Writing a job advert

by Joseph

How you write your advert can make or break your chance at hiring the right person for the job. Apply the level of scrutiny to your adverts as you do to your applicants.

By being clear about what you want, transparent about the process, and telling a compelling story, you can get better quality applications from a wider and more diverse pool of candidates. We’ve found that just 8% of space job adverts do this. This is an opportunity for you to stand out from the crowd.

Writing the ad

Broadly speaking, a job advert has six main parts:

  1. The job title
  2. The context – background on your organisation and the team you’re hiring for
  3. The job description – what the role entails
  4. The person specification – what kind of person you’re looking for
  5. The perks – what you’re offering
  6. The process – how to apply

Too often employers focus on parts 2 and 3 because they’re about what they want, but parts 1 and 4 deserve just as much attention because they’re what convince an applicant to apply to your job and not somebody else’s. Job adverts which focus on meeting people’s desires get more higher quality applicants than those that focus on their abilities 1.

People spend less than a minute deciding if they think a job is a good fit 2, so you need to seize every opportunity to make a good impression.

1) The Job Title: Keep it simple

This is the first thing candidates see, and if you get it wrong, it’s the only thing they see. A study by recruiment firm Monster found that 64% of applicants are put off applying for a job if they don’t understand the title 3.

It’s not an easy task to clearly explain a role in a few words, so it may take a few attempts to get right. Keep it short and simple. Avoid jargon and use standard terminology like ‘project manager’.

If you have a specific job title you want to use internally, then you can put this at the top of the document whilst still keeping the advert job title something that will make sense at a glance.

2) The Context: Showcase yourself.

This is where you talk about what your organisation does and what kind of team the applicant will be joining. Avoid dull boilerplate about the size of your revenues and workforce. Ask yourself if you were trying to convince a great candidate to join your team, and you could tell them just one thing about your company, what would it be? Write about human beings, the human beings in your company and the ones you’re working to benefit.

Getting your boilerplate right is more important than ever, because millennials (who now represent 50% of the workforce 4) care about company culture and values. A study by Deloitte found that millennials want businesses to focus more on people and purpose 5, and another by Fidelity found that they are willing to take an average pay cut of about £6000 in order to do more purposeful work for a company with better culture 6.

Avoid saying you’re a team of the brightest and the best people in the world. You’re almost certainly not, and puts off people who have a realistic assessment of their abilities. Instead, commit to hiring good people and helping them become the best they can be. Engineering giant Thales says on their website that “At Thales we are committed to giving all employees opportunities to be their best”. Would you rather work for a company that only hires the best, or a company which gives you the opportunity to be your best?

It’s worth duplicating some of this stuff on both the jobs page of your website and the job advert itself. On your website it gives people who are just window shopping a good impression even if they don’t read an advert in depth today – this may well stick in their mind and bring them back to you at a later date. In the job advert it gives context if the ad is shared elsewhere.

3) The Job Description: Clearly explain the role

It can be tempting to make this a dry list of bullet points, and while that’s a good starting point, don’t miss the opportunity to talk about the role in more human terms that include not just the what but the why. Think about how you’d explain the job to your mum, or someone at a party.

For example, rather than ‘Development of software tools to automate production processes’, something like ‘You’ll develop internal tooling and systems that help our production team get our rockets out the door quicker.’

The job description doesn’t have to be exhaustive, it’s okay to say ‘these are the kinds of things you’ll work on’ and list a few pertinent examples. Really long lists put people off 7.

Writing for humans doesn’t mean getting cute or informal, write in a style that works for you, but write like a person and not a machine. Try to avoid corporate buzzwords and unnecessary jargon, and whatever you do, don’t write ‘the candidate will’. Using the third person gives the impression the reader is not included in the group of candidates. You’re addressing a person, so say ‘you’.

4) The Person Specification: Be explicit about who you’re looking for

Avoid at all costs making this section a laundry list of every skill you’d like your ideal candidate to have. Pare the list of essential qualities to just that, the essentials and no more. Make it clear that the nice to haves are not essential. Women are more likely to follow these guidelines and less likely to apply if they think they might fail 8.

Try to avoid proxies like ‘good degree’ and ‘3 years of experience’ and ask yourself what you’re really looking for. Replace these weasel words with an explicit list of the skills you’re looking for. Do your candidates really need a master’s in data science, or do they just need to be experienced in Python?

In an advert for a programming job on a $150,000 salary, a leading tech company says “Back-end programming experience, especially with Ruby, is a plus but not a requirement. You won’t know how all the systems work on day one, and we don’t expect you to. Nobody hits the ground running.”

This section is what potential applicants are going to compare themselves to, and as a result it’s also the section where a single word can make a huge difference to who applies. Certain words are gender-biased, which means that they are statistically likely to change the gender balance of your applicants. For example ‘determined’ is more likely to attract men, and ‘committed’ is more likely to attract women 9. Software such as Textio can help you minimise this bias, and the effects can be significant. Thames Water rewrote an advert for sewage technicians and saw the proportion of female applicants increase from 8 to 46% 10.

If you’re hiring for multiple people in the same role and you don’t need them to all have every skill then make this really clear.

