have discussed and both written about this exact obsession with the perfect fit leading to *cough bs cough* shortages. Although – thanks to you – I have a guest voices piece on that on your blog, if I might post one of mine on the topic, but from a different site. I think you’ll appreciate the lead-in paragraph, as will the posters.

    More broadly, this is an evergreen topic. Basic economics dictates that, in the presence of a scares resource – “qualified people” – managers make adjustments to the requirements, this is not the case here. IMHO this bespeaks a laziness in the upper echelons in permitting flexibility, not to mention a (and I choose this word intentionally) cringing risk-aversion on the parts of those who don’t question the must-have list of 15 different skill sets.

    • Oh, and a short anecdote. Some years back I was invited to an interview through a (good!) recruiter I know. The way they described it, the company was having problems finding someone…

      According to them (and trusting my imperfect memory on the numbers) they’d brought in over 20 people over a year+ without finding anyone to whom they made an offer. That included me. Several months later they told me the position had been closed without it being filled. “Shortage of qualified talent.”

      If I were that hiring manager’s manager, seeing that position open for that long without anyone being hired, I’d have stepped in. I could not, of course, mandate a specific person be hired. But I’d have gone over the criteria with a fine-tooth comb and a redline pen. (And probably had some words with HR about letting such a farce go on for so long.)

      • My wife worked as a programmer at a company where managers were evaluated, in part, by how long their open positions were, well, open. The reason being that having open positions unfilled for extended periods meant that the rest of the team was working harder to take up the slack and would eventually result in burnout and future open positions. Lather, rinse, and repeat.

        • Love this.

          Nobody expects that the first warm body that walks in should be immediately hired. But this, what you wrote about your wife’s company, is a critical piece of feedback.

        • My God! If a company actually works this way, it’s a very warped environment (certainly one I wouldn’t want to work in)! In addition, this is unfair (and even outright cruel) to anyone applying for, and getting interviewed for their openings.

          My 2 cents worth.

        • @Rick: Managers that can’t hire should be fired. Recruiting and hiring is/are job #1.

          @David: Your “Perfect Hire” is on the old website. I need to add it here!

  5. 1. I always did my own job descriptions. I don’t know why you would delegate that to a person that can’t possibly know the role better than the hiring manager.
    2. ‘They were best available candidates’ is an awful answer. Never hire until you find the right candidate.
    3. Ask the hiring managers why they exited these employees. Then ask them if there were red flags on their resume and what questions could have helped them identify the potential be underperformance.

    4. Is the turnover is caused by managers. Star with youreself and ask ‘Am I doing enough to put people in a position to succeed?’ Why so you have to ask HR why turnover is high? Shouldn’t you know? Find a version of a floor walk that will help you understand from the lowest level employee what is going right and what is going wrong. ( Don’t do a survey!)

    Best of luck!

  6. Some random thoughts on the issue.

    1) “They said the ‘talent pool’ isn’t good any more.”

    Uh, they do realize that said talent pool includes their own employees, and they’re talking about them….and themselves, right?

    2) Let’s be honest. The “would be nice to have” qualifications are, in fact, must haves. Why else would they include them? People are risk averse, and this category gives people the opportunity to keep looking for the purple squirrel. “Well, she met all 15 must haves, but she’s missing 2 of the 30 nice-to-haves, specifically the very last two the HR intern added. We should keep looking.”

    3) I wonder how much job descriptions are hurting companies up front in the recruiting stage. I see two reasons for this.

    First, obviously, people know they’ll most likely be rejected unless they meet 100% of the requirements. So they don’t apply.

    Secondly, these descriptions are getting so long, standard, and bureaucratic that potential employees have absolutely no idea what the company does or what the job is actually like. I’ve seen job descriptions for engineers that read like they were written by someone in the US labor department. (I’m sure lazy companies crib off this anyway.) “Collects data, analyzes data, and proposes solutions to problems.” Duh. No crap, Sherlock. That’s what every engineer should be doing. It’d be like posting a job description for a family doctor that says, “Examines patients and offers solutions to medical problems.” Again, duh, no crap, Sherlock.

    I’ll read one of these with a dozen requirements and a dozen “nice to haves” and still not have any idea what the job actually does, what the company actually makes, or what industry it operates in. With descriptions like this, where’s the hook? Where’s the sizzle that gets a potential candidate interested? I’ve had recruiters read me these descriptions, and it’s like listening to someone read you stereo manual instructions.

    Imagine if, instead, a company posted something like: “We manufacture Megawidgets using MacGruber-style phase induction stampers. We’re looking for someone to increase our productivity and quality while reducing machine down time. If you’re an engineer familiar with these or similar production methods, we want to talk with you.”

    That’s it. That’s all the job description should be. Either someone has familiarity with it or they don’t.

    4) Related to #2 and #3, aren’t all job descriptions becoming nothing more than statements of baseline requirements that one shouldn’t even need to ask about a candidate? I’ve seen job descriptions for project managers that have line after line of requirements talking about communicating with customers, coordinating work between departments, attending meetings, blah, blah, blah. Isn’t that what all PMs should be doing? Why not add requirements of breathing, having a heart beat, and being able to communicate better than grunts and wild hand motions? What’s next, having a requirement that veterinarians know the difference between a dog and a cat?

    • Here is where your dry, cut & paste job descriptions come from:

      I looked up veterinarians since you referenced it in your post. The first 2 (and obvious) skills required are:
      * Examine animals to detect and determine the nature of diseases or injuries.See more occupations related to this task.
      * Treat sick or injured animals by prescribing medication, setting bones, dressing wounds, or performing surgery.

      My organization uses this database to “teach” job searchers how to focus their resume on the responsibilities of a job and try to discover what sounds appealing for employment. Apparently, it also gets used in some useless ways too such as writing job descriptions when you are 100% ignorant of the subject matter.

  7. Most JDs are little more than word vomit. IMHO if a JD can’t be written so an 8 year old or your grandmother has a reasonable idea of what the position is or does, you need to go back to the drawing board.

    • @Askeladd: I agree! Most verbiage in JD’s are slop and jargon. If a 12-year-old can’t understand it, it’s not well-enough thought out. That’s a good exercise.

      • Clearly, whoever creates these JDs is not a graduate of the Ernest Hemingway School of Writing.

  8. The side effect of the “cut and paste” feature.

  9. Alas, most of the managers I’ve worked for in 35 years didn’t know how to do the job, nor had they ever done it.

    I’m from Canada where hockey used to be king. I’m considering this topic and thought that if I was going to outfit my company to acquire talent, I would learn how the best hockey teams acquire talent.

    It’s a given the player can skate, handle the puck, and understand the rules of the game. The player’s experience is only proof that he played. How he played is only evident via video or the scouts watching him (forget asking questions on an employment application: can you score, backcheck, etc).

    Which leads us to the player’s capabilities/abilities. THIS…is what defines any human as for being able to meet current and future challenges…or NOT. Are they physically fit (we’re hiring obese weeble-wobles who can’t manage their own eating habits–I’m supposed to trust they can manage my company? Nope. Not to mention the health costs to my company (I spoke with companies over the years who told me that a small percentage of their employees caused EVERYBODYS health costs to skyrocket because they were always in the hospital due to their inept lifestyle (eat like a dumpster; no exercise; drink too much). Do you think you get to play hockey being obese and a drunk/drug-addict? Then why at the job????

    To what degree is the player (future employee) capable of thinking on their feet, communicating both verbal and written (many people are horrible at this due to they can only text and a lousy education)? Can the person chunk laterally from dissimilar modes in the same context (can you troubleshoot the flow of your office system/technology by comparing it to troubleshooting other flows: electrical, water, automobile traffic)? This is an out of the box skill that most can learn, but the school system doesn’t teach (it’s NLP).

    Why did the last employee leave? Anybody apply THAT to the hiring process? (Just maybe your business has a problem and the new guy will also leave).

    Fire the HR department and retain accountants, people that learn how to obey the legal hiring rules by the govt. HR doesn’t look for hockey players–SCOUTS do. And a scout played the game (knows the job).