5) The Perks: Make a compelling offer

Obviously the biggest perk of any job is the salary. Your ad should clearly state the salary on offer. No hiding behind ‘Pays competitively’.

82% of professionals think that salary is the most important part of a job advert 11. Adverts with salary details get 30% more applicants, and get higher quality applicants 12.

If you have to have a salary range, keep it tight (no more than 10%) and have objective criteria about who gets what within that range. Your candidate should not have to negotiate as the result is systematically lower pay for women and minorities 13.

Other perks vary a lot from company to company. Your standard ones are things like holiday, pension contributions, and health insurance.

Try to avoid just thinking about the kinds of benefits that you are interested in, and instead try to ensure you have benefits that appeal to the widest possible range of people. For example drinks after work on a Friday are likely to be much more attractive to young grads than they are to parents who have to leave early to do the school run. In particular, women are much more likely to value flexible working 14.

This section is another good opportunity to make your organisation stand out. That doesn’t mean you have to act like a Silicon Valley start-up, it can be as simple as the way you talk about benefits. Take Basecamp for example:

Benefits at Basecamp are all about helping you lead a healthy life outside of work. We won’t treat your life as dead code to be optimized away with free dinners and dry cleaning.

Basecamp job advert 15

6) The Process: Be transparent and upfront

Here is where you explain all the steps in the process up front so that there are no surprises. Explicitly state key dates, the screening process, and when applicants can expect to hear back from you. You should provide a contact address for questions about the job and the application process. This allows people to check things and avoid wasting your time and theirs with an unsuitable application.

The people who benefit most from transparent processes are people who come from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds, often the first in the family to go to university and to apply for graduate jobs. They don’t have the same cultural reference points as their more advantaged peers, and they don’t have a network of friends and family who can guide them through the process.

In 2016, the Civil Service made their Fast Stream recruitment process clearer and saw a doubling of applications and appointments of people from lower socio-economic backgrounds 16.

This is also the place to put your diversity statement and explain how you’ll accommodate applicants who have accessibility requirements. If you’re really serious about improving diversity in your organisation, then you might want to talk about these things right at the beginning in section one.

Your diversity statement shouldn’t be something that looks like it was agreed by a committee of lawyers, it should talk to real people about real people. A candidate saying “I am a strong team player” means very little when it’s not backed up by evidence. The same is true when your job advert says “We value the strength that diverse perspectives bring to our business”. These things are very easy to say, but they’re meaningless when not backed up. How do you value diverse perspectives? What are you doing to make sure you get those diverse perspectives?

Reviewing the ad

When you’re done writing your advert, give it to someone else to proofread for typos and clarity. Ideally pick someone who doesn’t already know loads about your organisation and who has a different background to you, they’ll have a keener eye for things that are unclear and may pick up on things you haven’t thought of.

Don’t skip this step, or you may find yourself talking about working in “the world’s most existing sectors” or asking people if they “want to be art of an energetic and dedicated team”.

Ready to share!

With all that out the way, your ad is ready to be shared!

This may seem like a lot of effort to go to for one job advert, but it pays off. What kind of people are put off by poor quality adverts? Ones with attention to detail, who care about quality, who have strong communication skills. In other words, the kind of people you want to hire.

References

  1. Schmdit, J.A., Chapman, D.S., and Jones, D.A. (2014). Does Emphasizing Different Types of Person–Environment Fit in Online Job Ads Influence Application Behavior and Applicant Quality? Evidence from a Field Experiment. Journal of Business and Psychology.
  2. Ladders (2013). Shedding light on the job search. Ladders.
  3. Woods, D. (2012). Business jargon and bad spelling in job advertisements shrink the talent pool for employers, finds Monster. HR Magazine.
  4. PwC (2011). Millennials at work Reshaping the workplace, p3. PwC.
  5. Deloitte (2017). The Deloitte Millennial Survey 2017, p1. Deloitte.
  6. Fidelity (2016). Better Quality Of Work Life Is Worth A $7,600 Pay Cut For Millennials. Fidelity.
  7. Sanchez, C. (2020). How to write a job description in 2020: Best practices from half a billion job postings. Textio.
  8. Mohr, T.S. (2014). Why Women Don’t Apply for Jobs Unless They’re 100% Qualified. Harvard Business Review.
  9. Gaucher, D., Friesen, J., and Kay, A. C (2011). Evidence that gendered wording in job advertisements exists and sustains gender inequality. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
  10. Thames Water (2020). Why more women are applying for manual roles at Thames Water. Thames Water.
  11. CV Library (2019). Research shows employers DON’T KNOW what professionals want from a job offer. CV Library.
  12. Innovantage (2013). The neglected details - Salary information in recruitment ads. Innovantage.
  13. Hernandez, M. and Avery, D.R. (2016). Getting the Short End of the Stick: Racial Bias in Salary Negotiations. MIT Sloan Management Review.
  14. Government Equalities Office (2019). Employment Pathways and Occupation Change After Childbirth. Government Equalities Office.
  15. Makhmali, J. (2020). Basecamp is hiring a Programmer. Signal v. Noise.
  16. Social Mobility Foundation (2018). The Social Mobility Employer Index 2018: Key findings, p15. Social Mobility Foundation.