    Managers from my experience THINK they know the job but don’t actually know it because they’re too busy going to waste of time meetings and talking and typing emails (not real work). If you’re in a meeting, you’re wasting time. Yes there are rare meetings that actually plan but then again, the people doing the planning usually are of a level that they don’t do the actual work, hence it’s like having people who have never played hockey write you a bunch of plays. That’s what LOSERS do.

    Higher Education is in the news as in how expensive a degree is and how much money the administration is getting paid–that doesn’t teach one minute in the classroom. These universities are selling bogus degrees such as “fashion clothes buyer” (think Devil wears Prada) and the girl I know can’t get a job in this country as a buyer–they’re FULL and…wait for it…it’s all about WHO YOU KNOW. Seriously, you have to go to univeristy to learn how to pick clothes? Pathetic. No…it’s robbery. Take a girl’s unrealistic dreams and bilk her out of $75k for what? So she gets a job waiting on people in a dept store for $11 bucks an hour?

    The problem of hiring is WAY BIGGER than this article. It’s the entire society structure.

    The problem is the “administration layer” everywhere. Get rid of it.

    • The problem is the “administration layer” everywhere. I know about a Japanese owned company in Iowa that manufactures roller bearings. They have a Plant Manager, supervisors, then grunts. HR is a necessary evil, but the supervisors do the actual hiring. No layer upon layer of non essential dead wood. Incidentally, the Plant Manger makes only twice what the grunts make, and he has to go out and help out in production when needed.

    • @Jack: Marketing has taken over recruiting and hiring. This should be no surprise, since all the mainstream recruiting systems and tools are designed by database jockeys, sold to venture investors who know nothing about recruiting or hiring, then sold in turn to HR jockeys who have zero skin in the game but LOVE to think they’re using the best “HR Tech.”

      It’s a fatal structural problem. And you’re right: It’s a societal problem now because it affects the entire economy.

  10. Job descriptions?
    You have no idea how awful something can be until you use what we are mandated to use…
    The Civil Service System job descriptions.
    They come from the bronze age. Maybe that’s good??

  11. At the top of my requirements are the words “flexibility” and “adaptability”. I don’t hire people without those qualities. Also, I always perform a contractor versus employee analysis before hiring. Many times all I need is a contractor and it avoids a lot of headache with HR.

    • So you’re saying that a large part of the reason the gig economy has been growing is … dealing with the HR department?

  12. After reading the job description at my interview for my first Federal government job, I inferred that I would need about three Ph.D. degrees to do the job! The hiring manager said that the job description was written that way to justify the salary level to the Personnel Department. I had a Bachelor’s degree. I got hired and eventually transferred to a similar Federal job that was within walking distance of my home.

    • @Sahara: “the job description was written that way to justify the salary level to the Personnel Department”

      Whoa!!! Is there a disconnect in there somewhere…?? Sheesh!

      • I was a Technical Publications Editor in that job. I was editing manuscripts written by researchers at an U.S. Army medical research institute. These researchers had Ph.D. and M.D. degrees. I did not have a background in the sciences. The job description made it seem that I needed to understand the science. I was copyediting the manuscripts. My boss assured me that they did not want me to understand the science; they wanted me to make sure that the sentences were understandable, grammatically correct, etc.

  13. Most job descriptions are easily and correctly overlooked because they are TL;DR. From my novel writing (on the side) I’ve learned that the average JD could benefit by:

    1. Delete entirely the “Nice To Have” section.

    2. Take out every tenth word.

    3. Do that again.

    4. Now copy edit until you have 1 or 2 actual requirements. Maybe three if you are asking someone to perform rocket science or brain surgery. Delete references to “years of experience”. If you are looking for someone to do rocket science or brain surgery, they will tout their successes in a quantitative manner on their resume or CV.

    If you are looking for someone to pet a kitty at the Cat Cafe, 3 years, 5 years or 7 years won’t make a bit of difference. The kitty will let you know.

    5. Maybe add 1 or 2 “Nice to Haves”, but only if you need your rocket scientist (or brain surgeon) to teach or manage or fund raise along with their real job.


  14. There is a lot of bait-and-switchinvolving job descriptions in the hiring process.

    During my job search 8 months after I had been laid off, I came across an lengthy listing for a contract to hire position through an agency very much like my former role. I had both the skills and experience to handle the many tasks stated in the job listing (purple squirrel gag time!). This type of job has multiple complex duties requiring technical knowledge, excellent communication skills, and the ability to multi-task constantly. At the end of the duties listed in the job posting was something about assuring accuracy of data entered into systems, something that should be understood for all aspects of the position. I had 20+years of expereience in this field.

    Although the location was probably an impossible commute due to traffic, it was a position doing what I did best with a name-brand organization. I applied anyway and was selected for an in-person interview. The drive to the location confirmed that I would need to move. The manager who interviewed me was rather curt and started off with questions about my skills proofreading data on a computer screen. During the interview it was established that the job consisted solely of proofreading entries from one internal system to another for 8 hours a day, none of the other duties listed in the ad would ever be part of this position, and the job was unlikely to convert to a permament hire since the last year’s person was still a contract worker.

    I called the agency guy from the parking lot and told him that I would not take this job as the duties were misrepresented. Unemployment in my state would require me to take it if offered or lose my benefits and I needed to head that off at the pass. For a while I had a rather pissed-off agencyperson (probably in India) trying to get me back on the phone. I also managed to make enough other contacts that week so I did not have to report the interview to the unemployment people.

    • Kathy, you are right, there is a high probability (like 99.99%) you were dealing with a Recruiting Process Outsourcing (RPO)[1] company located in India (or Pakistan, or the Philippians, etc.). In fact, as I read all the stories above I cannot help but wonder how many of them were dealing with offshore RPOs and didn’t even know it because the RPO industry and the employers that hire them, even for FT jobs, go to great lengths to hide the fact they are doing so.[2]

      [2] The following two recordings reveal a global supply chain reaching from the US corporation that hires an RPO firm (there are literally 1000s of them — outbound call centers — with 100s of employees sitting in cubicles calling up Americans and lying about where they are calling from, the nature of the job, the actual pay rate (they bate and switch, low ball, etc., so the “agency” or “third party vendor” can make windfall profit on the actually bill rate from the “lead company” (see David Weil’s Fissured Workplace) that hires them.

      Multiple motivations underlie fissuring. In some cases, shedding employment by a lead company to other parties represents what is regarded as a short-term measure to deal with sudden increases in demand.1 In other cases, fissuring reflects a desire to shift labor costs and liabilities to smaller business entities or to third-party labor intermediaries, such as temporary employment agencies or labor brokers. Employers have incentives to do so for obvious reasons: shifting employment to other parties allows an employer to avoid mandatory social payments (such as unemployment and workers’ compensation insurance or payroll taxes) or to shed liability for workplace injuries by deliberately misclassifying workers as independent contractors.2 Misclassification of this sort is a major problem, particularly in industries like construction and janitorial services. The fissured workplace does not arise only from pernicious motivations, however. Technologic developments increasingly allow businesses to focus on core competencies while shedding activities not central to the firm’s operation. With the falling cost of coordination resulting from new information and communication technologies, productive reconfiguring of the boundaries of companies and entire industries naturally occurs. This is a well-known phenomenon in industries that create intellectual capital, like software, Internet and information technology development, and the creative arts. Decentralized software engineers and game developers need not work in one physical location or even for the same company to develop new apps. In these areas, the fissured workplace reflects the transformation of the production and delivery of intellectual content and in many respects represents a positive development. More fundamentally, however, the fissured workplace represents a response to pressures from capital markets and is enabled by the falling cost of coordinating business transactions through information and communication technologies. It characterizes the rippling of these forces across industries over time that express themselves in different ways but have common impacts on the situation faced by workers affected by those changes. Workplace fissuring arises as a consequence of the integration of three distinct strategic elements, the first one focused on revenues (a laser-like focus on core competency), the second focused on costs (shedding employment), and the final one providing the glue to make the overall strategy operate effectively (creating and enforcing standards).

      • @Rob: Thanks for the stunning audio!

    • “I called the agency guy from the parking lot and told him that I would not take this job as the duties were misrepresented. Unemployment in my state would require me to take it if offered or lose my benefits and I needed to head that off at the pass. For a while I had a rather pissed-off agencyperson (probably in India) trying to get me back on the phone. I also managed to make enough other contacts that week so I did not have to report the interview to the unemployment people.”

      This depends where you are. I know in my state, you can turn down anything that doesn’t meet certain criteria such as not paying the prevailing wage or commuting requirements.

      The hard numbers I was given when I was on UI was:

      I couldn’t refuse anything over 90% (80% if on UI over 13 weeks) of $30/hr. The $30/hr figure came from the average wage computer programmers make in the state.
      I also couldn’t refuse anything within an hour drive.

      • I’ve been on UI a few times in my day. First off, how would UI know you turned down a chump job offer? It’s not like employers pick up the phone and call UI. Voice mail is also a great invention. message erased. Ghosting goes both ways.

  15. Nick – I think the core requirements for just about all positions is creativity. The What If, scenarios.

    As you stated the problem starts with unreasonable job descriptions. I have seen, and I kid you not, a Big Bertha (not a 3 iron) job description with over 60 MUST HAVES.

    In my years in manufacturing, quality, program management, and supply chain, it always came down to a core competency of creativity.

    Companies need a Sherlock Holmes, with Tesla’s mind, and Edison’s tenacity.

    While I haven’t used it, I have described something like this in the past to pull out accomplishments from a candidate.

    Imagine the companies you worked for as a river, sometimes it meanders, sometimes its a raging torrent. Sometimes there is an earthquake and a boulder falls into the river slowing or stopping the flow. How did you get rid of that bolder?

    Maybe its silly, maybe not. But it is surprising how few candidates are prepared with STAR accomplishments, and I felt like a dentist trying to extract it from them.

    • OOPS, boulder Fat finger typing.

    • Flow around the boulder.

      • @JR: The Zen answer is always the right one :-)

    • @Joseph: Job descriptions are a problem because, as you imply, managers don’t know how to hire and fill jobs.

  16. To answer your questions Nick:

    * My current job does not match the conditions I was hired in, but there was no job ad because the job was obtained by networking (thanks Nick!), I went straight to an interview.

    * How to assess job applicants? Honestly I’ve pondered this problem a LOT, because I want to start a company one day. It is definitely a bad idea to evaluate people based on their present skills, because if you want a long term employee (and you should) then you should be thinking about their long term potential, not what they can do right now. Are they fast learners? Are they conscientious? Are they agreeable? Those attributes are much more important than “do they know technology X at time Y?”.

    * What’s the most effective way I’ve been assessed or assessed somebody? I couldn’t praise any selection process I’ve been through because I think they were all bad. They’ve consisted of a mixture of loose interviews, written tests, IQ tests (I kid you not), and canned “where do you see yourself in 5 years?” questions that don’t do anything to assess someone properly.

    As for a time when I’ve been proud of my assessment of somebody? I used to be part of a fan group that started an online store to help a manga artist, and I was thinking of moving on to something else after ~1-2 years of helping them. What I did was simply observe the people who were participating in the community for months, and gave some responsibilities to one of the most proactive ones. He was agreeable and conscientious and very committed, and he seemed even honored to be given responsibilities. I showed him what I did and what he’d have to do once I leave, and finally passed the torch to him; to this day he’s there keeping that place together. I think picking employees should be done always looking at their long term potential, and looking for ways to make it work both for them and for you. When the contract is signed, both of you should feel you got something great out of it, otherwise it’s just a waste of time.

    • @Pentalis: You remind me of the analysis Google’s Laszlo Bock (head of HR) did a few years ago. They analyzed tens of thousands of job interview records and looked at the correlation to success on the job for those candidates who were hired.

      They found zero correlation.

      Bock wrote a book and a stunning opinion piece (I think for the WSJ). Nobody listened.

      Yup, what a waste of time. But it kinda makes you pause — WTF is going on?

  17. I have the opposite problem. I have PhD in nuclear engineering and I am completely unable to get a job. There are very few PhD level jobs, and the companies that hire BA engineers won’t even look at PhD resumes. So instead of having too high of standards, they have lower standards and won’t consider anyone who exceeds them. I have been told this from the companies themselves.

    And of course, I am completely unqualified for any job that is not nuclear engineering. Companies now only want applicants in specific majors.

    • Ah yes, the “overqualified” applicant. Of course, “overqualified” also means “qualified” (as in “capable”) but these employers don’t see it that way. To them, “overqualified” means “too expensive,” “will get easily bored,” “too uppity,” and oftentimes “too intelligent.”

      Experience and qualifications used to be considered assets. Now they are liabilities, unless you happen to be Goldilocks, where your experience and qualifications are “just right.”

    • This is one reason why I decided to not complete my PhD in engineering (to the astonishment of, basically, everyone): no jobs aside from teaching.

    • @Matt: Consider this. Many businesses outside the sciences actively recruit and hire Physics PhDs for their mathematical modeling skills. Hedge funds and investment firms especially. I realize you may not want such jobs, but it’s a living. More important, exploring these could lead you to other such pockets of intense interest in physicists. Just sayin’.

      “And of course, I am completely unqualified for any job that is not nuclear engineering.”

      I think that’s totally incorrect.

      • I interpret Matt’s remark as being sarcasm directed at the typical hiring manager of engineering types.

    • Have you looked into Data Science? That’s a hot field at the moment and seems to hire a lot of people with advanced science degrees.

  18. I was hired by my current company for my analog electronics skills. After about 2 years, they decided not to do the kind of measurement products for which I was hired anymore. Fortunately, I have extensive digital, software, and even some mechanical skills in my background. How do I do this? I evaluate tasks that need to be done, volunteer for them, and do well. If I don’t know something, I learn it quickly. Recently, I got involved writing test scripts and needed to extend the capability with the Python language (the scripts were in XML – Python can be used for extending it). Where I work, many hardware engineers really don’t have programming experience (I had to take Fortran), and many software engineers don’t care to tackle hardware. Yes, I have done some mechanical design – no 3D designs, but on one job I modified cable drawings for custom wiring harnesses.

    I now believe many people who have several years of experience are repeating the same year over and over again. I recently got turned down by an employer because I wasn’t specialized enough. They angrily said that I just “dabbled” in many areas.

    My company is now going through a downturn, so I am going to prepare my exit – I prefer to get off a sinking ship!

    • Hi Kevin, I think there’s a place for generalists and specialists alike in a good team!

      Speaking of that, my old boss, who was very good at building teams, said he preferred employees with skills “like an axe”, with plenty of weight (general), but also a sharp edge (specialization). He contrasted it with knives (only specialization) and cudgels (only general skills) =P he didn’t expect people to already have the skills when he hired them, he thought long term and said “in 9 months you should be doing X and Y with confidence”; whatever kind of person he recruited, his preference was that they became “axes” over time.

      Regarding the employer who angrily said you just “dabbled” in many areas: this is a problem I’ve had a lot when interviewing. Hiring managers have seen my resume, and twice already I’ve seen them wince and say “dangerous profile…” when they see how many times I’ve changed fields. “What happens if you want to be a lawyer next?”, twice I’ve had to tell them “No, I’m coming to technology to stay, I left the other fields due to bad pay, here the pay is good.” Both times I got hired so I guess I somehow managed to convinced them in the end, but that concerned face they had…

    • @Kevn: There are no dumber employers than in tech. Any good engineer can learn almost any kind of tech work, given a bit of time, some manuals, and a textbook or two (maybe). This is what engineers do: solve problems. I know. I recruited EEs most of my career.

      Analog engineers especially are qualified to learn virtually anything and then do it. They’re not so jaded as “digital” engineers because they know how — and are willing to — turn knobs. :-)

  19. Recently I received an inquiry that contained, in all caps, a list of MUST HAVES and ABSOLUTE MUST HAVES. At the top of those twenty bullet points was a certification that maybe 5,000 people have in the entire world. Now scale that population down to negotiable talent within driving distance of that one metro area. Pretty good odds that whoever wrote that job description is high strung, autocratic, and inclined to plug resources into slots – the ALL CAPS manager.

    The job description for the position I currently hold is intimidating. The actual needs are far more modest, given the intersection of budget and size of candidate pool. Ability to step into the fog every day and move forward one step at a time. Self-directed learner with a solid technical background. Tolerance for mundane procedural dung. Not annoying. But these indistinct qualifications can’t be quantified so they’ll never wind up in a job description.

    • >Now scale that population down to negotiable talent within driving distance of that one metro area.

      That’s another purple squirrel trait. No wonder so many remote work tools are taking off.

      I think in 50 years time. We will consider physically going into the office as quaint as putting a top hat and tails on for the office.

  20. I would really like to hear from the person that posed the question after reading your reply and the many comments. This is such an interesting and important topic…Could the person that submitted the question make a comment?

    • @Cynthia: That’s up to them. :-)

  21. I think I would agree with “An Executive’s” HR manager. The [company’s HR] “talent pool” isn’t good any more. Strongly suggest cleaning house, starting with the head of HR. A new transformational leader (note, not manager) needs to change the company’s deep structure to focus on attracting and sustaining a robust talent pool to keep the company alive.

    The job descriptions are only a minor detail that show symptoms of the problem. Solve the basic problem and the rest should fall into place. And at some point when the “talent pool” has been refreshed, the head of HR needs to shift to a more transactional mode to sustain the positive changes accomplished.

  22. A number of years ago I worked in the HR dept of a large hospital in a large midwestern city. Part of my job was to type and post job descriptions for open positions. (That gives you a hint as to how many years ago that was!) At the bottom of EVERY single one was the phrase “and other duties as assigned.” We all recognize a legal “cover your butt” phrase when we see one. More recently I quit a position after 1 year and 1 week; just left at 5 on Friday and never went back. It was a small privately (AKA family) owned business; less than 30 employees. In the short amount of time I was there 13 people (including me) quit and another person was fired; a month after I left 2 more people were fired. The point? I can tell you in one short phrase what the problem was (as a previous commenter suggested). Poor management. Managers who don’t know how to manage, motivate, or train people; don’t know how to evaluate talent or job performance. I have seen it over and over again at both small and large companies. Poor managers = high turnover.

  23. The highlight of my career in IT was helping to build a new team of specialists some years back. It was just two of us at first and we were tasked with finding 10 candidates…in two months. Of course, our managers wanted perfection and gave us a strict by the book method of grilling and roasting candidates. After we started our interviews we quickly tossed those suggestions out the window and tailored each interview to the individual (what a concept, I know).

    We had several core character traits we were looking for and after talking with lots of people we began to see the ones that were diamonds in the rough. Of course our managers fought tooth and nail to make us use their “superior” methodology of making candidates dance a jig on a burning bridge but we refused to budge. We spent 3+ hours just arguing in favor of one candidate who they thought wasn’t up the task (turns out, we hired her and she exceeded our expectations). And here’s the hilarious part – after several candidates told us “thank you for the opportunity – I never thought I’d hear anything after seeing the job description” my partner and I looked at our external job posting and our jaws dropped. My literal response was that Albert Einstein was unfortunately not available but we had little success in getting them to change it.

    Oddly enough we had one candidate who met nearly every single ridiculous requirement on that job posting. We thought she was a great candidate but she was up front that she already had an offer from another company. When she told us what our competitor was paying (twice what our positions paid) all we could say is best of luck. We filled all 10 of those positions (and several more the next year) and none of our candidates were perfect but again we could see their potential. Seeing those folks thrive in their new roles and watching first hand how wrong our managers had been was well worth all the effort it took to get them to try something different.

    Unfortunately once other people got involved, a decision was made to go back to the churn and burn method of interviewing candidates and that golden era was over. But the proof was in the pudding – the mindset of looking for a candidates strengths was vastly superior to focusing on exposing their weaknesses via a set in stone list of unreasonable expectations.